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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Mississippi Valley Historical Review
Vol. 9 No. 2 (Sep. 1922), pp126‑138

The text is in the public domain.

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 p126  Federal Operation of Southern Railroads
during the Civil War

Prior to the American civil war there had been considerable speculation, particularly in Europe, as to the possible use and importance of railroads in military maneuvers. In numerous cases troops and supplies had been transported; but with one exception no attempt had been made to use the railroads as an integral part of a military campaign. This one exception was the Italian campaign of 1859 and even in this instance the railroads had not been used very extensively.1 Consequently, at the opening of the civil war the United States was confronted with an unsolved problem of the greatest magnitude and importance and one upon which the outcome of the war was largely dependent. The success of the solution may be shown by a survey of the results and also by the fact that similar plans were used later by other countries, particularly notable during the German use of railroads during the Franco-Prussian war.

Before the time of the civil war the idea of the use of railroads in the United States for war purposes had been conceived solely in relation to possible aid in coast defense and even this function was not considered important. In 1839 Major General Gaines, in command of the western division of the army of the United States, had suggested the government-aided construction of seven trunk lines as an adjunct to coast defense and went into considerable detail as to estimates for route, cost, and so forth.2

As a result of Gaines's suggestion, Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.J. J. Abert of the topographical engineers was called upon to give his opinion of the plan and reported in 1840 that it was impossible because of the difficulties and the cost of construction.3 In 1851 the secretary  p127 of the navy sent to various naval officers a questionnaire concerning the value of railroads in coast defense. The answers as a rule minimized the value of such aid and placed most reliance in coast defenses of one kind or another. Such incidents as these show the general feeling in the United States concerning the use of railroads in war time: the only way in which railroads could ever be used for military purposes was as a very minor aid toward coast defense.4 Consequently, when the civil war opened no one had any idea either as to the importance of railroads in military operations or as to the possible organization of an adequate department.

In 1860 the south had a total of 8,600 miles of railroad in operation east of the Mississippi and south of Maryland.5 Nowhere, however, was there good service. The only through connection was between Memphis and Richmond and even in this route three changes had to be made.6 The other supposedly complete east-and‑west route lay between Vicksburg and Charleston, but the continuity was broken by a gap between Selma, Alabama, and Meridian, Mississippi, necessitating a detour through Mobile.7 Furthermore, the southern roads were usually distinguished by lack of equipment, by poor roadbeds and tracks, by different gauge tracks, by numerous gaps in the lines, and by the fact that at most junction points such as Chattanooga, Knoxville, Lynchburg, Savannah, Augusta, Raleigh, and Petersburg the various railroads did not make connections, so that all passengers and freight had to be transferred from one line to the next.8

These inherent difficulties in the southern system of transportation were augmented in time of war by the confederate destruction of stock and property before the advancing federal troops. By the time the union armies had occupied a railroad line, the track had been at least partially destroyed, the buildings  p128 had been burned, and the rolling stock had been either removed or destroyed. The northern authorities then had the task of practically rebuilding the entire line before it could be used.

The importance of all railroad lines was recognized very early in the war and therefore the principal problem was the organization of an army department adequate for the reconstruction and operation of all roads captured.

The control of railroads needed for the army rested at first with the departments of the army in which the railroads were situated.9 At times special officers were detailed to manage particular portions of the work, and at other times the quartermaster's department was given control. It very early became apparent that there must be some sort of correlation between the various portions of the railroad under construction and in operation; and to secure this result, Thomas Scott, the assistant secretary of war, who was vice president of the Pennsylvania lines both before and after the war, was given general supervision in the fall of 1861, without, however, any power other than that of recommendation.10 As his assistant he appointed R. F. Morley, who was in active charge of the work.11 This stage of development corresponded closely to that reached by the southern system and was entirely inadequate.12 No officer with only supervisory powers could help to get unified action from different army departments; and the idea of an advisory head was hardly more than introduced when it was dropped, the end no doubt being hastened by the feeling that Scott had not lost all his interest in the Pennsylvania railroad.

