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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of the American Military History Foundation
Vol. 2 No. 2 (Summer 1938), pp70‑89

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p70 The United States Military Railroads, 1862‑1865
War Time Operation and Maintenance

By E. G. Campbell

In the years immediately preceding the Civil War American military officials were aware that the rapid growth of the railroad industry would exercise an important influence into future military strategy. In 1857 a spokesman for the War Department declared that "our Western rivers, canals, and railroads" had "largely increased the military power of the United States for defensive purposes," by the facilities their means of transportation afforded "for the rapid and certain movement and concentration of troops and supplies at most of the assailable points of the country."1 Soon after he had assumed command of the Union forces in Virginia in 1861, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan, himself an experienced civilian railroad official, asserted that the construction of railroads had "introduced a new and very important element into the 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 operations."2

Both civilian and military officials were depending on the railroads to play an important role in crushing the rebellion; nevertheless for an entire year the Government permitted the railroads to determine what their contribution should be, and did not attempt to exercise the slightest supervision of their efforts. Before that year had elapsed roads of the utmost military importance in the vicinity of Washington and to the south of it were in an almost hopelessly chaotic condition.

Confederate depredations materially helped to produce this situation, but even before 1861 these roads had been poorly built and improperly maintained. Throughout the country, during the late fifties, tracks were very slightly ballasted, and although the ties were set close together to compensate for this weakness, they did not weather well. Experiments to prolong the life of ties by treatment with creosote had been unsuccessful thus far. Steel rails were unknown; in the North solid iron sixty-four pound rails were laid in the better constructed roadbeds, but in the South wooden rails, capped with a layer of iron and weighing about fifteen pounds to the yard, were still in general use. A few iron bridges were being built, mostly in the North, but in the regions destined to become war zones almost all of the railway bridges were constructed of wood.

p71 Much of the rolling stock was of the most up-to‑date standard type for the times. A passenger coach designed to seat fifty persons usually weighed between ten and twelve tons, and was equipped with double-pivoted wheel-bases carrying eight wheels. Most cars were heated by stoves, and many trains were provided with such luxuries as smoking-cars, water-filters, toilets and newsboys. The sleeping-car was a well established institution, although no practical dining-car had yet been built. For the most part locomotives burned wood and emitted huge clouds of smoke through their turnip-shaped stacks; some experiments had been made with coal as a fuel, but its use did not become general until after the war. The engineer was protected from the elements by a small house mounted on the slight body of the locomotive; and the latter was equipped with the traditional bell. Despite (or perhaps because of) the musical warning to trespassers, effective cow-catchers were necessary in a day when there were few fences separating pasture from roadbed.

However, despite all the other crudities which, to a later generation, seem to have characterized the railroads of the sixties, the greatest and most important single obstacle to efficient railroad cooperation lay in the use of several different gauges of tracks. In the Northern states alone more than ten different widths were in everyday use; and although the narrow gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches was gradually becoming standard, the Erie and some other important companies still used the 6 foot gauge. In the South a 5 foot width was favored, but not exclusively. In the border states, where the Civil War would be fought, all possible gauges were used and a maximum of confusion existed. Between Philadelphia and Charleston, for example, passengers and freight had to change cars eight times because of variations in gauge.3

These differences of gauge were inconvenient enough in peace-time; but in wartime they became of paramount importance, for they precluded transfer of rolling stock from one road to another as military necessity might dictate. Frequent large troop concentrations required unusually large shipments of freight just when demands on railroads throughout the Union were at a maximum, so at best there was a constant shortage of rolling stock. When to these initial difficulties were added those caused by Confederate raiding parties, the situation became well-nigh hopeless. Ties, rails, bridges, cars, and locomotives were in danger of destruction or capture at any time, and the Confederates hastened to exert their best efforts in an endeavor to paralyze the border state railroads. In mid-summer of 1861 Harper's Weekly declared that "no less than fifty of the finest locomotives" of the Baltimore & Ohio had been destroyed in Virginia; they had been "mutilated, some by burning, others by mere destruction with hammers and crow-bars," some by having been dumped into the Potomac.4 So damaging p72were the Confederate raids that, combined with the general stimulation of business caused by the war, they produced a boom in locomotive building. It became doubtful whether existing factories would be able to meet the ever-increasing demands made upon them.5

The cumulative effects of all these conditions were gradually paralyzing rail transportation south of Washington during the summer and fall of 1861, and the strategic necessities of the Union armies in Virginia brought the situation to a crisis early in 1862. The Army of the Potomac under McClellan was in front of Yorktown, and the Army of the Rappahannock, commanded by Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McDowell, was near the Potomac. Both generals agreed that the two armies must cooperate for the march on Richmond, yet neither could move unless rail communications with the depots on the Potomac were restored and maintained. The damage suffered by the railroads included the burning of the wharves and buildings at Aquia Creek, the complete destruction of three miles of roadbed near Fredericksburg, and the destruction of bridges across the Potomac, the Rappahannock, and Ackakeek Creek. The operation of short stretches of railroad by individual generals and their staffs, furthermore, had only increased the general confusion.6

In order to solve immediate problems and to assure the Union armies of efficient service in the future, all roads in the eastern war zone were taken over by the government and the Lincoln administration called on Daniel Craig McCallum and Herman Haupt to undertake their reconstruction and operation.

