Repairing The Railroads

Neither the North nor the South could spare the manpower to guard the thousands of contested rail miles against marauders bent on destruction.

Destroyed Portable Bridge

The weight limits of portable bridge trusses were tested under the supervision of their inventor, BrigGen Herman Haupt, head of the US Construction Corps, before they were deployed in the field. (LC)

Their only viable option was to rebuild bridges and repair rails as quickly as possible, and as the war progressed the construction crews of both sides became experts at fast and efficient repairs.

When Haupt first organized his Construction Corps his laborers were soldiers detailed from other units; many were unused to construction work of any kind, some were simply unwilling to work, and they were only detailed on a daily basis. It might take Haupt all day to get a gang of soldiers organized, only for a completely different bunch to arrive for duty the following morning. When he did manage to hold onto a group of soldiers for long enough to get a whole job done Haupt pulled off some impressive feats. His temporary crew built the 150ft Ackakeek bridge in 15 hours, and in nine days they completed the Potomac Creek bridge, a trestle work 400ft long and 80ft high. While laying new rails near Fredericksburg, Haupt declared that it was a "hard-looking track" since his untrained soldiers had cut the ties anything from 4in to 1ft in thickness, but it worked. As they neared Fredericksburg in May 1862 they found several torpedoes intentionally placed on the rails, so Haupt sent ahead an engine pushing a flatcar heavily loaded with scrap iron to detonate any remaining charges.

Haupt had mixed experiences with non-specialist labor. During the first battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, Burnside sent him 200 soldiers to help construct a bridge across the Rappahannock. When the fighting started all the soldiers ran away, but the civilian carpenters and their foremen stayed at their posts and worked on for several hours, only giving up when their pulleys, ropes, and timbers were cut to pieces by Confederate shells. Haupt wanted his own men; he preferred civilians; and in the summer of 1862

The weight limits of portable bridge trusses were tested under the supervision of their inventor, BrigGen Herman Haupt, head of the US Construction Corps, before they were deployed in the field. (LC)

he was grudgingly given his permanent Construction Corps. From the thousands of black refugees in Washington DC, Haupt selected the most willing and able he could find and organized them into squads of ten men each, with supervisors and foremen drawn from Army officers, NCOs and white civilians. His gangs became so adept that they built five bridges ranging from 60ft to 120ft in length in just one day. During the Gettysburg campaign they repaired all 19 bridges on the Northern Central in a matter of days, and while the battle was raging they were busy reconstructing the branch line between Gettysburg and Washington; less than a day after the battle ended Haupt had reopened communications with Washington.

Initially Haupt sent his crews into the forest to cut timber for the bridges, and had them haul the wood to the building site using 200 oxen with ox-

A crew from Haupt's US Construction Corps are seen here putting up a truss bridge over Bull Run In April 1863, after the previous bridge had become yet another casualty of war. (LC)

REPAIR TRAIN

In this imagined scenario, Union forces advancing into territory from which Confederate troops have retreated are faced with a cut telegraph line and a demolished bridge. The construction train - with a howitzer car pushed ahead of the locomotive - carries a load of Gen Haupt's prefabricated 60ft timber bridge trusses (inset 1); although the standard flatcar was around 32ft long, some were constructed to 65ft length to accommodate such loads. The first vehicle down the line is a handcar with a telegraph repair crew - a civilian specialist, accompanied by a couple of engineer soldiers, carrying tools and a spool of new wire to restring the cable. Large handcars

(inset 2) required four men to propel them by working the handles geared to the axles; since they were sent ahead to scout the line they often needed to be able to retreat at speed, and under the right conditions a handcar could outrun a horse. The construction train waits for the village at the river crossing to be reconnoitered for Confederate rearguards or a forgotten outpost, by infantry skirmishers disembarked from the train (inset 3) and by an accompanying troop of screening cavalry. If they run into serious opposition, the train can retreat back down the tracks.

A fortified railroad bridge over the Cumberland River near occupied Nashville, TN. A bridge with its own protected guardhouses and gate would deter local resistance or a small body of cavalry, but not troops with artillery support, or a "ram" - a runaway locomotive and burning cars. (LC)

A fortified railroad bridge over the Cumberland River near occupied Nashville, TN. A bridge with its own protected guardhouses and gate would deter local resistance or a small body of cavalry, but not troops with artillery support, or a "ram" - a runaway locomotive and burning cars. (LC)

chains and wheels. He later built a stockpile of 60ft trusses that could be loaded onto flatcars and, if necessary, pulled by the oxen and their drovers, jokingly referred to as "Haupt's horned cavalry." He also designed military truss bridges with interchangeable prefabricated parts that did not require pre-fitting in the shops. Using portable rail-straighteners in the field, Haupt's crews could repair several miles of bent (although not twisted) rail in a single day; those that were bent too far were set aside to save time until they could be taken back to a workshop or field facility where they could be reheated and hammered back into shape.

On the Confederate side, simply detailing soldiers to construction duty also brought mixed results. Lacking a separate construction corps, the

Confederate Railroad Bureau relied on the Engineer Bureau to repair bridges and tracks. From the beginning of hostilities the South relied on black crews to rebuild bridges and roadbeds since they were, to a large extent, the men who had been doing the construction work before the war. The number of black men - free or slave, hired or impressed - working with the South's army engineers dwarfed the numbers working for Haupt, and Gen Lee gave priority to repairing rail lines. The Engineer Bureau suffered from the same labor shortage as the rest of the Confederacy, and as late as February, 1865 - less than two months before Appomattox - the head of the bureau, J. F. Gilmer, told the government that he needed 29,000 more black men, not counting teamsters and cooks. (He might as well have asked for 29 million.)

What the military engineers and their black crews lacked in manpower they made up for in skill and efficiency. Carpenters and laborers shaped timber for prefabricated portable bridge spans in a large yard in Richmond, and similar preparations were made in other centers including Atlanta and Macon, GA. Official Confederate correspondence makes several references to "duplicate bridges;" this may have been simply another term for the prefabricated spans, but the reports certainly imply that the bridges and trestlework would be repaired and then an exactly sized duplicate would be made and kept in readiness for the next time that bridge was destroyed. During the Atlanta campaign LtGen John Bell Hood ordered his chief engineer to have bridge timbers ready for rebuilding all the spans between Atlanta and Tennessee, and also to build duplicate bridges for all the existing ones in the army's rear that were most likely to be put to the torch.

Not long before Sherman's destructive advance to Atlanta he paid a similar visit to northern Mississippi. Although Confederate trains steamed

Union Soldiers Gettysburg Site Org

Here Union troops are setting up a communications line during the battle of Fredericksburg. A signal telegraph machine inside the two-wheeled wagon is wired into the telegraph line, while two men run off additional wire from the heavy spool. (LC)

out of Meridian, MS, with millions of dollars' worth of government supplies and a good deal of their rolling stock, Sherman's forces still found plenty of immobile property to wreck. After he pulled back, the Confederate engineers and their crews came in and repaired all the damage along a 100-mile stretch of railroad in just over 25 days. After the fall of Atlanta, Sherman split his army, sending part of it to the sea and the other part back toward Hood's position, where they could rip up the railroads in northern Mississippi yet again; this time Confederate crews repaired 4 miles' worth of bridges and 10 miles of track in six days.

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