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Recommended Reading


The Railroads of the Confederacy


Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War

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The Confederate Railroad and the Prolonging of the Inevitable
The Confederate Railroad and the Prolonging of the Inevitable 
by Phillip Muskett

The American Civil War was the first war to include the use of railroads to move troops to a threatened point effectively. The Confederates used railroads frequently throughout the war, taking advantage of their interior lines, to move troops quickly from point to point; specifically the Battle of Chickamauga was decided by the railroads. The Confederacy defeated several Union armies in this fashion throughout the war. Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet performed the largest of the troop transfers; his movement from Virginia to Georgia helped secure a Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga. General Longstreet used a Confederate rail system that was in dire need of repair. Railroads were kept alive by robbing other rail companies of their tracks throughout the South. The railroad was a revolutionary tool, and effectively used by both sides.

The Confederates were perhaps the most effective at using the railroads throughout the war. In July of 1861, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston moved his army sixty miles from Harpers Ferry, Virginia to Manassas, Virginia, via the Manassas Gap railroad. General Johnston was able to reinforce Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and defeat the Union army under Major General McDowell decisively at the Battle of First Manassas. During the summer of 1862, Confederate General Braxton Bragg moved much of his Army of Tennessee from Mississippi to Tennessee by rail. This move outflanked Union Major General Don Buell, thwarting Buell's attempt to capture Chattanooga, Tennessee. General Bragg was then free to move into middle Tennessee and ultimately into Kentucky. This move pulled the Union army out of eastern and middle Tennessee, temporarily. The Confederates had proven that the use of the railroad system, in conjunction with their interior lines, enabled them to quickly mass troops and attain victory. September of 1863 the Confederates would attempt their largest transfer of troops by rails.

Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet commanding the First Corps of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was a man of ambition. In February of 1863, General Longstreet wrote friend and ally, Senator Louis T. Wigfall, that he "desired to go west".[1] Longstreet felt he and the troops of the First Corps could remove the Union forces from Tennessee. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had other plans for General Longstreet. General Longstreet would spend the spring of 1863 in southeastern Virginia rounding up supplies for the Army of Northern Virginia, and attempting to force a Union army out of Suffolk, Virginia. During this time, General Longstreet was able to look at the strategic situation of the war and perfect his plan to change the fortunes of the war in Tennessee and Mississippi.

The strategic situation was not going well for the South during 1863. Union Major General U.S. Grant and his army were threatening Vicksburg, Mississippi; the fall of Vicksburg would cut the Confederacy in half, "removing the lungs of the Confederacy."[2] The Union Army of the Potomac, though larger than the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was recovering from wounds recently received at the Battle of Chancellorsville, but was still a menace to the Army of Northern Virginia in central Virginia. In middle Tennessee, Union Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Union Army of the Cumberland, was idle and had no visible intention of performing any offensive movements. General Longstreet felt his plan contained an opportunity to remove the Union threat out of middle Tennessee. This would relieve the pressure on the important rail and manufacturing center at Chattanooga. The ensuing campaign General Longstreet envisioned would possibly cause Union General Grant to abandon his siege of Vicksburg.[3]

General Longstreet called on Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon, to discuss his plan and tell him how his plan would resolve the war situation. Longstreet suggested sending General Pickett's and General Hood's divisions west to reinforce Confederate General Braxton Bragg's army. The Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, could not be persuaded to order these movements, forcing General Longstreet to return to the Army of Northern Virginia. Upon rejoining the Army of Northern Virginia, Longstreet suggested that General Lee transfer troops from the Army of Northern Virginia out west to relieve the pressure they faced. Due to the strength of Union Major General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac at that time, General Lee disapproved. General Lee had gained the initiative due to his victory at Chancellorsville and he refused to relinquish it. Rebuffed again, General Longstreet turned his attention to the upcoming Gettysburg campaign.

Upon the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Longstreet turned his attention once again to the war in the west. When the Confederate army returned to the banks of the Rapidan River in Virginia after Gettysburg, General Longstreet again wrote to Secretary of War Seddon, requesting permission to take his Corps out west.[4] Longstreet hoped to take command of the army then under the command of General Bragg, and defeat the Union army in middle Tennessee. General Longstreet had strong allies in his western command aspirations, to include, Virginia Senator G.A. Henry of Lexington who insisted to the Senate that, "the fate of Virginia depends upon the defense of East Tennessee", he asked, "Can't Longstreet be sent out there?"[5] Senator Wigfall, another powerful ally and member of the Western Concentration Bloc, spoke on Longstreet's behalf to Secretary Seddon numerous times. Many politicians agreed, but would not agree to the move with out Robert E. Lee's consent.