McCallum was a Scotsman by birth, but his parents had brought him to this country as a boy and he had been raised in Rochester, New York. After an elementary education, he had turned to architecture and railroad engineering; in 1851 he had invented an arched bridge truss which assured him of a comfortable income for life, and this initial success turned his energies to bridge construction during the next few years. He moved to New York City and, after a year as general superintendent of the Erie, became president of his own McCallum Bridge Company, at the same time continuing to act as consulting engineer for various railroads. In addition to his other accomplishments, McCallum was the anonymous author of a published volume of poetry, but as long as he remained in business he refused to admit being a poet, lest his colleagues "take him for a fool."7

Haupt was two years McCallum's junior. He had been born in Philadelphia and, after preparing at private schools, had received an appointment to West Point from President Andrew Jackson.a He was graduated in 1835 at the age of p73eighteen and breveted second lieutenant in the Third Infantry. Instead of remaining in the army, however, he refused the commission after three months' delay and entered railroad engineering. In 1840 he published a book on bridge construction, and thereafter he became increasingly interested in the subject. For two years he abandoned his railway career to teach mathematics in Pennsylvania College at Gettysburg — and incidentally, all unknowingly, to become familiar with the terrain on which was to be fought one of the decisive battles with which his name was to become connected. He later resigned his professorship to become superintendent of the newly chartered Pennsylvania Railroad. He spent most of the next few years with the Pennsylvania, but in 1856 he resigned to begin his greatest civilian effort, the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel. He was in the midst of this work when Secretary Stanton called him to go to Virginia.8

The first task confronting the newly created Military Railroad organization was to restore railroad service to Fredericksburg in order that the armies might move. Haupt was in complete charge of the work and was directly responsible to General McDowell. Time was at a premium; therefore, despite almost constant rain and a serious scarcity of material, construction was begun almost immediately. In three days one group of workmen laid the necessary three miles of track while another gang cut and fashioned ties in the adjoining woods. The first bridge, over the Ackakeek Creek, was commenced soon after noon one day and was in use at the same time on the next; only fifteen working hours had been spent in building it, although it spanned 120 feet and was thirty feet high.

The construction of the nearby bridge over Potomac Creek was an unprecedented accomplishment, especially remarkable in that it was built by an untrained crew without waste of time. During the campaigns of Napoleon trestle bridges of more than one story had been considered impracticable, but Haupt chose to ignore tradition. Using round sticks cut from the neighboring woods and not shorn of their bark, he built a structure eighty feet in height comprising four stories, three of which were trestles and open crib-work.9 A few days after it had been completed President Lincoln was in the vicinity on a visit to McDowell and stopped to examine Haupt's masterpiece. On his return to Washington he told members of the War Committee that he had "seen the most remarkable structure that human eyes ever rested upon. That man Haupt" had "built a bridge across Potomac Creek, about 400 feet long and nearly 100 feet high, over which loaded trains are running every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but beanpoles and cornstalks."10
(p74) 
[image ALT: A photograph of a three-story wooden trestle bridge about 120 meters long, partly supported by two wood or masonry piers at about one-third the distance from either end. A locomotive sits atop it, pulling a flatcar and a boxcar. It is Herman Haupt's bridge across Potomac Creek, discussed at length in the text of this webpage.]

Photograph: Signal Corps

Haupt's "beanpoles and cornstalks" bridge

Whether built of beanpoles and cornstalks or not, the bridge daily bore between ten and twenty heavy trains in each direction and survived several severe freshets p75and storms. Actually it consisted of more than two million feet of lumber, all of which had been cut in the vicinity, and it had been completed in nine working days. Nine months had been spent in building the former structure on the same site.

As a result of these achievements the line to Fredericksburg was open for use in about three weeks.11 But the work of railroad reconstruction had only begun. Although during the entire four years of the war only one railroad, that around City Point to supply the armies before Richmond and Petersburg in 1864, was originally built for the immediate use of the army,12 the Confederates saw to it that the construction corps had steady employment. Every time a Southern army retreated, it tore up and destroyed all the roadbeds within reach, and took away all the rolling stock it could carry. Raiding parties were even more efficient in wrecking railroads; despite all the efforts of Union troops it was manifestly impossible to patrol the war zone in sufficient force to guard against sudden raids by large units of cavalry. The greatest source of trouble, however, was the activities of guerrillas who placed obstructions on the tracks, loosened rails and then snatched them from under the wheels of speeding trains by wires running into the surrounding forests, and burned bridges and all other kinds of equipment.13
(p74) 
[image ALT: A photograph of about 40 meters of railroad track receding across a very flat landscape into the background horizon. To our left, a twisted mass of not clearly definable metal items extends about 20 meters along the track. It is a view of a railroad track being rebuilt during the American War between the States.]

Photograph: Signal Corps

After a Confederate raid: reconstruction almost completed

Such destructive efforts, although they roused horrified protests from Union owners, were in reality less advantageous to the Confederates than the employment of guile. The most famous and probably the most profitable coup was engineered by Stonewall Jackson at the very outset of the war. In 1861 he was in command of the northern district of Virginia, across which ran 120 miles of Baltimore & Ohio line to the West. Had he pursued the obvious course and destroyed the line, he would have angered many of the citizens of Virginia and Maryland who depended on the road for their day-to‑day living, and perhaps at one stroke he would have ended the hopes of adding these states to the still-growing Confederacy. Therefore, he left the line undamaged, and even permitted the company to maintain the regular schedule.

Eventually he levied a toll for this privilege. For twenty-seven miles east and west of Harper's Ferry, his headquarters, the line was double-tracked, and over these rails a tremendous coal traffic was moving as the Union government accumulated coal surpluses along the seaboard for naval use. Jackson complained that the incessant noise caused by these trains was disturbing the repose of his army, and requested that the company's president order all east-bound trains to cross the stretch of double track between eleven and one o'clock each day. The president, rather than rouse the enmity of an army encamped athwart his road, complied at once. A few days later Jackson again complained; the empties returning westward, p76he said, were still disturbing his army, so he would appreciate the courtesy if the company would route them over the double track at the same time that the full trains were going eastward.

