Wrecking The Railroads

Although both sides took advantage of the train's vulnerable dependence on rails, the damage inflicted on roadways and rolling stock was not always easy to accomplish, and nor could it deny their use permanently.

The simplest method of slowing a train was placing heavy obstructions on the track. Removing a small section of rail also caused delays, but once spotted these gaps were not difficult to repair. Both sides learned to tear up long sections of track, pile up the wooden ties, place the rails across the top, then set the ties on fire to soften and bend the iron. This was temporarily effective, but the rails could often be reheated, straightened out, and spiked back into place. Not far from Corinth, MS, BrigGen S. B. Maxey suspected that Federal cavalry troopers were attempting to destroy a section of track. He sent an engine to investigate, but it did not return. When Maxey's troops arrived they found the engine driven off the tracks but unharmed. They extinguished the fire on the railroad bridge, pulled the rails off a second fire, and had everything back in order in less than a day.

In late June 1864, Federal troops under BrigGen James H. Wilson attacked three different railroad lines around Petersburg, destroying rolling stock, tracks and infrastructure. Although they ripped up fully 60 miles of track. Confederate construction crews quickly replaced it. (LC)

Tactics PetersburgBending Railroad

Heated rails were also bent around trees, resulting in the famous "Sherman hairpins," but this method took hours; the iron required a great deal of heat before it became pliable, and anyway it could still be restraightened. The most effective way to damage a rail in the field was not by bending but by twisting it, after which it would have to be taken back to a mill for re-rolling. The ever-ingenious Herman Haupt carried out experiments at his base of operations in Alexandria, VA; one of his subordinates discovered a quick and simple technique for turning a T-rail into a corkscrew within minutes, using a pair of horseshoe-shaped hooks, a wooden lever, a rope, and six able-bodied men.

Wooden bridges presented obvious targets, but they were still difficult to smash; Ambrose Burnside complained that after he had spent $3,000 on destroying one bridge it was still not thoroughly wrecked. (In the early 1860s high explosives were experimental and extremely dangerous; Alfred Nobel did not patent his dynamite until 1867, so Civil War soldiers relied on black powder.) Simple burning also worked, so long as the fire had time to weaken the structure sufficiently. Artillery fire sometimes proved effective; in 1863 a Confederate gun placed at right angles to an iron bridge near Cumberland, MD, brought the massive beams crashing down after 11 shots. During the Atlanta campaign a Confederate brigadier noted in his report that he would have destroyed a bridge with his artillery but he could not justify the expenditure of ammunition. Bridge destruction often fell to the cavalry, and the lack thereof left many bridges intact; a Confederate officer in Mississippi complained that he could not destroy the bridges in his sector as ordered: "Reason, no cavalry."

Brigadier General Haupt developed a cheap and portable system whereby

Members of the USMRR Construction Corps demonstrating how to twist rails using hooks and levers. Notice that the men working under the supervisor in civilian dress are black laborers, not white soldiers detailed for the job, so this photograph was taken after BrigGen Haupt had established his permanent workforce. During the war, Northerners typically referred to all black people, free or slave, as "contrabands." Note also the passenger cars in the background. (LC)

Herman	Haupt Truss

A Federal captain assembling one of Haupt's "bridge torpedoes"; and a crew demonstrating how to drill into a bridge structure and then tap the pipe-charge into the hole. Two torpedoes, one in each main brace of a panel, would bring down a Howe truss bridge, but an arch bridge needed four. Haupt suggested that two men bore holes at the same time to speed the process. (LC)

one man carrying everything he needed in his pockets could bring down a bridge in minutes. He designed a special "torpedo" (the period term for any enclosed charge) made from an Bin-long iron cylinder filled with powder and capped at both ends. Using an auger, the demolition man would drill a hole in a main support beam at one side and at one end of the bridge, insert the pipe-bomb, and light its 2ft fuse before getting to safety. Without the support beam the bridge's own weight would pull the remaining structure down.

Any locomotives and cars facing capture had to be destroyed if time and circumstances permitted, and while wooden cars burned readily enough sabotaging locomotives permanently was another matter. The cab and delicate moving parts destroyed by fire could be replaced, and, Haupt noted, to truly take out an engine one had to wreck the boiler. Early American locomotives had featured softer copper or brass boiler tubes, but by I B60 iron tubes were preferred, and these were quite fire-resistant. In 1861, after "Stonewall" Jackson burned 42 B & O locomotives and tenders and over 300 cars at Martinsburg, his lieutenants selected eight of the engines to be repaired for service on Southern lines. (Lacking a connecting line up and down the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson's men had to drag the burnt locomotives, along with six other engines, overland by horse teams.) During the fighting at Corinth, ¡MS, an assistant superintendent of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad evacuated seven trains loaded with various government stores out of the city. When he discovered that all the bridges had been burned and his trains were trapped he ordered his engineers to run their engines off the track and dismantle them as far as possible, while the conductors burned the cars and cargoes. The engine crews smashed cylinder heads, pumps, links, valve stems, and eccentrics, removed the rods and buried all the parts in the swamp.

A Federal captain assembling one of Haupt's "bridge torpedoes"; and a crew demonstrating how to drill into a bridge structure and then tap the pipe-charge into the hole. Two torpedoes, one in each main brace of a panel, would bring down a Howe truss bridge, but an arch bridge needed four. Haupt suggested that two men bore holes at the same time to speed the process. (LC)

Sherman Atlanta Campaign Bent Rails
This man is re-straightening bent rails with a jackscrew. There was no universal specification, and "T-rail" track varied in weight from about 351b to 681b per yard. (LC)

The simplest way to derail an enemy train was simply to throw a switch (for British readers, "the points"), since guarding all of these was impossible. The unsuspecting crew would not know what had happened until it was too late; one conductor hauling Federal troops near Nashville claimed to have lost three engines that way. Loosening or removing just one small section of rail caused derailments, and saboteurs placed powder kegs or torpedoes under the tracks hoping to blow up a train. One Federal train leaving Saint Louis nearly experienced both of those scenarios. A powder keg exploded under the tender but did not cause any damage to the train or track; 40 cavalry troopers sent to scout ahead discovered rails missing at two different points. In November 1863 three shells were placed on a Baltimore & Ohio rail at the precise angle where the wheel of a passing train would detonate them. Two failed to explode, but the third tore up the headlight of an express train, blew out the glass in the passenger cars, dented the driving wheels, and smashed the foot board; one shell fragment was later found jutting from the boiler casing. One of the best methods of destroying an enemy train without drawing unwanted suspicion was to saw or burn through just enough of a bridge structure to ensure a collapse under the weight of a heavy load. Several trains met their fate on weakened bridges, killing both soldiers and railroad employees.

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    How did union soldiers corkscrew railroad tracks?
    8 years ago

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