After Gettysburg, General Longstreet had planned to move Pickett's and Hood's divisions from the south bank of the Rapidan River to Northern Georgia. General Longstreet modified these plans to reflect the changing strategic situation. He decided to send Pickett's division to Richmond for its defense while McLaws division would replace Pickett's division in the move west. The brigades stationed in Richmond on garrison duty would be absorbed into the movement.[6] He calculated that two days would be ample time to complete the movement, provided the Confederacy maintained control of the railroad from Gordonsville, Virginia to Chattanooga, Tennessee via Bristol, Tennessee. The changing war situation would not allow this to happen as planned.

In late August 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was called away to Richmond to discuss strategy with President Davis. The strategic situation was bleak for the Confederacy as summer changed to fall. Union General William Rosecran's army was moving through middle Tennessee, threatening Chattanooga. Union forces in South Carolina where making advances toward Charleston. General Bragg, in Chattanooga, and General Beauregard, in Charleston, required reinforcements from Virginia. President Davis requested General Lee to go out West and take command of the Army of Tennessee. Lee decided it was best to stay in Virginia and send his First Corps, with General Longstreet at its head.[7] General Lee would dispatch the two Georgia brigades in General Hood's and General McLaws divisions to aide the troops in Charleston.[8] This would also keep the threat of desertions down in these two brigades while serving in their home state. The brigades assigned to Richmond's defense would take the place of the brigades bound to Charleston, and General Pickett's shattered division would protect Richmond.

General Lee delayed his decision until September 6, 1863, when he ordered General Longstreet to begin his preparations. General Lee ordered the Confederate Quartermaster General Alexander Lawton, to prepare for the move. Lawton was a veteran of Stonewall Jackson's Valley campaign and one of Jackson's top lieutenants until he was severely wounded at Sharpsburg. General Longstreet began moving his troops to the marshalling areas when he finished his preparations. General Lee told Longstreet, "Now General, you must beat those people out in the west," when he returned to the army to bid General Longstreet farewell.[10]

The first rail cars began arriving at Orange Court House, Virginia on September 9, 1863.[11] The location change from Gordonsville, Virginia to Orange Court House was necessitated by two factors. Union General Ambrose Burnside occupied Knoxville on September 3, 1863[12] and Confederate General Braxton Bragg was maneuvered out of Chattanooga by General Rosecrans. This closed the direct line to General Bragg and required the transfer of troops over a longer more circuitous route, through the Carolinas. This would be a daunting task since the Confederate rail system was unique in that few Southern railroads were uniform in track gauges.

The last minute change of rail lines caused General Longstreet's corps to have to travel over sixteen different railroads. The railroads that General Longstreet used had two different gauges and one bottleneck point for the switch over. More delays stemmed from Southern cities not allowing railroads to enter the city limits. Some city officials believed steam engines could spark causing unnecessary fires as they passed through towns. An example of this gap was the one at Augusta, Georgia, where there was a gap of less than a half mile. The men would disembark, march through town, and then reload or wait until the trains returned from a previous run. At other points, the men would have to ferry across rivers to reach the other line. These issues posed problems, and caused serious delays and bottlenecks along the way.

To move his troops, General Longstreet had to rely on the Richmond rail organizations to organize the different rail systems. The Confederate railroads were run by an excellent administrator, Major Frederick W. Sim's. He had served in an infantry regiment that surrendered at Ft. Pulaski and spent time in a prisoner of war camp before he was released. Quartermaster General Lawton arranged the movement, while Major Sims, chief of the Railroad Bureau, planned the route. Lawton described the operation as, "everything turned on the question of transportation and supply, and it all had to be decided and performed with telegraphic haste."[13] To minimize bottlenecks, Major Sim's quickly patched together a circuitous 950-mile route to Chattanooga through Atlanta. Sim's divided the rail traffic between the Raleigh-Charlotte-Columbia line and the Wilmington-Florence line.[14] This would put the troops on parallel tracks until they reached Atlanta. From Atlanta, the Western and Atlantic railroad was a single line to Catoosa Station. A benefit of Chattanooga's fall was there was no civilian traffic on the Western and Atlantic to slow the movement even more.