Thereafter for two hours every day the Baltimore & Ohio line from Point of Rocks through Harper's Ferry to Martinsburg was the busiest in the country. Then Jackson acted: the officers commanding at each end of the double track were told that next day they should permit trains to enter, but not to emerge from the bottle-neck. In a short two hours all the trains scheduled eastward and westward for twenty-four hours were rounded up. Jackson ordered them to be run to Winchester and thence they were moved by horsepower to a railway at Strasburg which connected with systems farther to the South that had been badly in need of rolling stock.14

By November of 1862, McCallum estimated, at least 400 cars and eleven locomotives on government-operated roads had been destroyed, captured or wrecked east of the Blue Ridge. The most obvious method of replacing these losses was to raid the privately operated roads' supply of rolling stock, and this was done.15 In addition the military railroads contracted for the manufacture of new equipment. At one time McCallum stepped in and commandeered three locomotives which the Baldwin Locomotive Works was just finishing for Commodore Vanderbilt's New York City. The commodore protested, but Secretary Stanton answered that he could not revoke the order, because the needs of the Army of the Cumberland were paramount to any private considerations; and he ended with a request that Vanderbilt use his "well-known energy" to help the Government get the locomotives operating as soon as possible.16

When manufacturers threatened to profiteer at the expense of the military railroads by charging exorbitant prices, McCallum announced that the government would build its own factories if the established companies charged it one dollar more than they charged private roads. Since the military railroad's successful operation of a steel rail rolling mill lent weight to McCallum's words,17 the manufacturers took the hint and bent their best energies to filling government demands at market price.18 Altogether during the war the military railroads purchased and built 312 locomotives and captured 106 from the Confederates; in addition, 5,111 cars were purchased, fifty-five built, and 409 captured.19

p77 Maintenance of rolling stock, however, was only part of the task; maintenance of roadbeds was equally important if railroad service immediately behind the lines were to be continued. From February of 1862 to the spring of 1865 more than 640 miles of track were laid or relaid on the military railroads, and more than twenty-six miles of bridges were built or rebuilt.20 At times the simple exhaustion of equipment necessitated rebuilding whole lines. For instance, when McCallum assumed responsibility for the roads in the West in 1864 he found that the 151‑mile Nashville & Chattanooga main line, which was the chief artery for supplying the armies of the Cumberland, the Ohio and the Tennessee during Sherman's campaigns around Atlanta, was so worn that more than one hundred miles of it had to be relaid with new iron rails and cross-ties and ballasted.21 The old roadbed had deteriorated to such an extent that the spreading of rails on their rotten ties daily resulted in the dropping of entire trains between them. In addition, there was not a single siding long enough to accommodate more than a train hauled by one engine, and water stations and wood supplies were completely inadequate.22

Some trackage was torn up and relaid in order to attain a degree of standardization of gauge, because it proved easier in many cases in Virginia and the Southwest to relay rails with a 4 foot, 8½ inch gauge than to obtain locomotives which would run over the former 5 foot gauge.23 More frequently, however, the labors of the construction corps were attributable to the raiding activities of Southern cavalry. Certain stretches of road were torn up as many as five times during the war, and each time patiently replaced.
(p81) 
[image ALT: A photograph of a railroad track with a small train comprising three or four flatcars; about thirty men, all wearing hats, are crowded on and around the track doing various things or just supervising. It is a view of a Union Army military railroad construction crew at work during the American War between the States.]

Photograph: Signal Corps

Construction corps at work

The Confederates usually destroyed roadbeds by piling cross-ties and nearby fence rails in a heap, putting the rails on top and setting fire to the wood; when the heat was most intense the rails would twist and bend of their own weight. Not only was the procurement of new rails expensive, but necessarily it took time. Herman Haupt experimented with the débris left by a rebel party which had destroyed about ten miles of the Cumberland Valley and Franklin roads just after the battle of Gettysburg. He discovered that such damage could be repaired with relative ease through the adoption of a standardized procedure by which any rail not bent into a curve of less than a foot radius could be straightened without even heating. He invented a portable contrivance consisting of five blocks of wood, each about ten inches square and five feet long. "The top block was notched slightly, to receive the base of the rail and cause it to lie with the plate of the base vertical. The pieces of scantling, three by four or four by four, were p78placed across the ends. Twelve or sixteen men at each end would press down or relieve the pressure at the word of command." The rail was moved forward or back and turned around in this contraption until it was almost perfectly straight. In two or three minutes, Haupt found, workmen could straighten a rail sufficiently to permit relaying it and spiking it in place. Although not perfectly formed, the finished product was straight enough for trains to run over it; and such reconstructed rails could be aligned more precisely at leisure.

If a rail were bent in the direction of the plane of the vertical rib, it was raised to the height of a man's head and dropped on a cross-tie; invariably one or two applications of this process would take out the kink. Another method of removing bends of this sort was to plant two posts in the ground, about two and one-half feet apart, attach a rope to the end of the rail, support the rail beyond the fulcrum thus formed, and exert pressure on the rope.

