Harnessing The Iron Horse For

When war erupted, both sides scrambled to turn the disjointed private rail networks into viable military transportation systems. Both governments were aided by the fact that many of their senior commanders had been railroad men before the war (graduates of West Point, especially to the Corps of Engineers, were highly sought-after), but were impeded by the fact that many corrupt politicians owned railroad companies. To a large extent the railroad companies retained their autonomy and kept their civilian employees while assisting the military; however, in January 1862 the US Congress passed the Railways and Telegraph Act, giving President Lincoln sweeping powers over all railroads in the United States. Under this Act the government could requisition for military use any line and any piece of railroad or telegraph equipment in the country, and could impress any railroad or telegraph employee for service in a war zone.

The following month Lincoln appointed Daniel C. McCallum as military director of railroads, in charge of the newly created United States Military Railroads. While financially dependent on the Quartermaster General, McCallum, a former supervisor on the New York & Erie Railroad, had control of the daily operations of his department. During the course of the war the USMRR would buy, build or capture 419 locomotives and 6,330 cars in addition to the rolling stock already requisitioned from Northern railroads. The USMRR built their own line connecting Washington DC with Alexandria, Virginia, as well as a line extending from City Point to the siege

Brigadier General Herman Haupt, the technical brains behind the USMRR, photographed while making a typically hands-on personal inspection, here by means of a raft with inflated rubber floats. Among his many other innovations Haupt put together a series of photographs and written instructions demonstrating how to twist rails, blow bridges, and repair them; he circulated copies among Union commanders, who sometimes took the credit for the results achieved by using Haupt's ideas. (LC)

A wartime plan of a fairly rare iron boxcar design. While most carriers were using wooden boxcars before and during the war the B & O experimented with an iron model, and their shops built 104 of these during the course of the war. They were originally used to haul barrels of flour, but as the demands of the US Army increased they were pressed into general freight service. (Courtesy B&O Railroad Museum)

operations at Petersburg, Virginia. Altogether McCallum's department would eventually control more than 2,000 miles of mostly Southern track.

The real technical brains of the department were provided by Herman Haupt, serving under McCallum as chief of the Construction Corps. Haupt had graduated from West Point in 1835, but almost immediately resigned his commission to pursue a successful career in railroading. He became a skilled and innovative civil engineer and architect, and he literally wrote the book on bridge construction. In April 1862, at the request of US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Haupt returned to the US Army in the rank of colonel and was later promoted to brigadier-general. Haupt's hands-on approach greatly improved USMRR operations, and he was quick to pass on his knowledge and expertise to his fellow officers.

South of the Mason-Dixon Line, Confederate railroaders were just as active. The Confederate government established a special department within the Quartermaster Bureau to deal with railroad concerns and to liaise between the central government, the private carriers and the various state governments. Eventually known as the Railroad Bureau, it went through several chiefs during its existence, including William A. Ashe, William M. Wadley, and Frederick W. Sims. All three men had held senior positions with railroad companies, and each would have made great improvements to the efficiency of the Southern rail network if he had only been granted the power to do so, but all were hampered by Southern political attitudes. Southern states typically mistrusted a powerful central government and wanted to keep decision-making closer to home. President Jefferson Davis' administration tried several times to pass a bill comparable to that which had given Lincoln total military control over the Northern railroads, but the Confederate Congress absolutely rejected this until it was far too late to have any benefit - such a bill was finally passed in late February 1865, only weeks before Robert E. Lee would surrender at Appomattox.

During the war some lines were recognized as strategically vital while others, through damage or merely due to location, were effectively useless.

Robert Lee SteamerUsmrr Stock Car

On one occasion Ashe, under direct orders from Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, set out to borrow or seize six locomotives and 70 boxcars from the state-owned Western & Atlantic Railroad of Georgia in order to move freight out of eastern Tennessee. Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown was so incensed that he threatened to send Georgia troops to fight any Confederate officials interfering with his cars or engines; Secretary Benjamin had to rescind his order, and valuable government freight remained bottled up in Tennessee.

On another occasion, the Confederate government wanted to construct a line connecting Florida with Georgia; Florida was a major beef supplier for the Confederate Army and the government needed a swifter means of moving loads out of the state. The Railroad Bureau suffered from a shortage of rail iron; the Federal blockade made it difficult to obtain from Britain, and the Confederate Navy took 1,100 tons of rails for use on their ironclad ships. Old lines had to be cannibalized to build new tracks; the Florida Railroad had already suffered damage, and with inadequate rolling stock it was less important than the new connecting line. Despite this pressing military need David L. Yulee, president of the Florida Railroad, refused to cooperate (although the army took his rails anyway).