To give legislative sanction to military railway operation congress on January 31, 1862, after a perfunctory debate13 passed a bill giving the president the right to take over all railroads necessary for the successful operation of the war.14 Although this bill gave permission to take over northern as well as southern  p129 railroads, it was never found necessary to do so except in the case of some small lines in Pennsylvania which were operated by the government for a few days at the time of the battle of Gettysburg. Southern roads, however, were taken over and operated as fast as they were captured.

As the first result of this bill, efforts were made to centralize and to harmonize railroad management. On February 4, Daniel C. McCallum was made "military director and superintendent of railroads in the United States." McCallum was an architect and engineer of considerable ability and had at one time been general manager of the Erie lines.15 Though according to his appointment he had absolute control over all military railroads, the facts did not agree with the fiction. Prior to McCallum's appointment, J. B. Anderson, formerly of the Louisville and Nashville railroad, had been appointed by General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sherman (November 2, 1861) as railroad director in the department of the Ohio,16 and after McCallum's appointment he remained in active independent command of western railroads for two years. In the east the same condition existed. On May 28, 1862, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Herman Haupt was appointed chief of construction and transportation in the department of the Rappahannock.17 Haupt had had more experience in railroad matters than any other man employed in the department and was also well known because of his connection with the Hoosac tunnel project.18 For a year and a half following his appointment he had active independent charge of all Virginia railroad operations. While Haupt and Anderson were in supreme command in the east and west respectively, McCallum confined himself to work in the north — the securing of cars and engines and the recruiting of men for the construction corps. It is of great credit to McCallum that during this period, when his authority overlapped that of Anderson and Haupt, he almost entirely avoided any conflict with them.19

The natural tendency of this system of multiple control was  p130 for it to reduce itself to a single organization with a single head. The first man to be eliminated in this process was Haupt. In his memoirs, Haupt claims that he was removed because he would not accept a commission. He states also that influential enemies wished to connect him permanently with the army in order to get rid of him.20 On the other hand, Secretary of the Navy Welles mentions in his diary that a considerable amount of fraud had been discovered in Haupt's department.21 Be that as it may, the result was the same; on September 14, 1863, Haupt was relieved of his command, and his work was turned over to McCallum.22 Thus only Anderson and McCallum were left in the field.

Anderson soon followed in Haupt's path. Up to the summer and fall of 1863 little attention had been paid to the western railroads, but the farther the army advanced the more necessary good rail communication became, so that by the time Chattanooga was taken in November good railroads were absolutely essential. As the responsibility grew greater, the weakness of Anderson's administration became evident. Work was poorly done or not done at all, so that frequently the army actually lacked supplies. Such conditions could not exist if the campaign was to be successful and protests and complaints were made continually to Stanton.23 Action was taken on December 19, when McCallum was ordered to go to Chattanooga with all his construction crew that could be spared and to report on railroad conditions at that place.24 This he did, and in his report of January 19, 1864, he severely criticized both conditions in the west and Anderson's management.25 On February 4, 1864, just two years after McCallum's original appointment, Anderson was removed; and all railroads, both east and west — with  p131 the exception of a few minor lines in the southwest — were united under the management of McCallum.26

After February 4, 1864, the organization of the military railway department was substantially complete. McCallum, in supreme command, was responsible only to the secretary of war, and divided his time between securing equipment and men from the north and superintending personally the major operations in the south. During the summer and fall of 1864 McCallum spent most of his time in active charge of construction work in the west. When Sherman started for the sea McCallum went north, but he came south again for the final operations around Richmond.