Rails which were too bent to be straightened while cold were piled along the way and collected later. Then they were taken to a furnace already prepared for them, consisting of two parallel walls of brick, stone or sometimes even clay, with bars laid across to hold wood or coal. After the rails were heated, they were laid on a straightening table and hammered until the bends had been removed; water was then poured on to cool them.24 All of this apparatus was portable and easily replaceable in case an enemy raiding party should catch the construction corps unawares.
(p81) 
[image ALT: A photograph of a short stretch of railroad track, slightly curving to the left toward the background, with a train on it of about 10 flatcars loaded with rails. On either side of the track, pallets of rails, about 3 meters on a side and many about 2.5 meters tall. To our right, four men look on: one is standing by the edge of the track, and the three others stand on a pallet of rails. It is a staging area for the supply of rails bound for replacement of destroyed railroad track in the American War between the States.]

Photograph: Signal Corps

Replacements for rails

One of the greatest accomplishments of the military railroads during the war was their development of bridge building techniques to a similar independence of complicated machinery. By the time Sherman began his march through Georgia, bridge construction had become a routine procedure. The necessary tools consisted of axes, cross-cut saws, spiking mauls, augers, ropes, block and tackle, timber-rollers, scaffolding plank and, when available, sets of balance beams and a few carpenters' tools. Wrought bridge spikes were carried for use in temporary works. Ox teams were often used for land transportation and occasionally for rations; the entire corps traveled by train, using flat cars for materials and stock cars for the animals.

Actual construction of a bridge over a large stream would be commenced by leaving a group of men in the rear to cut timber and flatten it on two sides. As the wood was cut it was taken to the bridge site, where framers and raisers were already at work clearing rubbish from the banks. As soon as the first load of timber arrived the "raisers would begin operations by rigging and running out their balance beams at both ends of the bridge. The framers would frame and put a bent together on the ground ready to be launched into the stream or raised from p79the ground into place, according to circumstances. By the time a bent was put together, the levelers would be ready to give the exact length for cutting off the feet of the posts; in the meantime the raisers would have their balance beams rigged and the falls lowered ready to raise the bent into position. As soon as the bent was stayed, the balance beams would be run out from the next bent." This same procedure would be repeated, working from both shores at once, until all the bents were in place. Meanwhile another gang would have constructed a temporary ferry for crossing the stream, upcurrent from the bridge; by means of it bents designed for the middle of the bridge could be floated into position.

If the bridge were to be of more than one story, very little attention was paid to the height of the first sections; but when these were in place levelers would determine the size of the upper sections. While the skeleton of the bridge was being put into position, another gang would be busy bracing it at points of greatest strain, and a third gang would be putting track stringers into place. The stringers were never spliced or laid end to end, but always overlapped each other, and the number used depended entirely on the size and quality of the available timber. The final operation was the laying of the track; common cross-ties were attached to the stringers with long bent spikes, and the rails spiked into place in the usual manner.25

This procedure was used extensively, but whenever possible it was replaced by an even more standardized method, which in one case enabled Haupt to replace a trestle bridge over the Potomac Creek by a truss bridge without delaying a single train for a minute. For the first time in history trusses 400 feet long, and in the three spans, were raised in about a day and a half. The new type of truss was adapted to any span or location; it could be used for either deck or through bridges, and could be constructed in advance and kept ready for emergencies. All the parts were alike and interchangeable; any piece of timber in the bridge could be reversed and it would fit equally well. Sixty foot spans were prepared well behind the lines, loaded on flat cars and transported to rail-end, then hauled by oxen to the river's edge. No parts had to be put together until the construction gang arrived at the appointed spot, yet they could be assembled in record time.26

The rapidity with which the construction corps worked led to a firm belief in the minds of many people that the Union could build bridges and lay track faster than the Confederates could destroy them. Early in October of 1864, during Sherman's march through Georgia, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood managed to circle around Sherman's army and destroy more than thirty-five miles of roadbed and nearly 500 feet of bridges in the rear. But even before the raiders had left the line, workmen were p80busy repairing the damage, and soon they were working from both ends of the break. Twenty-five miles of track and 230 feet of bridges were carrying traffic again in seven and one-half days, and the entire damage was repaired in thirteen days.27 Throughout Sherman's campaign his troops no sooner had their tents pitched than a locomotive's whistle would announce the arrival of their supplies.28 Although rival construction gangs of Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were to surpass the rapidity with which the military railroad gangs laid rails, they not only had the benefit of the experience gained during the war, but also were not subject to the raids of an enemy, nor to the myriad handicaps of wartime emergency work. Considering the circumstances under which they labored, and their daily accomplishment of things never before even attempted, the members of the construction corps made an enviable record.

Their efforts were not entirely devoted to reconstruction, however. The rebel raiders were not without competition in their efforts to cripple the enemy by destroying his railroads; on the contrary, the Union forces reduced railroad destruction to the same exact science that they developed in railroad construction. In the autumn of 1862, after Pope's defeat at the Second Bull Run, nearly 300 cars had been destroyed to prevent their falling into the hands of the rebels. Haupt dryly commented that cars were readily destroyed by burning, and "on this subject no instructions are necessary. The destruction of more than four hundred cars by our own troops within the last six months proves that in the work of destroying such property perfection has been attained, and no room left for winning fresh laurels in this field." However, the Union forces had not similarly perfected techniques for the destruction of locomotives and roadbeds and bridges, and so he formulated rules to guide these efforts.

The most effective method of rendering a locomotive unfit for service was to fire a cannon ball through the boiler; this resulted in damage which could not be repaired without removing every flue, a slow and tedious process. An alternative method, frequently used, was to burn out the flues by draining the water from the boiler and making a fire in the fire-box; but this was usually done so imperfectly that the engine could soon be made to run again.

