American Civil War Railroad Tactics
by Robert R. Hodges Jr., Osprey Publishing
Railroads made their first decisive mark on warfare in 1849, when they expedited the movement of Russian forces to crush Hungary’s short-lived attempt to wrest an independent republic from Hapsburg Austria. Colonel Robert E. Lee made similar use of them to rush U.S. Marines from Washington to deal with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Further proof of the railroad’s worth was forthcoming in July 1861, when Confederate reinforcements were rushed by train from the Shenandoah Valley to Manassas within time to reinforce General P.G.T. Beauregard’s outnumbered army and hand the Union its first major setback of the Civil War.
Vitally important as the railroads had proved to be even before the war, their use during the conflict reflected the differences between the two warring sides. While the Union government swiftly took charge of mobilizing and eventually standardizing its patchwork of railroads to facilitate its Army’s operations, the Confederacy continued to try to make the most of an incompatible network that required passengers and equipment to be transferred from one line to the next at practically every terminus (five in Richmond, for example).
Not until February 1865, far too late to make a difference, did the Confederacy, at the urging of General Lee, take steps to assume national control of its rail lines. By that time it had just a few months left to exist.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.