The Impact of Railroads on Warfare During the American Civil War

Editor’s Note: Dave Hollis is a guest poster with an avid interest in military history.  He is a member of the the U.S. Army Reserve and has been published several times.  Dave’s first (but hopefully not last) post here at TOCWOC concerns the impact of railroads on the American Civil War.

The American Civil war was the first major, continental-level war to fully utilize the extraordinary advantages presented by a developed railroad infrastructure.  The advent of the railroad and the development of doctrine to use it properly represented a major change in warfare.  It allowed the Union forces to successfully implement a strategy of exterior lines, overland invasion of the Confederacy, and it acted as a force multiplier upon the Union advantages in manpower and industrialization.  It would allow nations to mobilize and supply larger numbers of soldiers, and enable warfare to take on continental and global scales as never seen in previous conflicts.  The use of railroads pre-dated the Civil War as many of the European powers had experimented with them in the 1840’s and 1850’s.  None of these experiments however, were near the scale of the usage during the American Civil War and many of them resulted in failure. The Civil War represented the first successful military use of railroads in a continental scale conflict.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs, LC-USZ62-50366.


Throughout the history of pre-industrial warfare, armies and their logistics moved at constant speeds across land masses:

  • Foot speed as soldiers (and laborers carrying supplies) march across land
  • Horse speed as mounted infantry (dragoons) or cavalry deploy for combat
  • Wagon speed as oxen and horses pulled wheel vehicles carrying soldier and supplies

There are numerous logistical problems with these approaches.  Historically, infantry soldiers carry 60-70 pounds of gear, with half of it taken up by uniform, armor, weapons, etc….  That means that the average soldier can only carry two to three day’s rations at a time:  “Vegetius, the Roman military theorist of the fourth century AD, urged that ‘the young soldiers must be given frequent practice of in carrying loads of up to sixty pounds, and marching along at the military pace, for on strenuous campaigns they will be faced with the necessity of carrying their rations as well as their arms; the British soldiers who attacked in the Somme on 1 July 1916, carrying with them several day’s rations in case of break in the line of supply; and though the British parachutists and marines who ‘yomped’ across the Falklands in 1982 briefly carried, for lack of helicopter lift to supply them, loads equal to their own body weight, they were exhausted by the effort, though they were picked men in exceptional physical condition” (John Keegan, A History of Warfare)

Horse mounted soldiers needed to feed themselves and their horses.  Mounted armies required large amounts of grazing land, which were sometimes unavailable due to terrain, weather, season or tactical requirements.  Many ‘cavalry’ armies had their strategic and operational mobility restricted by the need for horse-drawn wagon transportation carrying fodder for their mounts.  Horse- or ox-drawn wagons were the primary historical means of transporting supplies across lines of communication.  This technology would be heavily utilized as late as the 1940’s as the German Wehrmacht would continue to depend upon horse-drawn transportation for logistics and transportation of artillery during World War II. This was the overland transportation and logistical situation prior to the American Civil War.


Railroads dramatically increased the strategic (and often operational) mobility of armies due to their ability to carry large amounts of troops and supplies rapidly across theaters of operations and even continents.  Some Civil War general officers were slow to grasp this concept but as the war dragged on, more (and the generally successful) general officers on both sides of the conflict became aware of the immediate impact and potential of railroads on the conduct of the war.  This technology increased the value of a larger industrial base to the Northern armies, i.e., greater production of war materiel would be useless without a large capacity transportation system to effectively and efficiently distribute the materiel.

It also increased the value of the larger Northern population to the Union Army, i.e., the railroad could rapidly move a larger number of available and well equipped soldiers to successfully support a strategy of exterior lines and a primarily land invasion of Confederate states.  The Union strategy of exterior lines not only required more soldiers, it required the success of logistical operations to keep them properly supplied.  It also required a sophisticated transportation system enabling the Union to shift troops rapidly to deploy at critical locations, often at great distances when required by strategic military circumstances.  “…one of the first to suggest that armies could benefit from the utilization of the railways was Frederick List, an economist of genius who, in the 1830’s, foresaw that a well conceived railway net might enable troops to be shifted rapidly from one point to another hundreds of miles distant, thus multiplying numbers by velocity and enabling them to concentrate…” (Martin Van Creveld, Supplying War). The resulting logistics and rapid concentration of that larger number of Union soldiers would have been exceptionally difficult without the extensive Union railway system: “Ultimately, however, the Northern armies were better fed than the Southern because their quartermasters controlled the 30,000 miles of American railroad laid by 1860 (longer than that of the rest of the world’s combined)…and continued to lay more in each month of a war in which a prime task of the Union soldiers was to pull up every stretch of Confederate track – irreplaceable from the South’s narrow economic base – they crossed,” according to John Keegan, A History of Warfare.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs, LC-DIG-cwpb-02122.