A much more complicated problem was the effective destruction of roadbed and bridges by raiding parties. Usually fire was used, but often Confederate troops came up in time to extinguish the flames before much damage had been done. Yet at the start of the war cavalry penetrating deep in to enemy country had little choice: the only accepted methods of tearing up track and destroying bridges involved the use of cumbersome tools which could not be carried on the back of a horse. Portable tools were needed, and Haupt experimented until he found them.

p82 For destroying bridges he developed a torpedo which consisted of a short bolt, seven-eighths of an inch thick and eight inches long, with a head and nut; the head was two inches in diameter and about one inch thick. A washer of the same size with a fuse hole in it was placed under the nut at the other end. Between the washer and the head was a tin cylinder one and three-quarters inches in diameter, open at both ends, which was filled with powder. When the washer and nut were fastened a case for the powder was formed. A hole was bored in the bridge with a small hand auger;º the torpedo was inserted and the fuse ignited.

Most of the railroad bridges in Virginia were Howe trusses without arches. In this type of construction, if the two main braces at one end of a span were destroyed by using the torpedo, the rest of the bridge would be completely wrecked and fall of its own weight. Since two men could bore and place the two torpedoes at the same time, a bridge could be destroyed in a very few minutes with equipment which could be carried conveniently in a pocket. Furthermore, these torpedoes were more powerful than might be expected; in actual tests at Alexandria one of them shattered a piece of timber into small bits, some of which landed more than a hundred feet away.29

Almost equally effective portable devices for tearing up track were gradually developed, although the problems involved were very similar. If all the ties were not wholly destroyed rails could be replaced nearly as rapidly as they were torn out. At various times the Confederates tried several methods of track destruction in an effort to hinder the Union forces. On the Loudoun & Hampshire line, for instance, the ties were burned and the rails were heated and then bent around trees to form complete circles; Sherman used this method during his march through Georgia. In another case, when Southern cavalry destroyed three miles of Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac road in April of 1862, they burned the ties and carried the rails south to use on their own roads. But either of these methods required more time than a raiding party usually had at its command, and involved the use of crow-bars, which were too heavy to be carried except in wagons.

Haupt well knew from his own experiences that if rails were simply bent they could be quickly straightened and used again. The only effective way to make a rail useless was to give it a spiral twist, like a corkscrew. If in addition to such a twist, a rail were bent, it was entirely useless until it had been recast. At the beginning of the war the apparatus employed consisted of steel hooks, with sockets into which poles could be inserted to obtain leverage. These hooks forced the heads of the spikes without extracting them. But the spikes passing through the chairs could not be removed so easily; additional apparatus in the form p83of wedges and hooks were necessary and even then the removal of each spike took at least several minutes.

E. C. Smeed, one of the military railroad engineers, invented a simple portable apparatus which fulfilled all the requirements sf use by raiding parties and made possible the destruction of track in one-sixth the time required to lay it. Furthermore, the rails were so twisted and bent that they were completely unfit for further use. His invention was a contrivance almost amusing in its simplicity. A claw shaped like a U, with the parallels bent at a slight angle and tipped with hooks at the ends, contained a hole for a wooden handle, which could be inserted to gain leverage. The hooks were placed under the ends of a rail and pressure was exerted on the handle; the rail was thus ripped out in less than half a minute, and the chair was simply broken. Furthermore, in removing the rail this way, it could be given as much of a spiral twist as was desired; but using hooks at only one end of the rail, while the other remained spiked down, the rail could be made into an excellent imitation of a corkscrew before it was entirely twisted out of place. And the beauty of Smeed's apparatus was that each set of claws weighed only about six pounds and could easily be carried anywhere.

To test the efficiency of this method, Haupt compared its results with those of his own experiments with the Confederate methods. To this end two piles of dry wood were accumulated, one of thirty-two cross-ties across which eight rails were placed, another half as large. Half a gallon of coal oil was poured on each pile and they were ignited. After three hours the rails were not heated to any appreciable extent; by next morning the ties had been completely burned, but the weight of the rails had not been enough to bend them sufficiently to prevent their being relaid. In contrast to this cumbersome procedure, Smeed's invention permitted the complete destruction of a roadbed in minutes instead of hours; and, of course, if there was plenty of time, the ties could be burned after the rails had been twisted.30

Traditional Yankee ingenuity had been tested by the problems of the construction corps, but before the war was over several other laurels were added to those it had already won. Particularly noteworthy was the progress made in adapting the railway to front-line military use. Early in the war P. H. Watson, Assistant Secretary of War, sent Haupt an armor-clad, bullet-proof car mounting a cannon. Haupt had no use for such a white elephant, and it was finally side-tracked in the yards at Alexandria.31 However, before the end of the war a much more practicable railway gun mount was designed. At least one armored train, consisting of two cars, was used in the operations around Richmond in 1864. One of the cars was a common flat car, outfitted in the Atlantic & North Carolina shops at Newberne, p84North Carolina; heavy timbers, covered by old rails, were spiked to the outside planking to form the side and front of the car. Slits were cut in the side for musketry fire; a port hole in the front, which could be covered by a heavy shutter, permitted the use of a gun borrowed from a nearby field battery. The second car was similar to the first except that it carried a naval howitzer instead of a field gun.32

These forerunners of more modern railway gun mounts, however, never attained an importance equal to that of the ambulance trains which were developed at the same time and which marked considerable progress in ameliorating the lot of the wounded. In the Italian War of 1859 both the French and the Austrians had carried wounded in freight and cattle cars as well as in passenger coaches, but they had made no efforts to relieve the frightfully unsanitary conditions which prevailed. In the early days of the Civil War this procedure was imitated. Those too seriously injured to sit up were placed in freight cars, still on the field or hospital stretchers on which they had been brought to the train, or else were laid on hay, straw or pine bough beds. For ventilation holes were cut in the side walls. This makeshift procedure helped relieve congestion at field hospitals, but much suffering was caused by riding on hard stretchers or on more-or‑less matted straw or hay, and this suffering was agitated by lack of cleanliness. Furthermore, although ten men constituted a comfortable load per car, necessity often required that as many as twenty be crammed in.

