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Railroad's Critical Role in the Civil War

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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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.



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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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30 Responses to “Railroad's Critical Role in the Civil War”


  1. 1
    Lt Col Steve Shaffer, USAF (Ret) says:

    Very interesting article – thoroughly enjoyed. Request any info re the intended use of a "monitor" railroad car at the battle of New Bern, NC, 14 Mar 1862. Thank you.

  2. 2
    LTC Alan R. Koenig, USAR (Ret) says:

    Steve, Thanks for your kind words on my article, which I wrote from my doctoral dissertation at UNL (Lincoln). Have published "Mars Gets New Chariots" and will soon publish "Ironclads on Rails: America's First Armored Fighting Vehicles," which covers the New Berne operations in no little detail. "Burnside's Monitor" was not yet in operation by mid-March 1862, but it appears that it was by May of that year, and it soldiered on for at least two years if not more. If you don't want to wait for the book to come out, get in touch with me for more info. Aim High!

    Al Koenig (Kaynig)
    Hector, MN

  3. 3
    LTC Alan R. Koenig, USAR (Ret) says:

    PS "Burnside's Monitor" included a heavy artillery piece in a heavily armored car in front and a "Railroad Monitor," basically an armored, light artillery boxcar with riflemen coupled behind for close-in protection. It scouted almost to Kinston during the summer of 1862 and then the Confederates ripped up the tracks from Batchelder's Creek back to Kinston. At least the RR Monitor continued to serve to escort trains and to delay a Confederate attack in early Feb. 1864. Confederates had one or two "RR Merrimacks" at Kinston, but Yanks knocked one out with artillery and apparently captured it or another in Dec 1862 during a raid/offensive. They burned the car before retiring to New Berne. So, "Burnside's Monitor" served in an armored recon role, it's car in escort duty, and for armored support during a fair-sized battle. Similar situations occurred on the B & O, and one monitor in the West had a revolving turret. I'm guessing the Feds had about a dozen or so RR Monitors and a few RR batteries, but the Confederates focused more on RR batteries.

    out,

    Al Koenig

  4. 4
    Steve Shaffer says:

    During my research about the Battle of New Bern, I discovered a description of “a fort on wheels” described by Colonel Bolton in his journal entry for 15 March describing the participation of the 51st Pennsylvania Regiment in the Battle of New Bern:
    “On our rounds we found a fort on wheels. An eight wheel car truck on which was mounted a gun, the sides of the platform having been iron plated with loop-holes inserted at intervals for the use of muskets. We found out from the prisoners that the intention was to run it down the track about sunrise [of 14 March] the morning before (as the 51st bivouacked along the railroad that night) and give us a surprise, but we were all too early for them and they never had a chance to put it into use.” (Dr. Richard A. Sauers, Editor, The Civil War Journal of Colonel William J. Bolton, 51st Pennsylvania, April 20, 1861 – August 2, 1865, Combined Publishing, PA, 2000, p. 51)
    I have NOT been able to prove this sighting nor discovered any supporting evidence that such a "monitor car" was present in New Bern at the time of the battle and was intended by the Confederates to employ same against the attcking Union forces. A colleague here would like to generate local interest in producing a full-scale model of a monitor car as he opines that it may well have been manufactured here. The rail yard was very well-equipped, etc. Regards. Steve

  5. 5
    Katie says:

    Your article was very much enjoyed! The Civil War era is a favorite of mine and am intrigued by your writing style, your knowledge as well as your humility! Kudos!

  6. 6
    EJ Nash says:

    I'm looking forward to your book. Please fell free to use any useful info from my website on the subject:
    http://www.firstmdus.net/Rail%20cars.htm
    Just give me and my sources credit.

  7. 7
    Steve Shaffer says:

    Lt Col Koenig –

    Not wanting to wait until the your book comes, I wish that you
    will forward to me those materials as you stated above.

    I recently found a map the legend of which reflected 4X32 pdrs on
    platform cars located proximal to the rail yards of New Bern. This
    map prepared by a Union topo officer on the Confederate defenses
    at New Bern.

    Steve Shaffer
    Lt Col, USAF (Ret)

  8. 8
    LTC Alan R. Koenig, USAR (Ret) says:

    Steve,

    I've been quite busy farming and teaching lately and haven't returned to the site. Please email me at alkoenig@yahoo.com so I can forward the materials I have on New Berne RR cars to you. I have always hoped someone would make a replica of such a "Monitor" or "Merrimack" car and I think people would enjoy visiting it.

    I had not heard of an armored Confederate RR car being ready to attack the Federals at New Berne in March 1862 but of course they had them at Kinston so it seems quite plausible, if not likely, that the source you uncovered is valid. Thus, it may well be that "Burnside's Monitor" was actually captured from the Confederates. BTW, I do have a copy of a sketch of it that a Massachusetts soldier prepared. I'm a little surprised to see that one of the sketches claimed the car had 32-pdr guns, but if they fired along the length of the car it should have been fine. Not sure they could have safely fired to the side however.