The organization of the department, as perfected by McCallum, was notably complete and effective. In each larger division, such as the department of the Mississippi, was a general superintendent of transportation and a general superintendent of construction, each directly responsible to McCallum. Under the superintendent of transportation were the superintendents of division points; under these came the superintendents of each road, and from there the organization was thoroughly worked out down to the lowest subordinate.27

In the construction department the chief engineer had immediately under him the division engineers. Each division engineer had normally under his supervision about eight hundred men; and these men were so apportioned and equipped that each division was a complete unit, thoroughly fitted to undertake any form of construction work from laying tracks to building stations. For this end each division was subdivided into seven sections, and each section was completely equipped and commanded.28

The whole military railway organization had certain definite characteristics. Each man was allowed considerable discretion in his own field but was directly responsible to a single supervisor. Conversely, each man had only one boss and there was no danger of conflicting orders. The whole department was highly centralized, each person, in the last analysis, being directly  p132 connected with McCallum as the supreme head. Promotion was given according to length of service and consequently the same men remained in control throughout the war, thus giving the service the benefit of their experience. Orders came from Stanton, McCallum, or the commanding general in the field.29

The first beginnings of the construction corps were under Haupt and Anderson. In each case the work was at first done entirely by details of soldiers, but as time progressed a body of skilled carpenters was recruited or transferred, so that eventually the department performed all its own work.30 The labor was hired, sometimes from the surrounding country, sometimes from Washington, and sometimes from the north; many negroes were used for the simpler tasks.31 Great difficulty was experienced in procuring skilled railroad operators, especially locomotive engineers, because of the high wages paid by northern railroads.32 All the men employed by the military railway department were civil employees and were paid wages in addition to their boarding and housing.33 Some difficulties were very naturally experienced because of the feeling of superiority among the regular army officers, but this cause of trouble was eliminated by very strict orders from the war department.34

The equipment used on the southern roads came in most part from the north and was either bought or requisitioned. By the use of priority orders from Stanton, McCallum was able to secure a large share of the output of northern shops.35 To supplement the material bought, cars and engines were commandeered from the northern roads, particularly from those in the west.36 These conditions brought cars and engines from all roads into the south, a situation hitherto unknown. One of the  p133 chief difficulties in using this rolling stock was the varying gauge of the southern roads. McCallum very ingeniously solved this problem by having some of the cars made with adjustable tracks so that they could be used on roads of different gauges.

For the repair of damaged cars and engines numerous machine shops were constructed in the south at such railroad centers as Nashville, Chattanooga, Stevenson, Huntsville, Knoxville, Memphis, and Columbus.37 The most unusual project, however, was the building of a large rolling mill at Chattanooga, principally for the rerolling of damaged rails. The mill was authorized on February 17, 1864, and was completed by April 1, 1865, at a cost of $290,000.38 Although the venture came too late to be of any assistance in the war, the mill ran long enough to prove that under government operation rails could be rerolled at a smaller cost than that of similar work in the north. Quite justly, the mill, together with its products, was disposed of at auction at the end of the war for $440,000,39 leaving a profit of $150,000, or fifty per cent on a year's investment.

Railroad operation always followed the main movements of the army; consequently Virginia and Tennessee offered the greatest fields for railroad construction and operation. Almost with the opening of the war, railroads were taken over as essential parts of the campaigns in both these districts and varying amounts of line were operated continuously during the war. In general, the railways were torn up by the retreating confederates and bridges and stations were burned. As fast as the union army occupied new territory, the railroads had to be reconstructed and opened for use, and they were always subject to constant guerrilla raids. Frequently the army was driven back and the line was lost, which made necessary a second rebuilding after the next advance. Some lines were rebuilt in this way as many as six or seven times; especially was this true of those in Virginia, where the same ground was fought over so many times.40

Possibly the best method of showing the actual work accomplished  p134 by the railroad department and the speed with which it worked is to follow some single line through the war. The line from Nashville to Atlanta, composed of the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad and the Western and Atlantic railroad, formed the backbone of the movement to Atlanta; and because it was reconstructed at a time when the department had arrived at its highest state of efficiency, it may be used to show how the work was done.