A few experiments were made with cars having two or three tiers of wooden bunks along each side, but early in 1863 a much greater advance was made by using stretchers suspended by india rubber rings from pegs on uprights. The greatest drawback to this invention was the feeling of insecurity on the part of the wounded men, who were constantly worried lest they fall. Several other innovations were tried on the various lines adjacent to the battlefields; at one time the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore experimented with a car built to carry fifty-one patients and provided with a stove, a water-tank, a locker and a seat for an attendant.

Many of the other roads copied this idea, but credit for the first modern ambulance train belongs to the Medical Director of the Department of Washington. In 1863 he ordered the construction of several complete trains equipped with special cars for the surgeon and his staff, for the apothecary and his storeroom, for a kitchen, and for ten ward cars, each of which carried thirty patients. Many of these trains were built during the war, and three of them ran on a regular schedule during Sherman's campaigns around Atlanta. Each train took a p85section of the route between Atlanta and Louisville, making one trip each way daily, meeting its connecting train at its terminus. Wounded were transferred on the same stretcher from one train to the next. The more seriously wounded men were left in Nashville and Chattanooga, while those less seriously injured were taken through to Louisville.

The efficiency and success of the trains were cordially recognized by the medical corps; one officer reported that, in visiting these hospital trains, the air was found "sweet and pure, the wards are neat and inviting; and," he added, "it may unhesitatingly be said that men on hospital trains are often as comfortable and better fed than in many permanent hospitals."

Throughout the war locomotives of hospital trains had their stacks and hood painted a brilliant scarlet; at night three red lanterns were hung in a row under the headlight. As a result the Confederates never molested one of them; on the contrary, even the "ferocious" Nathan Bedford Forrest went out of his way to warn hospital trains whenever a stretch of track was to be obstructed or torn up. One of Forrest's scouts is said to have stopped one of them once, ascertained that it had sufficient stores, and then put it on a siding. Before an alarm could be given the main track had been torn up and five supply trains captured or destroyed.33

Southern soldiers were uniformly considerate of hospital trains, but the same was not true of any other trains, for they were legitimate prey of war and subject to all the dangers of battle. Insofar as possible, military railroad officials took precautions to avoid unnecessary danger. After the Confederates had evacuated Fredericksburg, Union spies reported that the tracks in the depot had been mined with a number of torpedoes which were set with percussion fuses. Soldiers removed those which friendly "contrabands" pointed out, but as an extra measure of precaution the first train to move over the tracks consisted of a locomotive pushing ahead of it a car very heavily loaded with scrap iron, so as to explode any that had been overlooked. None were found, but the caution was justified by an episode which occurred soon afterward: the torpedoes had been stored in a small brick building set apart from the station; one day a sentinel on duty handled one of them carelessly, precipitating an explosion. The entire city of Fredericksburg was shaken by the terrific blast, and the building was shattered completely. The only remnant of the sentry was a fragment of his gun found at a considerable distance from the building site.34

Military railroad trains were, however, often subjected to gunfire from adjacent forests. A favorite Confederate ruse was to place some obstruction on the track, or else switch the rails out from under the wheels of the train, and then p86attempt to capture the train and crew. One time only Southern carelessness in removing a rail on the inside instead of the outside of a curve saved a train from plunging down a twelve foot embankment; only the engine and two cars were derailed, but even before the dust had settled twelve rebels emerged from the bushes to complete their conquest. However, a detachment of the Fourth Delaware were on board to repulse just such a raid, and they drove off the enemy, chasing them through the woods, where "one fat rebel particularly distinguished himself in getting out of sight."35

This attack was only one of a series which occurred at about the same time and which Haupt blamed on Mosby's band. The Confederate leader would ride along, picking up local farmers who willingly volunteered for a night's work, and be gone before Union forces could be concentrated to meet him. By daybreak the farmers would have returned to their plows, ready to deny any knowledge of Mosby's whereabouts.36 Haupt asked that drastic measures be taken to prevent endless repetitions of this manoeuvre; specifically he asked General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Meade for authority to issue a notice that "if any attempt" should be made "to destroy the track, bridges, or telegraph, or any of the lines of railroad used by the Army of the Potomac, the residents in the vicinity for a distance of ten miles" would be "held responsible in person and property, and all the able-bodied citizens arrested. If the offenders can be discovered," stated the notice, "their punishment will be death."37

Even when the enemy was not actively engaged in harassing the military railroad lines their operation in the war zone was difficult enough. At first trains were regulated entirely by telegraphed instructions, without depending on any schedule or time-table. But in the weeks preceding the Second Bull Run this system collapsed completely. For days at a time railroad officials were unable to use the telegraph because it was out of order, or parts of it had been captured by the enemy, or the army was using it to direct troop movements. A serious stoppage of all traffic on the Manassas Gap Railroad occurred just when supplies were most needed by the army. Haupt commented with justification that "a system which admits of such irregularities is not safe and reliable. To require trains to lie for hours, perhaps for days, upon sidings waiting for instructions when there is no possibility of communicating with them, I cannot approve of."38

