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Railroads in the Civil War


RAILROADS IN THE CIVIL WAR. Because of great distances separating armies, long supply lines, and a premium on quick troop movements, the Civil War became the first war to feature railroads prominently. Railroads connecting the North with the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys had insured the West's adherence to the Union. Southern railroads, however, mainly connected the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River. The South's most important military lines connected the Gulf states to Richmond via Chattanooga, enabling shipment of supplies and munitions to Virginia and the transfer of troops on interior lines.

As early as 31 March 1861, the federal government began using strategic railroads. On 31 January 1862, Congress authorized President Abraham Lincoln to "take possession of [certain] railroad and telegraph lines." In contrast, states' rights enthusiasts restricted the Confederate government to "supervision and control" until February 1865.

The North held material advantages as well. Of 31,256 miles of rail in the United States in 1861, Confederate states controlled only 9,283 miles, which Union captures soon reduced to about 6,000 miles. Southern roadspoorly equipped; lacking trunk lines; local in character and purpose; and handicapped by disrepair, inferior track and roadbed, and worn-out equipment and bridgessuffered delays, accidents, and limited traffic. Northern lines, on the other hand, steadily transported men and supplies southward to the Virginia battlefront, as well as eastward from western terminals at Memphis, Saint Louis, and Vicksburg.

The Confederate government's failure to "fully utilize railroads for southern defense partly explains the Confederacy's final collapse. Superior Northern railroads, prompt federal control where necessary, and greater means made the railroads an effective military auxiliary for the Union.


Abdill, George. Civil War Railroads. Seattle, Wash.: Superior Publishing, 1961.

Anderson, Carter S. Train Running for the Confederacy. Mineral, Va.: W. D. Swank, 1990.

Thomas Robson Hay

Christopher Wells

See also Army, Confederate ; Army, Union ; Railroads .

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