In the Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Buell campaign of 1863 the road was opened as far as Stevenson, but it was lost when Buell retreated in the late fall.41 It was recaptured by Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Rosecrans late in 1863 and was rebuilt to Chattanooga, all the material and rolling stock being obtained from the north.42 When McCallum took charge in February, 1864, there were 151 miles of road in operation, which were used to furnish all the supplies of the army in the field. The line consisted of a single track of light 7 U rails on wooden stringers, laid on an unballasted mud road, and wrecks were consequently frequent.43 McCallum at once set to work to relay the track with iron and to put in sidings. Within a month the road was able to supply more provisions than were needed. To get sufficient rolling stock, McCallum secure a requisition from Stanton giving him priority rights to the output of northern factories;44 and in order to free the line for military traffic, he secured an order from General Sherman prohibiting all civil use.45

During the summer of 1864 occasional guerrilla raids took place, the most important being those of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wheeler, who destroyed seven miles of road between Nashville and Murfreesboro on September 1, and of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood, who destroyed seven and three-fourths miles at about the same place in December.46 Both breaks were repaired so rapidly that there was practically no interruption of traffic.

In March, 1864, the advance started from Chattanooga.47 The task of the railroad department was to keep open the line from  p135 Nashville to Chattanooga and to construct the road from Chattanooga forward as fast as the army advanced, both duties being absolutely essential because of the dependence of the army on the railroad for supplies. As a matter of fact, the railroad construction followed the army so closely that at one time the construction crew was within sight of the battle, while at another time it was delayed because a bridge which the confederates had fired was still burning. The day after Sherman entered Atlanta, trains arrived there from Chattanooga. Some of the best work of the construction crew was done in bridge-building. The bridge over the Etowah river, 600 feet long and 67 feet high, was finished in five days, and Chattahoochee bridge, 780 feet long and 92 feet high, was completed in four and one-half days.48

During the fall of 1864 Sherman outfitted his army at Atlanta in preparation for the march to the sea, and consequently it was of prime importance that the railroad connection should remain good.49 At the same time the confederates sought in every way possible to cut off Sherman's supplies. The most extensive of the raids having this object was the one by Hood, who destroyed 35½ miles of track, 455 feet of bridges, and all supplies, railroad iron, and ties which the construction crew had collected, to say nothing of killing some of the crew itself. In spite of the fact that the track had to be brought from Nashville and the ties cut from trees along the road, the gap was closed and trains were running within seven and one-half days.50 When Sherman left Atlanta on November 12, 1864, the whole railroad as far as Dalton was taken up and the track was carried to Nashville. Then, in July, 1865, the road was entirely rebuilt by order of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas and 66 miles of track and 3,553 feet of bridges were constructed.51

During the entire war about 2,600 miles of railroad were operated by the government, embracing some forty-five lines and including at least four roads which were built entirely by the government —  p136 the Brazos, Santiago, and Rio Grande, of Texas, the Louisville City railroad, of Kentucky, the City Point and Army Line, of Virginia,52 and the St. Joseph's railroad, of Louisiana, not to mention the Nashville and Northwestern, which was incomplete at the outbreak of the war and which was finished by Andrew Johnson.53

The entire cost of military railways, as estimated by McCallum, was $30,000,000.54 This estimate makes allowance for all receipts from private freight and for stock sold at the end of the war, some of which was never paid for, and does not include some items such as soldier labor; consequently the figure is at best only an approximation. But no matter how many qualifications are made, it seems inescapably true that the expense was quite reasonable in consideration of the work done.

