Railroads became commercially viable in the United States in the 1840s. The building of railroads greatly accelerated during the next decade as they provided the large-scale movement of goods necessary for the Industrial Revolution. By the start of the American Civil War, the American rail system was the largest in the world, with 30,000 miles of track. At the beginning of the war, there were 9,000 miles of track in the South as compared to the 21,000 miles in the North. The South had one-third of the freight cars, one-fifth of the locomotives, one-tenth of the telegraph stations, and one-twenty-fourth of locomotive production of the North. Judging the relative strength of the Northern and Southern rail systems by these numbers alone, however, can be misleading. The Confederacy’s white population of 5.5 million was only 22 percent of the Union’s 18.5 million. The South also compared favorably in the number of people living within fifteen miles, or a day’s journey, of a railroad. In addition, most of the railroads in the Northeastern states were built in the 1840s, while those in the South were built in the 1850s, making the Southern railroad system newer.
Compared to railroads of today, railroads in both the North and South were primitive and dangerous in 1861. Rails were made of iron, not steel, which became brittle and had to be replaced frequently. Some older tracks were made of wood topped with a thin layer of iron. Most tracks were laid out on the ground without gravel ballast, making the tracks unstable and trains subject to frequent derailments. Trains were slow, with freight trains averaging fifteen miles per hour and passenger trains twenty miles per hour. Rail journeys were further slowed by the need to stop frequently for wood and water for the locomotives. The concept of a coordinated rail system did not exist. Each railroad company was a separate entity and different companies used different track gauges—the width between the rails. Tracks of different gauges could not be connected, and each required different size locomotives and cars. Even where tracks were of the same gauge, fierce competition and rivalry between railroads meant that they often did not connect their lines. For instance, at the start of the Civil War, five different rail lines served the city of Richmond, one of the South’s major railroad hubs, and none were connected. Passengers and freight going from one line to another had to be unloaded, moved across the city, and then reloaded.
Virginia Railroads in 1861
Virginia had the most extensive rail system in the South in 1861, with seventeen rail lines. As in the rest of the South, most of the lines were relatively short, having been designed primarily to move market goods such as cotton to ports. The longest, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, was only 204 miles long; most lines were less than one hundred miles long. They were also of varying gauges and rarely connected to one another. These problems were not unique to Virginia. In 1861, rail lines in the North had tracks of thirteen different gauges, but the North had the industrial capacity to deal with the problem. The South’s laissez-faire ideology toward business and the resulting reluctance to take control of the numerous railroad companies would be a major handicap to the Confederate war effort.
Railroads transformed the way wars were fought and played a significant role in the Civil War. They made large and rapid troop movements possible. More important, they provided the vast logistical support necessary to maintain large armies in the field, which allowed the combatants to fight massive battles and inflict unprecedented slaughter. Most of the major campaigning in Virginia would occur between Washington and Richmond, and it was the location of strategic railroad lines, junctions, and depots that determined where many battles were fought.
Virginia Railroads during the War
The scramble for control of Virginia’s railroads began almost immediately with the commencement of hostilities. The day after Virginia ratified its Virginia Central Railroad. It, along with the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad that ran from Washington to Richmond, were critical links to the Confederate capital. Each became the object of numerous campaigns, and sections of each were destroyed and rebuilt throughout the war. Another smaller railroad, the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire, ran west from Alexandria to Leesburg., on May 24, 1861, Union troops moved into the city of Alexandria, a strategic railroad hub located just south of Washington, D.C., that housed the terminus of two rail lines. One, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, ran south to Gordonsville, about twenty miles northeast of , and connected to Richmond by way of the
In early 1862, the United States Military Railroad (USMR) was created by the U.S. War Department to seize and run railroads in occupied areas to move troops and supplies for the war effort. The USMR was headquartered at the Orange and Alexandria Railroad depot in Alexandria. Herman Haupt, a civil engineer who had been the chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was appointed by Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war, to construct and operate military railroads, beginning with the critical lines in Virginia. Haupt quickly became known for rebuilding bridges and track almost as fast as Confederate troops could destroy them. In the spring of 1862, he rebuilt a Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad bridge over Potomac Creek in Stafford County, the destruction of which by Confederate troops had stranded 40,000 Union troops, in nine days, working with a largely untrained crew. President Abraham Lincoln reported with amazement that Haupt had “built a bridge four hundred feet long and eight feet high, across Potomac Creek, on which loaded trains are passing every hour” out of nothing but “cornstalks and beanpoles.” Haupt would be credited with revolutionizing military transport during the war, giving the North an incalculable edge.
Any doubt about the value of railroads in war ended with the first battle of the Civil War. Thewas fought over Manassas Junction, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad met the , which ran west from Manassas over the Blue Ridge to Mount Jackson in the , providing a critical link between the Valley and northern Virginia. On July 16, 1861, Union general Irvin McDowell marched from Washington, D.C., with 35,000 troops, expecting an easy victory over Confederate general and his Army of the Potomac with 21,000 men. But Confederate general was able to move the 11,000-man Army of the Shenandoah to Manassas via the Manassas Gap Railroad, arriving just in time to unite his troops with Beauregard’s and rout the Union forces. It marked the first time in history that troops had been moved to a battlefield by train.