Despite the lack of labor and materials, and the difficulties with state and local officials and private companies, the Confederate government managed to build numerous connecting lines along some critical state borders and even within city centers. The South also managed to repair damaged rolling stock, kept essential lines running, and captured quantities of equipment and materials (including rails) from the North. Many of the military innovations on Confederate railroads came at the insistence of Gen Robert E. Lee.

This photograph of a Civil War-era B & O iron boxcar was taken in 1927; the company restored several cars while preparing for their centennial celebration. The sliding doors are missing, giving a good view of the inner doors. Note the brakeman's hand wheel and ladder. Several boxcars and coal cars of Civil War vintage can still be seen today at the B & 0 Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD. (Courtesy B & 0 Railroad Museum)

Railroading Scenes

A USMRR locomotive and tender at a watering station at City Point. Even in this wartime scene the luster of the metalworkon the jacket and even the domes is clearly visible; someone has taken the time to polish this army workhorse. A 4-4-0 locomotive cost about $ 10,000 - an important sum. The two men in the foreground are sitting on an upturned pole car. Note the fairly haphazard spacing of the crossties (sleepers) of the track in the foreground. (LC)


By the 1850s-60s locomotives were highly decorated, and the engines and tenders built specifically for the military were no exception; the staid gray and black colorschemes often seen after the Civil War would have been a novelty in the 1860s. From the fireman earning a dollar a day to the company president, railroad men were proud of their machines, and celebrated their pride by decorating engines with paintings of pastoral scenes, Greek gods and goddesses, city architecture and, of course, portraits - of railroad men, generals and wartime politicians. Like ships, captured engines were usually renamed to reflect their new owner's patriotism. Bright paint and varnish adorned the locomotives, set off by arrays of polished brass and copper. While boiler jackets often went unpainted, workers would polish the iron to a shine. Some felt that the metal finery was a waste of money, but brass did last longer than iron (which soon rusted, despite protective paint), and a shiny engine was easier to see in dark, rainy conditions, which made it safer. Economics would eventually win out over aesthetics; for example, the Philadelphia & Reading spent $285 a day paying employees to polish more than 400 engines, so by the end of the century brightly polished engines were a thing of the past. The American type 4-4-0 engine and tender seen here was named after Brevet BrigGen Daniel C. McCallum, military director of the US Military Railroads.


This experimental armored Union engine utilizes 3/sin iron plate to protect the cab and some of the working parts. The armor was designed to resist bullets but not artillery fire; according to an 1863 article in the Scientific American, "they would stay the progress of a shell no better than so much brown paper." Small arms fire was unlikely to pierce both the iron jacket and the wood insulation between the jacket and the boiler itself, but could puncture the water tank in the tender, and here a shell has punched through the thin metal of the smokestack. Some period photographs show locomotives completely wrecked by artillery fire.


The Army of the Cumberland enjoyed excellent railroad equipment and service; this engine pulled one of the three hospital trains operating in 1864. Major General George Thomas, the army commander, allowed his senior medical director, Dr George Cooper, to choose the best locomotives and cars available to serve as hospital trains. Their smokestacks, cabs and tenders were painted a bright scarlet to prevent Confederates from shooting at them, and at night they ran with three red lanterns suspended from the headlamp. The boiler jacket is shown in a popular finish, unpainted but highly polished "Russian gray." (These are not exactly scaled engineering drawings. All the locomotives illustrated were approximately 41 feet long, plus about 19 feet for the tender, and the smokestacks rose to about 19 feet above the track.)

Jon Davis Locomotive DrawingsMason General HauptIron Horse Centennial 1927

The busy City Point railroad yard, where Federal matériel could be transferred efficiently between supply vessels on the James River and the troops in the trenches around Petersburg, VA. Trains and horse-teams coming and going on the riverbank, and the transport ships bringing in rolling stock and supplies, are all visible in this view. The boxcars in the foreground appear well worn. (LC)

The busy City Point railroad yard, where Federal matériel could be transferred efficiently between supply vessels on the James River and the troops in the trenches around Petersburg, VA. Trains and horse-teams coming and going on the riverbank, and the transport ships bringing in rolling stock and supplies, are all visible in this view. The boxcars in the foreground appear well worn. (LC)

Although a lifelong soldier and not a railroad man before the war, Lee was quick to recognize the importance of speedy rail transportation; he had already used trains to rush US Marines to Harper's Ferry to put down John Brown's raid in October 1859. Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, and Lee accepted command of the Virginia forces six days later. Almost immediately he called for the defense of threatened railroads in northern Virginia, but within weeks Lee judged the Orange & Alexandria and the Manassas Gap lines hopeless; he ordered the evacuation of important equipment and managed to save most of their locomotives and cars.

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