    I'm glad to see a website with pics of Civil War RR ironclads. I had seen the pictures there before and I do address them in "Ironclads on Rails." If I weren't so busy it'd already be published, I like to think. Incidentally, one of my graduate students, Rick Pitts, is writing a thesis on BG Benjamin Kelley, who defended the B & O RR and used ironclad trains and cars to do so.

    Looking forward to fielding your email!

    Al Koenig

  9. 9
    John Binder says:

    Alan:

    Enjoyed your article. A question: Do you know of any statements/quotes by prominent men of the North or South before the war saying that the North possessed a military advantage because its railroads? Certainly the South was aware of the North's greater population and industrial power in general.

    Thanks,

    John Binder

  10. 10
    Mike says:

    Good Job, in the article it helped me a lot in My research. Thanks!

  11. 11
    Nick G. says:

    Very well written piece! Great for an 8th graders report on the use of railraods logically and tactically in the cival war! This is enough info to write a best seller onm "Railroads' Use in the Cival War"! Great research, too! Awesome!

  12. 12
    matt says:

    this really helped me on my project thanks!

  13. 13
    paul says:

    I really enjoyed the review. awwwesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. 14
    Alan R. Koenig says:

    All.

    Thanks again for your positive comments. At the moment, I'm busy documenting hundreds of veterans from the Hector, Buffalo Lake, Stewart, Minnesota area but I'm hoping to get back to my second book, "Ironclads on Rails," before too long. I'm amazed at the exploits and the numbers of veterans eastern Renville county produced.

    Happy Groundhogs day!

    Al

    • 14.1
      Lisa says:

      Hello, I have read your article and I would like to first say thank you because you helped me form a good thesis for a paper I am writing for my Study of History class I'm taking in my senior year of College. I wanted to ask you if you have any other resources you can recommend for me on the railroad operation during the Civil War. I would greatly appreciate any advice or suggestions you have. Thank you for taking the time to assist me.

      Looking forward to your reply

      Lisa.
      Lmprice1383@gmail.com

  15. 15
    Joe Dirt says:

    who are the authors of the website? I'm doing a paper and i need to know for the bibliography..

    • 15.1
      Alan R. Koenig says:

      Hi Lisa,

      I'm guessing my reply may be too late but if not I'll at least cite '
      "Victory Rode the Rails" by ___ Tucker? Sorry, it's been a while.Let me know if you need more help.

      Joe, I believe the people that run the website are a corporation once known as Empire Press. I thought I heard they changed but I'm not sure. Check out their home page for more info. If you were asking about the author of the article, you'll find that info at the bottom of the article as opposed to the top. I believe the original article title was "Railroads did more than just move troops" but it came out in "America's Civil War" in August or September of 1996 as I was leaving for Bosnia. It was in the "weapons" department.

      Hope this helps.

      Alan R. Koenig

      • 15.1.1
        Lisa says:

        Hi, Thank you for your response and it's perfect timing. My senior thesis isn't due until May 17th. Thank you again. This helps. So far my paper sounds good and I will look up this book. I linked your article as one of my website's sources.

        Have a great day

        Lisa

  16. 16
    Colten Niergarth says:

    This is cool it helped me im in history right know and it helped you guys are great from the guy u love

  17. 17
    ZOO ZOO says:

    DID NOT HELP

    • 17.1
      Alan R. Koenig says:

      Zoo Zoo,

      Sorry to hear my article wasn't of use to you. Unfortunately, the title really does not fit the content, and yes, I've asked someone on the site to change it to something that reflects tactical roles of rolling stock and motive power. I suspect you may have been searching for an article on RR's logistical role, and plenty has been published on that in Civil War periodicals, but I'm not sure how many made it to the net. You may wish to consult Tucker's "Victory Rode the Rails," a quite "readable" book that draws from various scholarly sources to describe how railroads influenced military operations from start to finish.

      Hope this helps,

      Alan R. Koenig

      • 17.1.1
        Alan R. Koenig says:

        Correction. the author's name of "Victory rode the Rails" was George Edgar Turner. Sorry for my error!

  18. 18
  19. 19
    bow says:

    thx helped a lot

  20. 20

    [...] Railroad's Critical Role in the Civil War [...]

  21. 21
    Ian Schwenke says:

    Thanks for the great article. I enjoyed much new information about the firepower that could be stored on these trains. However i feel as if there is a huge section that could be added about Medical and Recourse transport, and so on.
    Excellent description of the armor and relation to the Merrimack, but i feel the article is narrow sighted to only a certain aspect of Railroads use during the Civil War.

  22. 22


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