When the war was over the railroads were returned to their owners, that is, provided a loyal board of directors had been chosen. The railroad companies were not charged for any repairs made on the roads and the United States was not to be responsible for any damage done, as it was thought that the one item would usually about balance the other. Each railroad was allowed to have all the equipment that it could identify as its own.55

Very naturally, the southern railroads immediately after the war were weak financially and it was a question whether many of them could collect enough equipment and rolling stock to operate. To alleviate this condition the president, by executive order of August 8, 1865, extended on October 14,56 gave the southern railroads the right to purchase necessary stock from the supply on hand in the government railway department on a two-year credit and at a price fixed by a board of appraisers. In spite of the fact that this solution did not work out as well as expected, there can be no doubt that this government action was  p137 the only thing that saved the southern railroads from complete ruin in 1865.

Very unfortunately, the appraised prices of stock were estimated at a time when prices were at their highest point, and, accordingly, when the two-year credit period was over a great many of the southern railroads found themselves unable to pay and felt aggrieved at the abnormally high prices that they had been charged. Added to this condition were the facts that some of the articles had been obviously overvalued and that several of the people in charge had given the railroads to understand that no payment would ever be insisted upon.57 These factors eventually induced congress to lessen the amount of the debts incurred,58 and in some cases even this reduced amount was never paid.

Look at from any point of view, the government operation of southern railroads during the civil war is an interesting study. In a military way it furnished an object lesson which the world has never forgotten; from an administrative point of view the gradual growth and unification of the department is a nice bit of constitutional history; and from a practical point of view the results accomplished were highly creditable to all concerned. By the end of the war McCallum had built up an organization that was administratively sound and able to perform feats of railroad building before considered impossible. The American railroad journal says that "one of the most extraordinary examples of the skill of our American Railway Engineers was given recently in the construction of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. . . . The Atlantic and Great Western Engineers . . . and those of the Union Pacific Eastern Division . . . must acknowledge themselves second to Col. McCallum and Mr. Anderson."59 Undoubtedly the results achieved were partly due to Secretary of War Stanton, but the man  p138 whose administrative ability was chiefly responsible for the work was Daniel C. McCallum.60

R. E. Riegel

University of Wisconsin

The Author's Notes:

1 The first chapter of Edwin A. Pratt, The rise of rail-power in war and conquest, 1833‑1914 (London, 1915), gives the best general account of the early use of railroads for war purposes.

2 House executive documents, 26 congress, 1 session, no. 206, pp126‑139; reprinted ibid., 37 congress, 2 session, no. 92, pp180‑184.

3 Ibid., 196.

4 House executive documents, 37 congress, 2 session, no. 92, p196.

5 American railroad journal, vol. 17.

6 Henry M. Flint, The railroads of the United States; their history and statistics (Philadelphia, 1868), 50, 51.

7 Charles W. Ramsdell, "The confederate government and the railroads," in the American historical review, 22:797.

8 Ibid., 796. Lee tried to close the Petersburg gap at various times during the war, but he was never successful. The confederate government finally closed the Selma and Danville gaps.

9 The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the union and confederate armies (Washington, 1880‑1901), series 1, vol. 5, p919.

10 Ibid., series 3, vol. 1, p228.

11 Ibid., pp674, 675.

12 Compare these conditions with the conditions in the south as described in Ramsdell, "The confederate government and the railroads," in the American historical review, 22:794‑810.

13 Congressional globe, 37 congress, 2 session, 506‑555.

14 Ibid., 304, 305.

15 International encyclopedia.

16 Rebellion records, series 1, vol. 16, p301.

17 Ibid., vol. 12, p274.

18 Reminiscences of General Herman Haupt ([Milwaukee], 1901).

19 Ibid., 53, 135. At these two places in his reminiscences Haupt mentions the conflict in power. On May 26 and September 2, 1862, he made complaints to Stanton.

20 Haupt, Reminiscences, 261‑264.

21 Diary of Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy under Lincoln and Johnson (New York, 1911), 1:511.

22 Haupt, Reminiscences, 264.

23 Andrew Johnson to Stanton, in Rebellion records, series 1, vol. 31, part 3, p14; C. A. Dana to Stanton, ibid., vol. 31, part 2, p61; Grant to Halleck, ibid., vol. 32, part 2, p172. Besides being charged with inefficiency, Anderson was accused of favoring the Louisville and Nashville railroad.

