Moving The Infantry

Under ideal track conditions a steam locomotive could reach speeds in excess of 60mph, though such conditions hardly ever existed on American railroads. Normal peacetime operating speeds were between 15 and 25mph, and under wartime conditions - with track and rolling stock receiving poor maintenance, and with an ever-present threat of enemy sabotage - trains in the embattled South ran as slowly as 6mph on some lines. Even so, trains could still deliver in a matter of hours the troops and supplies that would normally take days to arrive by wagon and on foot. Troops disembarking from a train were also more rested and battle-ready than their comrades coming off a long road march. In spite of the worsening track conditions, dilapidated equipment, varying gauges, and unconnected lines, field commanders still pulled off some spectacular troop movements.

First Manassas and the Valley Campaign

A famous example of rail movement altering the course of a battle came early, at First Manassas on July 21, 1861. General P.G.T. Beauregard's outnumbered Confederates were falling back until elements of Joseph E. Johnston's army helped to check and then rout the Union forces. Johnston, stationed in the Shenandoah Valley, loaded his men onto cars of the Manassas Gap Railroad and sent them east over the Blue Ridge Mountains to support Beauregard. Early on July 18 "Stonewall" Jackson's brigade led the way to the station at Piedmont for the 34-mile rail journey to Manassas Junction, followed by those of BrigGens Bartow and Bee. When Jackson reached Piedmont at 6am on July 19 only one train was available, but another was commandeered on the 20th. All three brigades had been shuttled east by the time the battle opened early on the 21st, and the arrival late that afternoon of E. Kirby Smith's 2,000 men was finally decisive.

Nearly a year later, "Stonewall" Jackson used both fast marching and trains to confuse and then defeat three separate Union armies during his Shenandoah Valley Campaign. In early May 1862 he marched his "foot cavalry" out of the Valley to Mechum's River Station on the Virginia Central line, loaded his men onto the cars and sent them straight back into the Valley, to the surprise of everyone including his own officers.

Moving the infantry: MajGen Christopher Augur's Federal troops waiting to catch a ride back to their camp at Upton's Hill, VA. These heavily laden troops are not burdened with military equipment but rather with loot from local homes. The reclining soldiers beyond the drummer-boy, left background, seem to be resting on a railroad pole car. (LC)

Civil War Drummer Boys Pictures

A variety of vessels were used by the North to transport rolling stock to various military districts along the waterways. Here, two barges are carrying eight loaded USMRR boxcars to Aquia Creek Landing. (LC)

The Peninsula and North Carolina

If trains brought troops to battle, sometimes the troops brought the trains. While MajGen George B. McClellan was busy landing his 105,000-man army on the Virginia Peninsula in March 1862, he ordered the USMRR to load five locomotives and 80 cars aboard ships and have them placed on standby in Baltimore harbor. McClellan (formerly chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, and president of the Ohio & Mississippi) planned to use the existing lines in Virginia for his advance on Richmond and, anticipating that the Confederates would pull back their trains ahead of him, he knew he would need his own. In late May, with the Peninsular campaign well under way, McClellan landed the first of his engines and cars at White House Landing, where - after making repairs - he could utilize the Richmond & York River Railroad. In June a sixth engine completed his inventory, all these being purchased from Northern companies. When McClellan retreated at the close of his unsuccessful invasion, he left behind all the engines and cars in a damaged condition.

Coordinating with McClellan's threat on Richmond, MajGen Ambrose Burnside (a former colleague of McClellan's with the Illinois Central) launched a landing on the North Carolina mainland at New Berne. On March 14 his ground troops and gunboats pounded New Berne's unfinished defenses; after a stiff fight the North Carolinians fell back to the city, where they boarded cars and retreated by rail to Kinston. Thereafter Burnside's problem proved not to be getting into New Berne, but getting out. Like McClellan, he planned to use the local rail system but, unlike McClellan, he

Kinston Railroad

did not enjoy the full cooperation of the War Department. The Atlantic & North Carolina line stretched from Morehead City south of New Berne to Goldsborough, and his superiors urged Burnside to move on Goldsborough. Although he had the troops to stab further inland he lacked the transportation to supply them; storms at Hatteras had killed so many of his horses that he only had enough left for 20 or 25 wagons. For three months he begged the War Department to send him locomotives and cars (though his amphibious troops did bring along some handcars, which proved useful in unloading supplies.) In June 1862 the War Department finally managed to ship Burnside four locomotives and 50 cars from Baltimore, but two of these engines went to the bottom when a schooner sank in a gale at Hatteras Inlet. They were replaced, and Burnside also received another 50 cars.


