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Railroad’s Critical Role in the Civil War

6/12/2006 • America's Civil War, Battle Of Hampton Roads, Civil War Cannon, Civil War Guns

The Civil War is renowned for the introduction and employment of many new weapons, including rifled artillery, machine guns and submarines. To this list should also be added railroad weapons, which were the predecessors of modern armored fighting vehicles.

During the war, railroads were second only to waterways in providing logistical support for the armies. They were also vital to the economies of the divided nation. A great deal has been written about railroads in the war, and in particular the spectacular engineering feats of the U.S. Military Railroads’ Construction Corps under Herman Haupt. But strangely, the tactical employment of locomotives and rolling stock, which was actually quite widespread, has thus far escaped serious attention.

Large military forces were, of course, the worst danger to railroads. Because they supplied the units that were on campaign, railroads were often major objectives–an army without supplies cannot operate for long. Since the only sure way to deal with large-scale threats was with a force of similar size, armies often stayed near the railroad tracks. While armies campaigned, locomotives and rolling stock provided logistical support, and some also performed tactical missions. These missions included close combat, especially when the situation was fluid or when the railroad provided a convenient avenue of approach to an opponent.

In such situations, commanders sometimes sent locomotives to reconnoiter the terrain and gain information on enemy troop dispositions. While this may seem like a risky venture, gathering information was often worth the risk, and lone locomotives could quickly reverse direction and move as fast as 60 mph, far faster than pursuing cavalry. With such great mobility, locomotives were also useful as courier vehicles when commanders had to rush vital intelligence to headquarters. This communications service was an important advantage in a war where raiders frequently cut or tapped telegraph lines.

Useful as they were for tactical and logistical support, locomotives were vulnerable to derailments and sharpshooters, who might perforate a boiler or a crewman. Federal officers accordingly inspected rails and armored some of their engines against small-arms fire. Unfortunately, their crews found that the armor trapped too much heat inside the cabs and limited egress if there was an accident. This was an important consideration, since a ruptured boiler could scald a crew in their iron cab like lobsters in a pot. This grisly prospect encouraged many crewmen to take their chances by jumping from the cab in the event of a derailment. An eventual compromise included applying armor to some parts of the cab and installing small oval windows, thus reducing the chances of a sharpshooter’s bullet penetrating the glass, while still affording adequate visibility for the crew.

In special situations, locomotives served as rams. Troops might start a locomotive down a track with a full head of steam to damage an enemy train or railroad facilities, or to attack troops. On one occasion, Confederate soldiers lurking near a burned bridge suddenly saw a burning ammunition train hurtling straight toward them, forcing them to skeddadle. Troops sometimes launched individual cars, also set ablaze, against opponents, or used them to burn bridges. The potential for such railborne threats prompted commanders to build obstructions on the tracks.

Freight trains might also deceive an enemy. A train might run back and forth into an area, tricking scouts into reporting that the enemy was reinforcing his position, when in fact he was leaving. One Federal ruse involved sending a deserted train down the tracks to entice masked Confederate artillery into firing, thereby revealing their location to counterfire.

While trains might serve as artillery bait, they could also transport heavy guns to the battlefield. Commanders took this idea a step further during the war by mounting heavy artillery pieces, which were very cumbersome to maneuver in the field, on flatcars for combat operations. Locomotives or manpower propelled these railroad batteries, dispensing with the horses that normally were the prime movers for the guns and eliminating the need to hitch or unhitch the gun from the horse team. This enabled a battery to fire on the move, a significant advantage over its horse-drawn counterparts.

To protect railroad batteries against counterfire, builders mounted thick iron and wooden shields on the flatcars at a 45-degree angle to deflect enemy projectiles. Batteries fired through the shields’ embrasures and then recoiled along the length of the cars, arrested by ropes. The crews then reloaded the weapons and pushed them back into battery position.

Not all railroad batteries had armor protection. Some relied on mobility, covered firing positions, and firing during periods of low visibility to limit their exposure to enemy artillery. Other railroad batteries relied on their superior range to batter opposing forces from afar. With such capabilities, railroad artillery was appropriate for siege and harassment operations as well as head-to-head encounters between armies.

As an army advanced, it often had to rebuild railroads that the fleeing enemy had destroyed. Construction trains, forerunners of modern engineer corps vehicles, thus became indispensable to military operations. These trains required armed protection, and infantrymen and cavalrymen often accompanied them.

Also useful in railroad warfare were armed trains, which, as their name implies, carried combat-ready troops and, at times, artillery. Their march order, or sequence of cars, is noteworthy. The locomotive was placed in the train’s center, where it received some protection from the train’s cars and its own tender. Generally speaking, flatcars–sometimes laden with troops and artillery–rode at the train’s ends to provide the best fields of fire. Passenger cars or boxcars might ride between the flatcars and the locomotive.

Armed trains performed several missions. In some instances they doubled as construction trains. They also patrolled tracks, conducted reconnaissance missions, and escorted supply trains. Individual armed cars also accompanied supply trains, usually coupled to the front of a locomotive. On one occasion, armed Federals in mufti stole a Confederate train and wreaked havoc on the line. Meanwhile, another Federal armed train, only recently commandeered from the Confederates, carried a conventional force through Confederate territory to rendezvous with the renegade train.

Some armed trains carried sandbags or another form of shielding for the troops on board, but this was not always the case. In the first few months of the Civil War, troops disdained cover, since they were accustomed to tactics best suited for the smoothbore musket. They considered cowering behind cover during combat to be less than manly.