The temporary chaos at Manassas was cleared up as rapidly as possible by having officers walk or ride horseback from one train to the other to direct operations. But to solve the problem permanently a new system was adopted, under which all trains ran by schedule. In case the schedule became disarranged, or p87special trains were required, an effort was made to telegraph an explanation of the situation to all station dispatchers. But if the telegraph were not available, Haupt was determined to "keep the trains moving by sending runners ahead with flags and relieving the runners where fatigued until the expected trains were met." Cumbersome as this system might appear, it worked so well that during the battle of Gettysburg thirty trains per day were sent over a road that under normal conditions had a capacity for only three or four.39

At times it seemed that loyal adherents of the Union were more successful than the enemy in nullifying the best efforts of the military railroads. In 1862, during General McDowell's forced march to Front Royal, Haupt was disturbed by the failure of several trains of supplies to reach their destination. On walking out along the tracks to meet the delinquents, he found them still in Rectortown, four miles away. The conductor explained that the wife of a prominent army officer was a passenger and that she had gone to a nearby farmhouse to seek accommodations for the night; he was holding the train until her return. Haupt ordered him to proceed without his distinguished passenger, "but just then an elegantly dressed lady came tripping across the fields to take her place in one of the cars." During this period of great military urgency this lady had delayed four trains for three hours, and thereby thoroughly confused the entire supply situation.40

The most injurious tendencies against which the military railroads constantly had to fight, however, were attributable to the carelessness of the Quartermaster's Department. Two manifestations of this carelessness were particularly important: the practice of ordering too great quantities of stores taken up to the front, and inefficiency in unloading supply trains. Each quartermaster in the field acted independently, and all of them tended to stock up for any contingency; as a result, everytime the armies retreated carloads of goods were returned unused to base supply depots, or destroyed.41 These supplies were not only wasted; but they monopolized the limited amount of equipment at the disposal of the military railroads and impeded the rapid movements of the army. Lack of promptness in unloading and returning cars added to the confusion. Instead of unloading an entire train as soon as it arrived, one or two cars would be unloaded and the rest run on a siding, to remain there sometimes for weeks.42

As a result of his experiences Haupt laid down three fundamental rules for military railway management, to be followed by all subordinates insofar as possible:

Not to allow supplies to be forwarded to the advanced terminus until they are actually required, and only in such quantities as can be promptly removed.

p88 To insist on the prompt unloading and return of cars.

To permit no delays of trains beyond the time fixed for starting, but when necessary and practicable, to furnish extras, if the proper accommodation of business requires them.43

To Haupt's three principles, McCallum added another, which permeated the activities of the entire corps throughout the war: "The economy so commendable and essential upon civil railroads was compelled to give way to the lavish expenditure of war; and the question to be answered was not, 'How much will it cost?' but rather, 'Can it be done at all at any cost?' "44

Day after day, throughout the war, the military railroads performed unprecedented tasks, two of which stand out above all the rest. In September of 1863 the defeat of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Rosecrans at Chickamauga was believed to imperil East Tennessee, and Secretary Stanton was urged to send reinforcements from the armies in Virginia. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Halleck opposed the idea, pointing out that it would be impossible to transfer the troops 1200 miles quickly enough for them to be of any use. Lincoln was inclined to accept Halleck's opinion, but Stanton asked that the conference be adjourned until evening before this judgment was made final. In the intervening hours Stanton called McCallum, explained the problem and asked him how long it would take him to effect the transfer if he were given absolute authority over all railroads and telegraph lines. McCallum named a date well within the period during which Halleck had declared the troops could save East Tennessee. When the conference was reconvened that evening McCallum was called to repeat his argument, and he succeeded in winning over both Halleck and Lincoln.

During the next seven days he supervised the transportation by rail of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hooker's two corps, the Eleventh and Twelfth, consisting of 23,000 men, together with their artillery, road vehicles and equipment, a distance of 1200 miles from Catlett's Station, Virginia, to Chattanooga. When Halleck had scoffed at the idea of transferring the troops he had been on sound ground; experts estimated that by using the roads then available it would take the two corps about three months to make the journey on foot. But for the first time a "grand piece of strategy" was carried out by the use of railways, and McCallum was rewarded for his disregard of tradition by promotion to Brigadier General the day that the last troops arrived in Chattanooga. Several times later in the war large bodies of troops, together with all their impedimenta, were moved by rial, but none of these accomplishments rivaled in size, distance, rapidity, or strategic importance this first effort.45

Beyond doubt, however, the greatest achievement of the railways throughout the war was their work during Sherman's campaigns in 1864 and early 1865. It was necessary to furnish an army of one hundred thousand men and sixty thousand animals with supplies from a base 360 miles away, "by one line of single-track p89railroad, located almost the entire distance through the country of an active and most vindictive enemy."46 Reference has already been made to the success of the construction corps and the hospital trains during the campaign. Sherman himself recognized the importance of the railroads to his success; according to his Memoirs,

The Atlanta campaign would simply have been impossible without the use of the railroads from Louisville to Nashville — 185 miles — from Nashville to Chattanooga — 151 miles — and from Chattanooga to Atlanta — 137 miles . . . But as I have recorded that single stem of railroad supplied an army of 100,000 men and 35,000 horses for the period of 196 days, viz.: from May 1 to November 12, 1864. To have delivered that amount of forage and food by ordinary wagons would have required 36,800 wagons, of six mules each, allowing each wagon to have hauled two tons twenty miles a day, a simple impossibility in such roads as existed in that region of the country. Therefore I reiterate that the Atlanta campaign was an impossibility without those railroads; and only then because we had the men and means to maintain and defend them, in addition to what were necessary to overcome the enemy.47

