Engineering the Union's Victory

The first great collision of the Civil War that took place on the Plains of Manassas on July 21, 1861, demonstrated the importance of railroads for moving large numbers of men to strategic positions. But this battle, known as the First Battle of Bull Run, was also something of an improvised mess. Above: Authors Kurz & Allison, 1889. Source: United States Library of Congress.

The Manassas Gap Railroad was one of 11 railroad companies that operated approaches to Virginia's Manassas Junction. The line managed to bring many of Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston's men to the aid of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, whose own force of some 11,000 faced a Federal contingent of nearly 35,000 men. But vast numbers of Johnston's strength overwhelmed the capacity of the rail line, and other troops packed on railroad cars heading north from Richmond and Lynchburg fared little better amid hurriedly drawn plans.

Fortunately, the quality of Beauregard's forces and the concentrated infusion of crucial railroad-borne reinforcements prompted a sudden rout of inexperienced Federal troops and put an end to the fighting. The First Battle of Bull Run was a harbinger of America's first modern war—one in which technology and logistics combined with an insatiable consumption of food, supplies, and human lives.

The Civil War has been called a railroad war, one in which the use or destruction of rail facilities had a crucial impact. In some ways, the country was ready for it. In the decade leading up to the Civil War, America experienced a binge of railroad construction and by 1857 had built 24,500 rail miles—almost half of the world's 51,000-mile rail total.

But it was a crazy-quilt transportation network built by groups of competitive-minded entrepreneurs. Railroad lines frequently ended at a river's edge, partly because of the high cost of building bridges, but often because the road on the other side was controlled by a different company. Track gauges varied, sometimes because that was a convenient way for companies to prevent competitors from using their tracks. Union stations that could be used as connection points by different lines were rarities. Locomotives were hand-built or jerry-built, often by self-trained mechanics.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, Yankee territory was superior in the quality of rolling stock and right-of-way investment. On the eve of the war, the Southern states had no real trunk lines. Most "main-stem" lines in the South were less than 200 miles in length, and were often built to serve waterways or local trade. The longest line, the Mobile and Ohio that ran from Mobile, Ala., to Columbus, Ky., was only 469 miles and wasn't completed until after the war started.

Nonetheless, the need for rapid transportation was recognized early, especially by Union armies that had to advance over great distances. The sheer size of the assembled Confederate states was considered one of its major advantages—the capability to swallow an invading Army—and many thought this fact alone would result in ultimate success for the seceded states. The South, many thought, didn't have to win the war; it merely had to avoid losing it until the North grew weary and sued for peace.

Confederate Secretary of State George W. Randolph expressed this belief in a letter to his wife, predicting, "… They may overrun our frontier states and plunder our coast but, as for conquering us, the thing is impossibility. There is no instance in history of a people as numerous as we inhabiting a country so extensive as ours being subjugated if true to themselves."

The strategic value of railroad movements within the interior lines of the South was abundantly clear throughout the war. In July 1862, for example, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg shipped more than 31,000 troops from Tupelo, Miss., to Chattanooga, Tenn., in an effort that forced Union Gen. Don Carlos Buell to retreat, thereby saving eastern Tennessee for the Confederacy for another year.

But the Union had not only an advantage of quality and quantity—it also had organization. One of the most significant political events in 1862 was an act of Congress giving President Abraham Lincoln the authority to take possession of a railroad if he thought the war effort and the security of the country required it. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton quickly appointed D.C. McCallum to be director and superintendent of U.S. military railroads.

Lincoln and Stanton, both experienced railroad lawyers before going to Washington, wielded their new authority lightly, but it had the effect of pulling the numerous railroad entrepreneurs into line. An example was the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, which operated 286 miles in Kentucky and Tennessee. The L&N's president, James Guthrie, had bitterly opposed Lincoln's election in 1860 and was a Confederate sympathizer. But the Confederates had destroyed much of his railroad while being driven out of Kentucky, and Federal Army engineers stepped in quickly to make repairs. In short order, the L&N was serving Union interests.

The Confederate Congress also passed measures authorizing the national use of railroads, but neither CSA President Jefferson Davis nor the military officers he placed in charge of the carriers ever fully put them into effect. It was a mistake of near-fatal proportions, according to historians who have studied the role of railroads in the war.

Ironically, the generally accepted reason behind the inability of the Confederacy to coordinate its railroad system was the ideology that had brought the Confederacy into being—namely, the doctrines stemming from states' rights. Generations of Southerners had grown up opposing the yoke of federal authority and for them a logical example of local control was the railroads. Nearly every carrier stopped at a state line, or represented a county or municipal interest. In that sense, to impose central control was to betray the philosophy that had led to secession.

