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Joseph E. Johnston and the Virginia Railways, 1861-62 Jeffrey N. Lash Civil War historians have long understood that the Confederate high command never fully exploited the railroad as an important resource of war. Confederate generals (and Federal commanders such as Henry W. Halleck and George B. McClellan) remained preoccupied with grand strategy and tactics and tended to neglect or misunderstand the complex relationships between field command, the railroad, and logistics. Even West Point-trained officers who might in 1 86 1 have been expected to recognize the critical military significance ofrailway transportation to the Confederate war effort, failed to use the railroad effectively. Many were simply ignorant of, or indifferent to, the fundamental mechanical aspects ofrailroad technology. Avoidingexperimentation, they neverdeveloped a larger professional concern over mastering the potentially decisive military applications of mechanized transportation, if only to prevent Confederate defeat. Other commanders, equally lacking in ingenuity or adaptability, excessively depended upon conventional methods of overland mobility and supply, or else relegated the handling of railroad matters to subordinate engineers or quartermasters. ' Illustrating this serious lack of preparation and imagination was the erratic approach taken by General Joseph E. Johnston in 1861 and 1862. In practical terms, his military operations in Virginia revealed his severe limitations and glaring deficiencies as a manager of railroad transportation. Nevertheless, Johnston partially compensated for these defects by demon1 Fora more thorough analysis and discussion ofthe relationship between the Confederate War Department, individual leaders ofthe Rebel high command, and the Southern railroads, see Frank E. Vandiver, Rebel Brass, The Confederate Command System (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1956); Robert C. Black, The Railroads of the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1952); George Edgar Turner, Victory Rode the Rails, The Strategic Place ofthe Railroadin the Civil War (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953), 109-10; 233-46; Richard D. Goff, Confederate Supply (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1969); and Charles Ramsdell, "The Confederate Government and the Railroads," The American Historical Review 32(JuIy 1917):794-810. Civil War History, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, ® 1989 by the Kent State University Press 6 CIVIL WAR HISTORY strating his ability to grow in the perception and exploitation of the strategic and, to a much lesser extent, logistical potential of the railroad. Born in Virginia in 1807, Johnston graduated from West Point in 1829 and undertook Regular Army duty as a first lieutenant in the Artillery Corps. He participated in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and served on General Winfield S. Scott's staff during the first Seminole War in 1835. After a short civilian interlude, he rejoined the army in 1837 and became a first lieutenant in the Corps ofTopographical Engineers. During the Mexican War he served gallantly but sustained five separate battle wounds. Scott, in later evaluating Johnston's qualifications as an army officer, wryly observed: "Johnston is a great soldier, but he has the unfortunate knack of getting himself shot in nearly every engagement."2 After the war, Johnston gained the rank of captain and then lieutenant colonel in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, directing construction projects in Texas and the Mississippi Valley. While in the Southwest—a section ofthe country that had barely begun to experience the railroad-building boom of the late 1 840s and especially of the 1 850s—he expressed a serious professional interest in railroads. He had earlier devoted himselfto mastering the simplest technical aspects ofrailroad construction while serving in the East in 1845. But upon the outbreak of the Mexican War, he had abruptly abandoned that activity and thereafter neglected it for another six years. Then, while stationed at San Antonio, Texas in December 1851, Johnston agreed to locate a route for a chartered railroad company in his "leisure time" over the winter of 1852. Concerned that he might "make a blunder" and thereby bring discredit upon the Topographical Corps, he solicited from the War Department detailed technical information concerning the types and costs ofmaterials used in railroad building, the methods ofconstructing roadbeds, tracks, and trestles, the price ofrolling stock, and the surveying work necessary to ensure construction of a stable and durable railway line across rugged country. The chief of the Bureau of Topographical Engineers, Colonel John...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 5-27
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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