I am willing to do all that I can do,” Confederate railroad man F. W. Sims wrote in February 1862, “but to improve transportation without men and materials is the requisition of the Egyptian taskmaster. Give me the men and you shall see advantages from them. Refuse and I can promise nothing.”
Military transportation problems dogged President Jefferson Davis’ Rebel armies throughout the Civil War. Although the South had shorter interior railroad lines than the North, its armies had to deal with a lack of connecting lines between major routes, which often slowed their movement considerably. Nor could Confederate generals count on much help from the ill-fated Confederate Railroad Bureau, Davis or the South’s myriad private rail companies, which refused either to contribute iron or support new military transport projects that benefited rivals. Other industries simply had other priorities, such as arms production.
Unable to advance many new rail projects (the Confederacy laid 400 miles of track during the war—one-tenth of Union rail construction), the government in Richmond loosed swarms of raiders on encroaching Federal transportation, derailing trains, blasting locomotives and wrapping Union rails around trees. Ultimately, however, the monstrous Northern system outmatched a problem-riddled Confederate department where, as one official wrote, the “iron was wanted more than anything else but men.”
The disparate collection of Civil War railroad men included virtually any man working to keep troops and supplies rolling by rail—conductors, firemen, mechanics, engineers, foremen and gangs of workmen armed with hammers, spikes, spades, augers, saws, explosives and any other gear their tasks required. They were converted soldiers, engineers, skilled civilian volunteers, “contrabands” (former or runaway slaves) and, in the South, slaves. Their duties ranged from digging railroad cuts, grading and laying rail beds and building and repairing bridges to clearing tracks of derailed or wrecked trains, destroying bridges and enemy rail lines and salvaging iron rails twisted out of shape by enemy raiders.
It was often hazardous work. As if driving spikes atop an 80-foot-high, skeleton-like wooden bridge no more than 5 feet wide—or carefully guiding the first engine over that shaky height—wasn’t stressful enough, railroad men (especially Union crews in hostile territory) had to work fast, lest enemy guerrillas or cavalry drive in their guard detail and end their work prematurely. Danger coupled with military necessity drove workmen to unbelievable feats, such as building the spidery 400-foot-long, 90-foot-high Potomac Creek Bridge near Fredericksburg, which was thrown up by Federal crews in just nine days.
Driving trains was no less risky, and conductors undertook their missions with courage and verve. “No. 6 train, engine Secretary, was fired into by a party of Secesh cavalry, some say about 500 strong,” one officer reported in August 1862. “Ties were piled on track, but engine took good run at them and scattered them from track. Engine well riddled by bullets.” Incidents such as this eventually compelled Union railroad men to buttress their engines with armor plating.
The Union held a massive advantage not only in engines, cars and iron production, but also in manpower, leadership and organization. Smaller and less-skilled construction corps were already toiling ahead of Federal troops when President Abraham Lincoln established the United States Military Railroad (USMRR) in January 1862, with Daniel C. McCallum at its head. Central to this powerful new unit’s mission was the efficient USMRR Construction Corps—a well-oiled machine driven by railroad lifer Herman Haupt, who had resigned his Army commission to pursue railroad engineering just three months after his 1835 graduation from West Point. Haupt organized a disciplined corps that eventually grew to several thousand men. His increasingly well-trained repair crews worked on permanent 24-hour call, always ready to dash to the latest trouble spot. Union railroad men particularly made their mark in Georgia, turning miles of Southern track into iron pretzels while undoing the destruction wrought by retreating Confederates at an astonishing rate.
Generally, the work done by these men— often under fire—drew little recognition. But Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman spoke for many of his high-ranking colleagues, and to all railroad men, when he paid this tribute to his own rail crews in 1864: “I am convinced that the risk of life to the engineers and men on that railroad fully equaled that on the skirmish line, called for as high an order of courage and fully equaled it in importance.”
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.