Part of the Union army strategy was to attack and divide the Confederacy into non-supporting and isolated zones by cutting water and existing rail transportation lines.  Lincoln recognized early in the conflict that Richmond could be isolated by severing the Confederacy’s main east-west rail lines.   The most significant rail line in the South was laid across Tennessee, providing the main connection from the western states of the Confederacy with their national capital in Richmond.  Cutting east-west communication lines by destroying or capturing rail bridges in Tennessee and across the Mississippi river; attacking and capturing rail centers such as Atlanta, Jackson, Chattanooga, Corinth, and Petersburg; and retaining (through military occupation) key border states (Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia) that contained critical east-west rail lines were three vital parts of the Union national war strategy.  For example, in Missouri (a key border state): “Fremont’s great design was to invade the deep South, but first he had to secure Missouri.  The northeastern part of the state, along the line of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad and up on nearly to the Iowa line, was racked by guerrilla warfare, with innumerable bands of night riders swirling sporadically cross country, wrecking bridges…Radiating out from St. Louis toward Confederate territory were three railroads.  One followed the Missouri River to Jefferson City, sending a tentacle sixty miles beyond to Sedalia; the second went southwest to Rolla, haven for the defeated army; and the third ran seventy-five miles south to Ironton, in the hills…” (John Keegan, A History of Warfare).

The Confederate army was equally focused on cutting the lines of communication for the Union army.  Raiders such as Mosby, Morgan, and Forest raided deep into Union territory in order to destroy the fixed rail facilities (water tenders, locomotives, stations, rail lines, bridges, maintenance yards, repair stockpiles, etc….) that were required to move the troops and supplies needed by the Union strategy.  A large number of Union troops were diverted from offensive operations to defend these vulnerable fixed facilities.  As late as July 1864, Confederate raiders were still “destroying railroads and bridges east of the South Mountain ridge and the long suffering Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was asking the Navy if it could send gunboats to protect railroad property in the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay.” (Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox), Union engineers were to expend considerable resources building a large number of rail lines and spurs during the war, both to rapidly replace those destroyed by Confederate raiders and to improve/redirect for military purposes existing facilities originally designed to move commercial goods to market.


Railroads were used to rapidly move troops to protect Washington DC in the very early days of the war.  When the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry was attacked in Baltimore as they hurried south, the Mayor of Baltimore ordered the destruction of railroads to prevent any more Federal troops from moving to defend Washington DC.  The Seventh New York and Eighth Massachusetts Infantry were forced to rebuild the Maryland railroads to reach the capital.  Maryland was subdued only by the presence of large numbers of Federal troops but it is significant that local Confederate partisans immediately destroyed the railroads in an attempt to isolate the Union capital.

A high percentage of major Civil War battlefields were fought over possession of railroads and railheads. Union army Major General Robert Patterson of the Pennsylvania militia was originally given the mission to defend the Northern Virginia region and the national capital against the Confederacy in the spring of 1861.  His orders were to 1) hold the upper Potomac River region, and 2) protect the line of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad to ensure a clear line of communication with General George B. McClellan who was approaching with an army east across West Virginia to link up in Northern Virginia with the Army of the Potomac.  Clearly the Union army understood the requirement early in the war to maintain rail lines as major communication/logistics linkages between major armies and theaters.  Interestingly enough, Major General McClellan and General U.S. Grant were both West Point graduates who had experience as railroad men prior to the war.  McClellan had been chief engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad.  Assistant Secretary of War Scott was also a professional railroad man prior to the Civil War as he was formerly Vice President of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The Union capture of Port Royal Sound in South Carolina created panic among the Confederate forces in October and November of 1861 as Union forces were in a position to capture the rail line between Charleston, SC and Savannah GA.  The Union forces, under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Sherman, were unable to see the advantage of attacking the rail line, and were content to use the port to support naval blockade operations along the North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia coasts. This is an example of the failure to understand the value of rail lines and communications to the interior lines of Confederacy due to an inordinate focus on enforcing an external blockade.  An example of the Confederate inability to understand the importance of rail lines was the abandonment of Corinth, Mississippi in May of 1862 by General Beauregard to the Union army under General Halleck.  Corinth was the junction of a north-south rail line as well as an east-west rail line that was vital to the Confederate strategy of defending Tennessee, and the northern Mississippi and Alabama regions.  Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, demanded a written inquiry into the abandonment of Corinth which added to the rationale for his dismissal of General Beauregard as commander.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs, LC-DIG-cwpb-00260.