Some of the war's largest troop movements by rail centered on the fighting around Chattanooga. Anticipating a Federal attack on eastern Tennessee in June 1862, Gen Braxton Bragg, commanding the Army of the Mississippi, decided to rush his troops to Chattanooga to support E. Kirby Smith's men who were coming down from Knoxville. From there they planned to make thrusts into Kentucky and disrupt Federal communications, but first they had to secure Chattanooga before Union MajGen Don Carlos Buell could forestall them. The only available rail route between Bragg's headquarters in Tupelo, MS, and Chattanooga involved a circuitous ride south to Mobile, then north and east via Atlanta. Bragg, not ready to commit his entire army to the rickety rails, sent one division first as a test; six days later 3,000 Confederates steamed safely into Chattanooga, and Bragg was convinced. In late July he ordered the artillery, supply wagons, engineers, and cavalry to move overland, while his infantrymen were issued seven days' cooked rations and placed aboard the trains. The regiments' departure was staggered to prevent major loss from any single disaster, and in the event they arrived without a snag. In all, Bragg had moved 25,000 men 776 miles by rail, using six different carriers.

Chickamauga and its aftermath

During the campaigning the following summer, Bragg abandoned the "Gateway City" while he danced around Union MajGen William S. Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland. Bragg called for reinforcements; in early September, Gen Lee felt he could spare James Longstreet for the time being, so the First Corps (minus Pickett's division, so badly mauled at Gettysburg two months earlier) prepared to detach from the Army of Northern Virginia and ride the rails. The first elements of nine infantry brigades and an artillery battalion - at least 12,000 men - left on September 9, 1863; some boarded trains as far away as Orange Court House, while others marched to Richmond or Petersburg to catch a ride. To relieve rail congestion the Railroad Bureau broke up the corps, sending several brigades to the Georgia-Tennessee border via Wilmington; others went through Charlotte, and 1,200 men went as far south as Savannah. Sixteen different railroads participated in the movement, and by September 18-19 around half of Longstreet's infantry had arrived, just in time to help Bragg hammer Rosecrans at the battle of Chickamauga. The artillery, bringing up the rear, puffed into Ringgold Station near Chattanooga on September 25 after an 843-mile trek; some of the infantry units had traveled well over 900

Map Route Battle Chickamauga

A view of Burnside's Wharf, built while Ambrose Burnside was commanding the Army of the Potomac. Situated a mile and a half from Aquia Creek Landing, the wharf was connected to the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, and could offload both trains and wagons. (LC)

harrowing miles on cheap Southern tracks that had never been intended for such heavy work. In the words of Longstreet's aide-de-camp, Gilbert Moxley Sorrel: "Never before were so many troops moved over such worn-out railways, none first-class from the beginning. Never before were such crazy cars - passenger, baggage, mail, coal, box, platform, all and every sort wobbling on the jumping strap-iron - used for hauling good soldiers."

Rosecrans fell back to Chattanooga while the Confederates occupied the surrounding high ground. Using their cavalry, they were able to smash incoming Union supply convoys. With the Tennessee River at his back and Bragg's army to his front Rosecrans was trapped, and his men literally faced starvation. Following the example of their adversaries, the War Department in Washington decided to launch its own grandiose troop movement to save the battered Army of the Cumberland. George Gordon Meade, then commanding the Army of the Potomac, was ordered to give up two corps for detached duty. He selected two of his least prized formations for this relief force - the largely German XI Corps, which had also been badly chewed up at Gettysburg, and XII Corps - and his least popular subordinate to command them: "Fighting Joe" Hooker, who was detested by some of his fellow officers. Popular or not, they would prove their worth. On September 25 the first elements steamed out of Washington, and within 11 days the trains had dropped ten batteries of light artillery, a hundred carloads of war supplies and 20,000 troops within striking distance of Chattanooga. Meanwhile, a second relief force got under way from Vicksburg. On October 3 some 17,000 Federals under the command of William T. Sherman boarded steamers and headed up the Mississippi River

A view of Burnside's Wharf, built while Ambrose Burnside was commanding the Army of the Potomac. Situated a mile and a half from Aquia Creek Landing, the wharf was connected to the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, and could offload both trains and wagons. (LC)

to Memphis, where they climbed onto cars on the Memphis &c Charleston line. Unlike their comrades in the XI and XII Corps, who rode on slightly better equipment and took a slightly safer route, Sherman's men were riding on a severely war-damaged Southern line which had to be repaired along the way, and it took them six weeks to reach their destination.

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