The Union, on the other hand, had Herman Haupt, perhaps the foremost railroad construction engineer in the world, with particular talents for inventing new building technologies. Brought into war service in 1862, Haupt endured early censure during the brief command of Gen. John Pope, but was soon heading the newly created Construction Corps. Haupt's unit was so efficient at repairing railroad damages wrought by Confederate raiders that its reputation began to act as a deterrent. Why risk riding hundreds of miles to damage a railroad line when it might be repaired before the raiders had returned to their camp? Indeed, during Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's Atlanta campaign near the end of the war Confederate soldiers were said to joke that Sherman carried spare train tunnels with him to replace the ones destroyed by the enemy.

As the war ground onward in blood and destruction, the Confederacy added to its transportation problems by conscripting many of the men who knew how to run its trains. With poor management and diminished man-power, Southern railroads declined in both maintenance and efficiency. Armies began to starve while food rotted elsewhere. Over time, Confederate armies became immobilized during a war of mobility. But the Confederacy almost prevailed—hanging on with such determination that Lincoln approached the election of 1964 convinced that he would be replaced and some sort of negotiated peace might become the objective of a new administration. But with the fall of Atlanta to Sherman's forces in September, the ultimate outcome of the war was assured and Lincoln's re-election was bolstered. In summing up the differences between Union and Confederate railroad transportation systems, historian John E. Clark Jr. sees a metaphor for the conduct of the war itself: Superbly led and tenaciously fought by the South; better managed by an inexorable North.

Comparing the respective railroad systems "shows clearly that the Union addressed its problems and solved them," Clark concludes. "The Confederacy in contrast ignored, tried to finesse, or mismanaged its problems. It was the Confederacy's war to win. It managed to lose it."

David Hawley is a contributing writer for the magazine.


The General—perhaps the most famous steam locomotive in the world—¬¬is on display at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Ga. It sits not far from where it was stolen on April 12, 1862, in what became known as "The Andrews Raid" or "The Great Locomotive Chase."

Among those who seized the wood-fired engine was Jacob Parrott, who became the first recipient of the newly created Medal of Honor, and Marion A. Ross, the first soldier to receive the award after his death. In all, 14 surviving Union soldiers who participated in the raid received the Medal of Honor, along with four soldiers who were awarded the medal posthumously after their executions by hanging.

The man who led the raid, a former quinine smuggler named James J. Andrews, did not qualify for the medal because he was a civilian. Essentially a Yankee spy, he was among eight members of the raiding party who were hanged.

The Andrews Raid has been characterized as an event that could have changed the course of history—and some suggest that if it had been successful it might have shortened the Civil War by years and saved untold thousands of lives; most historians believe this is speculation. There is no doubt, though, that the raid was daring, was carried off with panache, and was one of the great adventures of the Civil War.

The raid is also the story of an intrepid railroad employee, conductor William Allen Fuller, who dashed after the purloined train on foot, then by handcar, and finally aboard another engine and dogged the raiders so closely that they failed in their mission to burn bridges and destroy the line.

The raid was launched after Andrews convinced Gen. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel (called "Old Stars" by his men) that a secret raid in Georgia with a small party of some two dozen men might result in a situation that would starve the Confederate garrison at Chattanooga and open eastern Tennessee to the Union Army.

Dressed in civilian clothes, Andrews and 22 volunteers—mostly brash, bored, and untried Ohio boys hot for adventure—traveled in small groups into Georgia, where 20 of them boarded the northbound General on the Western & Atlantic line in Marietta, less than 25 miles north of Atlanta.

In Big Shanty, the scheduled stop for breakfast, they waited until Fuller and the crew were off the train and then seized the locomotive, tender, and three boxcars for a dash north. Some seven hours later, after delays were caused by unexpected traffic on the line, the chase ended just south of the Tennessee border. The raiders scattered as the General sat on the tracks out of wood and water. They all were hunted down and captured, though eight later escaped.

In the aftermath, the saga of The Great Locomotive Chase became legend. One of the raiders, William Pittenger, wrote four books and countless articles and provoked a bitter feud with other raiders who bjected to the ever-expanding way he described his role in the adventure. In the 1956 Walt Disney film about the raid, Pittenger's expanded role culminated in his being the first to receive the Medal of Honor instead of Parrott.

At the first Medal of Honor ceremony, six of the surviving raiders were offered commissions in the Army and all met President Lincoln. For his part, conductor Fuller received a Confederate commission. He survived the war and, perhaps as importantly, he survived the peace.

In 1882, some 20 years after the raid, Fuller corresponded with former raider Al Dorsey. With good-natured humor, he invited the former foe to visit, saying, "Next time you come to see me, don't be so awful hasty about your goodbye."

And he added with sincerity: "It is past now, and we all live in one great country common to us all. Let us give each to the other his just dues."—DH

Warrior Top Stories