24 Rebellion records, series 1, vol. 31, part 3, p444; series 3, vol. 5, p981.

25 Ibid., series 1, vol. 32, pp143‑145.

26 Rebellion records, series 1, vol. 32, p329.

27 House executive documents, 39 congress, 2 session, no. 1, vol. 3, pp272, 273.

28 Ibid., 274, 275.

29 Rebellion records, series 3, vol. 5, p1000.

30 Ibid., 969; House executive documents, 39 congress, 1 session, no. 1, part 1, p18; Haupt, Reminiscences, 47, 64.

31 House executive documents, 38 congress, 2 session, no. 83, p137; ibid., 37 congress, 3 session, no. 1, vol. 4, p79; Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (New York, 1875), 2:400.

32 Rebellion records, series 3, vol. 5, p949.

33 For the number of men employed, see House executive documents, 39 congress, 2 session, no. 1, part 1, p210.

34 Rebellion records, series 1, vol. 12, part 3, p598.

35 Ibid., series 3, vol. 5, p985.

36 Sherman, Memoirs, 2:11.

37 Rebellion records, series 3, vol. 4, p965.

38 Ibid.

39 House executive documents, 39 congress, 1 session, no. 1, vol. 3, part 1, p31.

40 The Orange and Alexandria railroad of Virginia furnishes a good example of a road that was being continually destroyed and rebuilt.

41 Rebellion records, series 1, vol. 16, part 1, p298.

42 Ibid., vol. 32, part 2, p131.

43 Ibid., series 3, vol. 5, p982.

44 Ibid., 985.

45 Sherman, Memoirs, 2:10.

46 Rebellion records, series 3, vol. 5, p987.

47 Ibid., 951.

48 Rebellion records, series 3, vol. 5, pp591, 592.

49 The Sherman letters. Correspondence between General and Senator Sherman from 1837 to 1891, edited by Rachel Sherman Thorndike (New York, 1894), 236.

50 Rebellion records, series 3, vol. 5, p952.

51 Sherman, Memoirs, 2:152, 171; House executive documents, 39 congress, 1 session, no. 1, vol. 4, part 1, p22.

52 The operation of this road, which ran up to the most advanced line, was the closest parallel to the operation of railroads in the recent war.

53 Rebellion records, series 3, vol. 3, p910; ibid., series 1, vol. 31, part 1, p728.

54 Ibid., series 3, vol. 5, p1004.

55 Carl R. Fish, The restoration of the southern railroads (Madison, 1919), gives an excellent account of the return of these roads.

56 House executive documents, 39 congress, 1 session, no. 155, pp417, 418.

57 For testimony of representatives of the southern railroads and of United States officials on this point, see House reports, 39 congress, 2 session, no. 34; ibid., 45 congress, 2 session, no. 909; House executive documents, 39 congress, 1 session, no. 155; ibid., 40 congress, 2 session, no. 73; Senate executive documents, 44 congress, 1 session, no. 57.

58 United States, Statutes at large, 16:473, 18:335, 19:402.

59 American railroad journal, 17:1170. The Anderson referred to here is not the J. B. Anderson who was mentioned on page 129, ante.

60 For contemporary estimates of McCallum, see Thomas to Grant, in Rebellion records, series 1, vol. 32, part 2, p89; J. L. Donaldson to Meigs, ibid., vol. 38, part 4, p10; report of Chief Quartermaster Ingalls, ibid., vol. 29, part 1, p227; Haupt, Reminiscences, 312; report of Quartermaster Meigs, in House executive documents, 29 congress, 1 session, no. 1, vol. 3, part 1, p105; report of Brigadier General L. B. Parsons, ibid., p227.

Page updated: 8 Dec 10