Railroads across the Confederacy were experiencing shortages in rolling stock. The railroads where operating under these shortages due to manpower issues. Rolling stock could not be repaired, as the tracks and locomotives where given a higher priority on the repair list. Rolling stock was loaned to other railroads to help out and never returned to original owners. The troops traveled in all types of modified vehicles; they rode on flat cars, on top of and in boxcars, and few rode inside coaches. When soldiers boarded the rolling stock, they immediately modified them. One soldier, Augustus Dickert, a historian in Kershaw's brigade, described the rail car modifications, "they were little more than skeleton cars; the weather being warm the troops cut all but the frame work loose with knives and axes, to view the fine country and delightful scenery."[15] Moxley Sorrell described the rail cars as "crazy cars- passenger, baggage, mail, coal, box, platform, all and every sort wabbling on the jumping strap-iron….[16]

Manpower, metal and slow speeds hampered the speed of the movement. To fix the problems with metal, smaller lines were robbed of their rails; to solve manpower issues, exemptions from the draft where given. These evolutions were not enough. The lack of iron and men could not keep the rails trouble free.

The Confederate government instituted in the spring of 1862 the first draft in American military history. This, the first of three drafts, called all able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and thirty five years old to serve in the army for three years. There were some exemptions given to railroad workers but not nearly enough. By August 1862, only five thousand seven hundred and eighteen railroad employees were exempted. These railroad men were exempted from conscription, but due to misunderstandings, some officials disregarded the exemptions and large numbers were drafted anyway.[17] The only people with outright freedom from conscription were the president of the line, superintendents, conductors, treasurers, chief clerks, engineers, managers, station agents, section masters, and two expert track hands for each eight miles of track the railroad operated.[18] The laborers, porters and messengers were not exempted and in some respects were the most important. The already weak railroad systems needed constant maintenance, but without laborers the repairs could not be made or were slow to complete. Slaves were an option, but not pursued effectively, and those that did help ran away at the first chance. Many slave owners along the rail lines refused to send slaves to aide in the repairs, for fear of losing their investments.

As early as 1861 the Confederate government began looking into the iron shortage. The Confederates had the ability but not the foresight to make T-rails, which every train in the country operated on. Instead, the iron that was produced in the South went to make plating for gunboats.[19] The ineffective gunboat program was erroneously given priority. Due to these metal shortages and misguided priorities, not a single rail was produced in the South after 1861.[20]

Prior to the war, the South had upgraded to thirty-five pound T-rail, from the defective strap rails. Strap rail is numerous iron strips nailed to wooden stringers to form a rail. These were of poor quality and often broke. Southern trains were limited in size because of these rails. In contrast the Northern lines were using sixty-five pound rails, and running longer and faster trains.[21]

Due to the types of rail used in the South, the speeds of the engines had to be slowed for them to pass safely. A trip from New Orleans, Louisiana to Jackson Mississippi, 157 miles, would take a full day or night.[22] In South Carolina, for example, the maximum speed for passenger trains was twenty miles per hour. While freight trains could only travel at fifteen miles per hour.[23] These speeds would cause General Longstreet's corps to arrive piecemeal. Colonel E.P. Alexander's artillery battalion traveled 852 miles in 182 hours, at an average speed of five miles per hour.[24] Colonel Alexander's artillery was still in South Carolina while the Battle at Chickamauga was fought.

The first committee to look into the iron shortage was the Fontaine Supply committee, which met on February 5, 1862. They tackled the issues of manpower and iron head on. Their recommendation to the Confederate government was to release skilled workers from service in the army to facilitate safe operation of the rail line. They also recommended that secondary rail lines that were not needed would be destroyed. The metal from these needless railroads would be sent to the major lines to keep them running.[25] Confederate President Davis approved this, causing many small railroads to disappear. Since numerous problems arose from the first committee, a second committee, the Confederate Iron Commission, was created. It was created to determine which railroads were indispensable.[26] They alone were given the power to decide which lines would be torn up and dispersed throughout the Confederacy. This committee also attempted to control roving bands of men who robbed rails from operational rail lines.

Early in September 1863, Confederate Lieutenant General Bragg was informed that Confederate Major General Buckner and his forces would be attached to his command. Fearing the next Federal move, General Bragg ordered General Buckner to abandon his post in east Tennessee and join his main army at Chattanooga. Union Major General William Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland were beginning to threaten General Bragg at Chattanooga and he needed these men urgently. General Bragg did not know of the particulars of the planned troop movements from Virginia and how important Knoxville and the Cumberland Gap had become. Confederate Major General Daniel Harvey Hill wrote "If Bragg knew at the time of the prospective help coming to him from the Army of Northern Virginia, it was of still more importance to hold the town, he might have been in communication with Longstreet on his arrival."[27] As it was, the facts were not forwarded to General Bragg, and General Buckner carried out his orders. General Buckner left a small detachment in Cumberland Gap to defend that strategic point, which was unsupported and exposed to General Burnside's Union force advancing on that position. These troops surrendered Cumberland Gap without firing a shot, which secured the left flank of Rosecrans army moving on Chattanooga.