Other Virginia railroads played important roles in the Civil War. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ran across the northern boundary of Virginia. It was the main line for bringing troops and supplies to Washington from the Midwest. It was also vital to the North to keep control of the disaffected western counties of Virginia that would . Located on this line was the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, an early target of the Confederacy.
The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad ran through Southwest Virginia from Bristol to, where it connected with lines to Richmond. Southwest Virginia produced two-thirds of the Confederacy’s salt and one-third of its lead, critical supplies that were transported over the Virginia and Tennessee.
The Virginia Central ran from Richmond, through Valley Campaign, Confederate general would move troops by rail only once.to Jackson River (now Clifton Forge). The line passed through the mountains at Rockfish Gap by way of the Crozet Tunnel, a 4,273-foot engineering marvel built by . The railroad was critical to the movement of Confederate troops and supplies between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley and remained largely under Confederate control throughout the war. There was, however, no railroad running the length of the Shenandoah Valley. During his
The South Side Railroad cut across Virginia’s Piedmont region, running from Petersburg to Lynchburg. It crossed the Appomattox River over an engineering marvel known as High Bridge that was 2,400 feet long and 160 feet high. It was a vital supply route in southern Virginia during the war.
The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad connected the two cities in its name and was critical to Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s ability to shift troops between the cities to parry Union advances. The ran between those cities and ended near the North Carolina border. It was an essential supply line for the Confederacy and also used by Confederate president as his escape route when he fled Richmond near the end of the war.
The Decline of Virginia’s Railroads and the Final Campaign
By 1864, the Southern railroads, including those in Virginia, were in a state of collapse. Although tracks and trains had been destroyed by advancing Union forces, the main cause of the decline of Southern railroads was the lack of resources necessary to maintain rail lines and equipment coming under heavy and continual use. At the beginning of the war, the Confederate War Department estimated that it would take 49,500 tons of new rails each year to maintain the South’s railroad system. But no rails were produced in the South during the war, and the Northern blockade made it impossible to import materials from overseas. Instead, replacement rails were cannibalized from lesser-used lines. Similarly, locomotives on the Southern lines couldn’t be repaired due to a lack of materials and skilled mechanics. By the end of 1863, nearly half of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad’s forty locomotives were out of commission.
In late 1864, when Confederate general Robert Hoke was ordered to move his men forty-eight miles by the Piedmont Railroad, which connected Danville to Greensborough, North Carolina, his soldiers soon discovered they could march the distance quicker than traveling by the dilapidated rail line.
In Virginia, the central campaign of 1864 was the contest between Union general Ulysses S. Grant and Lee. Grant realized that the key to taking Richmond was through Petersburg, twenty miles to the south, because Lee’s army was dependent on railroads coming into Petersburg for supplies. All rail lines to Richmond from the south came through Petersburg except for the Richmond and Danville Railroad (which connected Danville to Greensborough over the Piedmont Railroad). In June, Grant began a , with both sides building extensive trenches and fortifications. In August 1864, Union forces were victorious in the . With this victory, the Union was able to take control of the Petersburg Railroad, which ran south to Weldon, North Carolina, and gave the Confederates access to Wilmington, North Carolina, the last unblockaded southern port. This left the South Side Railroad as the only line left to supply Petersburg.
The stalemate was broken in late March 1865, when Union general Philip H. Sheridan and his forces moved west to cut the South Side Railroad. They defeated the Confederates at theand took the railroad. The next day, Grant ordered massive attacks that broke the Confederate line. Without railroads to supply his army, Lee could not keep his soldiers in their trenches defending Petersburg and had to retreat.
High Bridge and the Civil War
With all rail lines to Petersburg severed, Richmond was cut off from the rest of the South and had to be abandoned. Lee planned to retreat to North Carolina, where he could join forces with General Joseph Johnston, by following the Richmond and Danville Railroad to North Carolina. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was widely spread out and was to rendezvous at Amelia Courthouse, where they hoped to find rations delivered by train. There were no rations at Amelia Courthouse, and the Confederates spent a day trying to scavenge for food. The delay gave Union troops under Sheridan time to block the Richmond and Danville Railroad. The Confederates were forced to turn west, generally following the South Side Railroad. The last Confederate victory in Virginia occurred at , located near Farmville, where Confederate forces temporarily stopped a Union attempt to take the bridge.
The exhausted Confederates were nearly starved from a lack of rations. On the last day of the war, Lee’s men were near the village of Appomattox Court House, attempting to reach supplies delivered from Lynchburg to a nearby depot. The Confederates found themselves blocked and trapped by an overwhelming Union force. General Lee had no choice but to surrender.