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Railroads in the Confederacy

From: Civil War History
Volume 7, Number 3, September 1961
pp. 231-238 | 10.1353/cwh.1961.0065

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

RAILROADS IN THE CONFEDERACY Robert C. Black, III Near the close of the year 1861, a well-known Northerner, a man of some reputation in thevery ancient science of war and in the very modern science of steam transportation, took formal note of the impact of the iron horse upon contemporary military operations. "It cannot be ignored," he declared, "that the construction of railroads has introduced a new and very important element into war, by the great facilities thus given for concentrating at particular positions large masses of troops from remote sections and by creating new strategic points and lines of operation."1 No one ever expressed the idea better, and it is a little singular to recall that General George B. McClellan never achieved special fame for the military use, or even abuse, of rail facilities. In addition, it may be noted that his comments were not so applicable to the offensive operations of his own Federal forces as to the defensive organization of his Confederate opponents. It has not been pointed out often enough that the fluvial geography of southeastern North America strongly favored the Northern war effort at expense of the Southern. The Mississippi River cut the Confederacy fairly in twain. The Ohio afforded Mr. Lincoln's armies a navigable water base extending for several hundred miles, and its famous tributaries, the Cumberland and the Tennessee, provided natural corridors that led deep into the heart of rebel territory. In the east the tidewater branches of the Chesapeake probed for miles into Confederate Virginia—indeed, to the center of the Southern capital itself. Moreover, the Federal government was in a position to control and utilize these waterways, for the great majority of American steamboats were, in the 186Cs, owned by Northerners.1 Dr. Black served as a rail transportation officer during World War II. Author of The Railroads of the Confederacy, he is at present associate professor of history at Trinity College. 1 U.S. War Dept. (comp.), War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union ana Confederate Armies (Washington, 1880-1901), Ser. I, V, 7. 'Stanley F. Horn, The Army of Tennessee (Indianapolis, 1941), p. 61. 231 232ROBERTC. BLACK, III In consequence, the Federal effort to subdue the South proceeded more often than not from a water base, and it is perhaps not too much to assert that the Yankee phase of the War of the Rebellion was fundamentally anamphibious operation. The Confederacy, on the other hand, was essentially a land-based enterprise; it could not be otherwise for a power which simply did not possess the vessels with which to dominate a complexity of waterways that ran in the wrong direction. One may carry the point still further: under the circumstances, the new railroads were of supreme importance to the South. Disregarding the uncertain factors of Northern morale and foreign intervention, they were the South's chief hope for victory. For the Confederates fought a defensive war upon interior lines, and if those lines were of rails, and were adequate , they would offer a constant opportunity of "getting there first with the most" men. But the railroads of the Confederacy were not adequate—and they were not used adequately. They failed, and with them failed the Southern bid for independence. In 1861 eleven seceding states possessed no less than 113 separate railroad companies. Indeed, they were altogether too separate. Their line mileage totaled nearly 9,000, a figure which reflected a more than respectable expansion during the decade just ended.3 A large proportion of this trackage was, to be sure, located along the Atlantic seaboard, where Virginia boasted 1,800 miles and Georgia 1,400. But there had been a good deal of construction farther to the west, where the figure for Mississippi was 797 line-miles and for Tennessee an exceptional 1,284.4 Statistics like these sound impressive, but further comparison between Southern lines and their Yankee counterparts gives some different impressions. If the seceding states carried out of the Union about 9,000 line-miles of railroad, the states which did not secede possessed more than 20,000. The seceding states had but a single sequence of...