On September 8, 1863 Lieutenant General James Longstreet began moving his troops to the railhead south of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Major General John Bell Hood's division would be the first to go, followed by Major General Lafayette McLaws' division, then Colonel E.P. Alexander's artillery battalion. Alexander's battalion would travel overland to Petersburg, Virginia and then board the trains there. Major General Pickett would be the last to move, but he would only be traveling to Richmond to replace the garrison troops defending the town. Major General John Bell Hood was convalescing in Richmond from the wound he received at Gettysburg. General Hood longingly watched his men travel south. In a letter to General Longstreet dated June 28, 1875, General Hood stated "…an appeal from a number of the brigade and regimental officers of my division. I consented to join them."[28] He rejoined them with his arm shattered and useless, but ready for duty. John B. Jones would write in his diary on September 9, 1863, "Troops were arriving all night and to-day (Hood's Division) for Tennessee, via Georgia Road."[29]

As Hood's troops moved south, it was not devoid of incident. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Brigadier General Benning's Georgia Brigade wrecked the office of William W. Holden. Holden's newspaper, Standard, had voiced the publisher's uncertain war sentiments and the soldiers repaid him for his writings.[30] The famous Texas brigade fought with local police in Wilmington, North Carolina, beating and stabbing numerous officers, but no arrests were made.[31] Colonel E.P. Alexander's artillery suffered what could have been a major disaster when some horses of the battalion fell from the train, on the Wilmington and Manchester line, just outside of Kingsville, South Carolina.[32] Mary Chesnut described the troops passing near Kingsville, South Carolina as "not one man intoxicated, not one rude word did I hear. It was a strange site, miles, apparently, of platform cars, with soldiers rolled in their blankets, lying in rows, heads, and all covered, fast asleep."[33] As each troop train passed through the many towns along the way, citizens would greet them, passing out food to Robert E. Lee's veterans, it was almost a festive atmosphere.[34] Dirckett described the events as "one grand ovation"[35]

Longstreet's veterans began arriving at Catoosa Station in north Georgia late on September eighteenth. The troops moved to the front as they arrived at the station. The Virginia veterans on the second day of the battle broke through the Union lines, ensuring a great victory for the Confederacy.

The transfer of Confederate troops was successful in defeating the Union Army of the Cumberland. Unfortunately Braxton Bragg did not have the initiative of Robert E. Lee and the victory was a hollow one. The Federal army was allowed to fall back into Chattanooga and regroup. The attempted siege that followed was a complete failure because the Union army was able to use their own railroads to transfer troops to Chattanooga, combine their western forces and lift the siege. The Confederate army was decisively defeated there in a series of battles during November of 1863.

The failure of the Confederate government to inform Braxton Bragg that General Longstreet was coming to reinforce him via the Knoxville rail line was a costly mistake. General Bragg, in need of troops to turn back General Rosecrans, unwittingly abandoned Knoxville, sealing off the quickest route from Virginia and costing the Confederate forces valuable time. This caused Longstreet to detour through numerous other states, and cross multiple rail lines delaying the movement. Longstreet's artillery did not arrive in time and would not have been critical to the battle, due to the terrain the battle was fought in. Key infantry units, arriving piecemeal, were strung out along the line between South Carolina and Catoosa Station, Georgia. General Alexander wrote about the campaign and thought it should have been attempted in "…May under Lee in person, instead of the unfortunate invasion of Pennsylvania."[36] Alexander may have been right, but General Lee would have had to learn the attributes of his new subordinate commanders, plus terrain that was unknown to him. The situation possibly could have been a replay of the Seven Day's Campaign when General Lee was learning his new army and its lieutenants. The combination of Confederate troops and the Confederate railroad system worked together again for a victory. This probably prolonged the war by a few more months.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Phillip Muskett.

Written by Phillip Muskett. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Phillip Muskett at:
phillipmuskett@comcast.net.

About the author:
Phillip Muskett was born in Gadsden Alabama, enlisted in the Navy in 1986 and retired after 20 years as a Chief Petty Officer. He Graduated from American Military University with a Masters Degree in Military Studies/American Civil War in 2007. He currently works in the DC/Baltimore area and has led a few tours for MHO. He currently resides in Westminster, Maryland.

Published online: 05/18/2008.
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