McCallum's final report indicates the magnitude of the task confronting the military railroads during the war. He pointed out that 2,105 miles of road were operated, that 419 locomotives were used to haul 6,330 cars, and that net expenditures were about thirty million dollars.48 Not until several years after the end of the war did any single railroad company achieve mileage, rolling stock and a budget exceeding these figures. Both armies in the field fully recognized the strategic importance of the railroads, as may be indicated by mere mention of three railroad junctions where, although there were only a handful of houses in the vicinity, the hostile armies battled during the first year of the war: Manassas in Virginia, Bowling Green in Kentucky, and Corinth in Mississippi.49

That McCallum and his aides had done their work superlatively well was attested by one later observer, who commented that "with the possible exception of the Navy Department, it was the most efficient of the public services," and ranked "in that regard with the United States Sanitary Commission. These two contributions of our Civil War have been incorporated into the mechanism of all civilized war."50

Another historian of railways in wartime found in the experiences of the military railroads in the Civil War three particularly valuable lessons: first, the fighting power of armies is increased by the strategic use of railways; secondly, the early arrival of reinforcements at threatened points, which is thus made possible, gives strategical advantages otherwise unattainable; thirdly, expeditions may be undertaken at distances from bases of supplies which would be impossible without the use of railways to bring up supplies.51


The Author's Notes:

1 DeBow's Review, XXII (1857), 630‑31.

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2 Quoted in Carl R. Fish, "The Northern Railroads, April, 1861," American Historical Review, XXII (1917), 778‑95.

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3 Ibid.

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4 July 20 and August 3, 1861. See also American Railroad Journal, July 19, 1862.

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5 Ibid., May 24, 1862.

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6 Report, Haupt to Stanton, September 9, 1863 (n. p., n. d.).

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7 New York Sun, December 29, 1878; Dictionary of American Biography (New York, 1928‑35), XI, 355‑56.

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8 New York Tribune, December 15, 1905; Dict. Amer. Biography, VIII, 400‑401.

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9 Report, Haupt to Stanton.

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10 Herman Haupt, Reminiscences of Herman Haupt . . . . (Milwaukee, 1901), 49.

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11 Report, Haupt to Stanton.

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12 F. J. Crilly to D. H. Rucker, August 17, 1867 (n. p., n. d.).

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13 Haupt to John Bigelow, in Bigelow's The Principles of Strategy (Philadelphia, 1894), 115.

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14 Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York, 1887), I, 122‑25.

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15 Report, McCallum to Stanton, May 26, 1866 (n. p., n. d.).

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16 Stanton to Cornelius Vanderbilt, November 20, 1863, in The War of the Rebellion, A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1881‑1901), ser. III, III, 1083‑84. Hereafter cited as Official Records.

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17 Report, McCallum to Stanton.

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18 McCallum to Stanton, April 9, 1864, in Official Records, ser. III, IV, 219‑20.

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19 Not including rolling stock borrowed from privately operated roads (Report, McCallum to Stanton.)

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20 Ibid.

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21 Ibid.

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22 Report, Adna Anderson to McCallum, October 25, 1864, in Official Records, ser. III, IV, 963.

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23 American Railroad Journal, May 24, 1862; see also Report, McCallum to Stanton.

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24 Haupt to Gen. Henry W. Halleck, August 4, 1863, in Haupt, Reminiscences, 255‑56.

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25 E. C. Smeed to Haupt, May [?], 1899, in ibid., 294‑96. This letter was unfinished at Smeed's death and was forwarded by his daughter.

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26 Report, Haupt to Stanton.

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27 Report, McCallum to Stanton.

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28 Francis J. Lippitt, Field Service in War (New York, 1869), 147.

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29 Haupt to Stanton, November 1, 1862, in Official Records, ser. III, II, 708‑10.

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30 Haupt to Halleck, May 16, 1863, in Haupt, Reminiscences, 197‑203.

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31 Ibid.

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32 Railway Age Gazette, January 22, 1915; see also, Railway and Locomotive Engineering, LX (1915), 153.

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33 Anon., "Ambulance Trains from Civil War to Present," Railway Age Gazette, LXII (1917), 1439‑44.

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34 Haupt, Reminiscences, 49.

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35 J. H. Devereux to Haupt, July 26, 1863, in ibid., 248‑50.

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36 Haupt to Rufus Ingalls, July 23, 1863, in ibid., 250‑51.

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37 Id. to id., July 27, 1863, in ibid., 251.

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38 Haupt to Stanton, June 6, 1862, in ibid., 59.

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39 Ibid., 59‑60.

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40 Haupt, Reminiscences, 174‑75.

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41 Haupt to Stanton, November 18, 1862, in ibid., 166‑67.

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42 Report, Haupt to Stanton, September 27, 1862, in ibid., 143.

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43 Ibid., 139.

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44 Report, McCallum to Stanton.

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45 Charles F. Benjamin, "Recollections of Secretary Stanton," Century Magazine, XXXIII (1887), 758‑68.

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46 Report, McCallum to Stanton.

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47 William T. Sherman, Memoirs (New York, 1875), II, 398‑99.

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48 Report, McCallum to Stanton.

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49 American Railroad Journal, July 29, 1862.

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50 Fish, op. cit.

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51 Edwin A. Pratt, Rise of Rail Power in War and Conquest, 1833‑1914 (Philadelphia, 1916), 25.


Thayer's Note:

a A comprehensive summary of his career both civilian and military is therefore to be found in Cullum's Register of Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy; the entry is onsite.


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