The First and Second Battles of Bull Run (First and Second Battles of Manassas to the Confederates) were fought over possession of the rail communications node and railhead of Manassas Junction.  In addition to the numerous roads that ran through Manassas Junction, there were several railroads and railheads in close proximity (many of which are still there today – Manassas continues to serve the DC area as a transportation hub).  Manassas would serve as an important logistics point for any Confederate invasion of the Union capital, which is located approximately 35 miles to the northeast of Manassas.  Also, through the bridges and fords in the vicinity of Manassas, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia could avoid major opposed river crossings along the Bull Run and Occoquan Rivers and attack north following rail lines directly into Centerville, Fairfax Station, and then into Washington DC.  This was a serious threat to the Federal capital early in the war.

General Grant’s capture of Jackson, Mississippi prior to the Union attack on Vicksburg was a turning point of his Mississippi campaign.  Jackson was the rail head closest to Vicksburg and a major chokepoint for east-west traffic across the Mississippi River.  By capturing the only rail head into Vicksburg, Grant was able to isolate the Confederate forces there and within seven weeks the Confederate forces were forced to capitulate.

Prior to the Confederate invasion into Maryland and Pennsylvania that led ultimately to the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, General Robert E. Lee was concerned about his supply lines as his logistics base was south of the Shenandoah Valley.  His Army of Northern Virginia would require horse-drawn transportation of supplies north through the valley from a terminal point of the Virginia Central Railroad.  Given the difficulties and length of this supply line, he made the decision (as Sherman did in his drive to Atlanta) to forage across the countryside to feed his troops.  This strategy increased Lee’s already strong emphasis on offensive operations.  Ammunition still had to be hauled by wagon through the valley and across the Potomac, thereby limiting his capacity to maneuver due to the requirement to maintain his supply line.  Lee’s options and maneuverability would have been greatly enhanced if a railroad line existed through the Shenadoah Valley going north across the Potomac into central Maryland and southern Pennsylvania regions.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs, LC-USZ62-121926.

General William Sherman’s attack across the Confederacy to capture Atlanta revolved around railroads in two different ways.  He needed to reduce his dependency up rail lines for logistic support but he also needed to attack and capture Atlanta to deprive the Confederacy of its own rail capabilities.  Union forces foraged (or pillaged) the local countryside to make his command self-sufficient, highly mobile, and remove any dependency upon the railroad for resupply.  His forces destroyed rail lines as they moved across the Confederate countryside and destroyed the rail center of Atlanta, one of several actions which resulted in the Southerner’s enmity of Northerners for generations.


In many ways the Civil War is virtually indistinguishable from the earlier Napoleonic Wars of the European continent, with miniscule improvements in national strategy, small arms, artillery weapons, infantry tactics, etc….  The Union and Confederate use of the railroad was one of several, primarily non-tactical, factors that largely distinguished the conduct and operations of the Civil War from these previous conflicts.  According to Walter Mills, Arms and Men “The Civil War has often been considered the “first modern war” because of the number of “firsts” associated, not always accurately, with it – the first use of armored warships without sails, of steam-power logistics by rail and river, of telegraphy, of photography, of aerial (balloon) observation.”  The railroad system was a characteristic of more advanced industrial nations than were involved in previous continental-wide conflict.  It acted as a force multiplier for the Union advantage in both greater industrialization and manpower over the forces of the Confederacy.   It helped enable the successful Union strategy of exterior lines and overland invasion.  Control over the rail lines and associated facilities were a central part of the operations and tactics of most of the major battles of the Civil War.  There was some confusion about the value of railroads upon the conduct of warfare at the very beginning of the Civil War, as demonstrated by the Union forces at the battle of Port Royal and Confederate abandonment of Corinth.   But many strategists recognized early in the war that control of the railroads would lead to control over logistics and communications.  While dominance in logistics and communications alone would not by themselves ensure eventual victory, it is difficult to envision a successful strategy by either side without them.

For more information on the impact of railroads for both the Union and Confederate Armies, please read: Catton, Bruce.  A Stillness at Appomattox. New York, Pocket Books, 1953; Keegan, John.  A History of Warfare. New York, Vintage Books, 1993;  Mills, Walter.  Arms and Men.  New York, Putnam and Sons, 1956; Van Creveld, Martin.  Supplying War. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

by Dave Hollis


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2 responses to “The Impact of Railroads on Warfare During the American Civil War”

  1. Dan Avatar

    >Interestingly enough, Major General >McClellan and General U.S. Grant were both >West Point graduates who had experience as
    >railroad men prior to the war.

    McClellan I know about, but what railroad experience did Grant have?

  2. Sarah Avatar

    Great work! Helped me a lot for my DBQ

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