As the war progressed and the lethality of rifled muskets became all too evident, soldiers’ attitudes changed toward using cover in combat. Naval events at Hampton Roads, Va., which included a duel between the ironclad vessels Monitor and Merrimack, convincingly illustrated the efficiency of iron plating in stopping projectiles. Shortly thereafter, ‘monitor fever’ swept the nation as ironclad enthusiasts lobbied for the construction of a huge ironclad fleet. Army officers also caught this fever, and ironclad railroad cars soon appeared across the nation. Fittingly, troops called them railroad monitors, to honor the Federal vessel that inspired the fever.

The first railroad monitors resembled iron boxcars. Light artillery pieces were fired from hatches cut in the hull. Small-arms apertures cut in the sides allowed infantrymen to supplement the fire of the main guns. The car’s armor was only thick enough to withstand small-arms fire, however, so commanders generally relegated the boxcar-shaped monitors to areas known to be infested with partisans.

Railroad monitors carried several infantrymen. However, firing artillery and muskets from within the cramped confines of a railroad car must have been confusing and dangerous. Ultimately, monitors carried riflemen with repeating rifles inside the car, which had an artillery piece mounted on the top of the car that commanded all sides of the train. This arrangement separated the infantry from the artillery while substantially increasing fire- power, but at least one unimpressed reporter referred to it as a ‘hermaphrodite.’

Another means of segregating the infantry from the artillery was the rifle car. Rifle cars resembled ordinary boxcars, but their shielding was placed inside the cars. Musket apertures on all sides offered their crews wide fields of fire for small arms. Like the artillery-bearing railroad monitors, rifle cars could guard key railroad features, protect repairmen, supervise railroad guards and escort supply trains. Just as rifle monitors foreshadowed modern tanks, rifle cars were early versions of infantry fighting vehicles.

Along with rifle cars came a new type of railroad monitor that used thick, sloped iron casemates that could deflect light artillery projectiles–an important capability when Confederate horse artillery lurked nearby. These new railroad monitors resembled elongated pyramids and were the same shape as casemated ironclad vessels (turrets were not used with the light artillery on railroad monitors, though armored railroad cars in subsequent conflicts did use turrets). With their thick armor and cannons, these railroad monitors were similar to modern tanks.

Rifle cars and monitors coupled to a locomotive formed an ironclad (or armored) train. A simple ironclad train consisted of a locomotive and a railroad monitor. Optimally, however, an ironclad train employed a number of cars in a specific sequence as had the armed trains. A railroad monitor rode at each end of the train. Coupled to these were rifle cars, with the locomotive and tender positioned in the middle. This march order distributed firepower evenly, provided mutually supporting small-arms and artillery fire, and afforded the locomotive some protection. Not all ironclad trains had the same number of cars, but this efficacious march order became the ideal for armored trains subsequently used by many nations. Indeed, modern armored forces today use a similar combined-arms approach of mutually supporting firepower, although the vehicles operate independently rather than being coupled together in units, and, of course, are not limited to the rails.

While armor might protect rolling stock from projectiles, explosive devices planted in the roadbed posed serious threats to trains of all types. These torpedoes (known today as mines) included simple artillery shells with percussion fuses as well as specially constructed pressure-detonated contrivances filled with gunpowder. When buried in the roadbed under a crosstie, torpedoes could be detonated by a passing train. Some torpedoes, especially those using artillery shells, lifted locomotives completely from the tracks and shattered freight cars.

Because of the many hazards that might be present on the tracks, some Federal locomotives pushed loaded flatcars over the rails to inspect the tracks or to detonate torpedoes before the valuable locomotive passed over them. These flatcars, known today as control cars, pusher cars or monitor cars (not to be confused with railroad monitors), also protected locomotives from rams.

Another method of preventing attacks on Federal trains was to put hostages with Confederate sympathies on the trains. Some Federal commanders even issued draconian decrees threatening to deport local inhabitants or destroy their farms if depredations occurred on local railroads.

Belligerents also used other vehicles on the railroads. Handcars–small but utilitarian vehicles–were used to inspect rails, transport important personnel and evacuate the wounded. They also helped troops escape superior forces and reconnoiter in fluid tactical situations. In this role they were far more stealthy than locomotives, although they lacked a locomotive’s speed and protective cab. Some handcars were large enough to transport several men, including guards, and were a valuable mode of transport if a locomotive was unavailable. In one instance, a large handcar carried a 10-pounder Parrott gun to duel with a much larger Confederate railroad battery.

Since operable locomotives were at a premium during the war, it was not always economical to use them on missions for which a smaller vehicle would suffice. The Federals therefore applied off-the-shelf technology to warfare, using recently developed steam passenger cars (self-propelled railroad coaches) to inspect the tracks and deliver pay to isolated posts. On such missions, the cars carried some interior armor that protected the steam engine as well as the crew, making the steam passenger cars forerunners of self-propelled armored railroad cars or, as the Russians called them, railroad cruisers. These heavily armed railroad cars proved good substitutes for armored trains, since several cars were not dependent on a single locomotive for mobility.

Civil War railroad operations were characterized by the widespread use of locomotives and rolling stock to support armies tactically as well as logistically. Americans set precedents for a variety of modern armored fighting vehicles, including armored railroad cars, armored trains, railroad batteries and other railroad weapons. Moreover, tanks, armored personnel carriers, engineer vehicles and self-propelled artillery can also claim American railroad weapons as their conceptual ancestors.


This article was written by Alan R. Koenig and originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.

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