The recent historiography of Civil War railroading

Brooks Simpson writes in The Civil War in the East (p12) that
In turn, the Confederates would always find their right flank vulnerable to waterborne movement; they would have a much better chance of turning back a drive into central Virginia that that depended on the rail lines for supply. [...] The best way to get at the Confederate capital was from the rear, either via the James River or by isolating it by severing rail lines southwards.
Note the equivalence between railroad and supply. This is part of a general shift in emphasis from troop transport to logistics in Civil War literature. With a few notable exceptions, like Edward Hagerman, in the 1980s and 1990s the better authors seemed enchanted by the strategic mobility aspect to the near total exclusion of the supply question: see for example Jones, Hattaway et al, and Rowena Reed. “Near total” is no exaggeration. The occasional nod to the supply function of railroads could not be more general (less rigorous, less analytical) and the railroad-as-supplier was, to reprise Hitchcock’s term, a “maguffin” - a contrivance that only serves to advance the plot.

Sometimes this maguffin took human shape in the person of Hermann Haupt. In the secondary literature, the Haupt “character” was always busy with engineering and administrative problems. In terms of ACW historiography, Haupt’s plot function was to overcome various challenges in order to enable battles (and thereby war-winning). In his own book, Haupt, a civil engineer, does not delve much more deeply into supply matters than this example: “At Monocacy I found about 200 loaded cars on the sidings, some of which had been standing nearly a week.” Enter the problem solver.

In 1997, the Army’s Combat Studies Institute published a paper* by Christopher R. Gabel, “Railroad Generaliship: Foundations of Civil War Strategy.” Any time spent with these 25-pages will be richly rewarded.
Obviously, a railroad train could carry more tons of cargo than a mule-drawn wagon, but this alone did not confer any logistical advantage, for one could make up the ... tonnage simply by adding more mules and wagons. The steam locomotive’s advantage resided in the fact that it could haul more supplies farther on a given amount of fuel...[emphasis in original]. ... six mules drawing a wagon carrying 1.5 tons of supplies could travel approximately 333 miles on one ton of fuel. [...] ... a Civil War-era freight locomotive could travel only 35 miles or so on a ton of fuel, but it’s payload could be as high as 150 tons, yielding 5,250 ton-miles per ton of fuel consumed.
He rates the six-mule wagon at 500 ton-miles per ton of fuel vs 5,250 for a 15-car train. (For those who are thinking “no fair,” 15 wagons would equal 15 cars: yes, but you are now talking 90 mules and 15 tons of fuel vs the locomotive’s one ton of fuel.)

Let me touch on a few more of the analytic highlights:
“Supplies hauled by rail were more likely to reach the troops in usable shape, owing both to the speed of delivery and to the shelter afforded by enclosed rail cars.”

“...the railroad increased enormously the geographical scale of military operations. An army supplied by railroad could operate effectively even when hundreds of miles from its main base of supply [...] enabling armies to conduct campaigns that would have been unthinkable with wagon-haul logistics. Railroads also permitted armies to become larger. In previous North American wars, armies of 30,000 taxed the limits of wagon-haul logistics and local requisition. ”

“... William T. Sherman waged an offensive campaign with an army of 100,000 men and 35,000 animals ... His supply line consisted of a single-track railroad extending 473 miles from Atlanta to his main supply base at Louisville. Sherman estimated that this rail line did the work of 36,800 wagons and 220,800 mules!”

“[Steam power ] seems also to have contributed to the prolongation of the Civil War by making it more difficult to wage decisive campaigns.” [Refers to railroads negating the advantage of interior lines.]

“Paradoxically, at the level of the individual field armies, railroads actually restricted maneuver.[**] Field armies tended to bunch up around their railheads. [...] Up to the railhead, supplies and reinforcements traveled on the industrial-age railroad. Beyond the railhead, transportation depended on muscle power. In other words, it was often easier to move troops and supplies hundreds of miles from the home front to the railhead than it was to move even a few miles beyond it. Like water in a dam, armies gathered in large, nearly unassailable masses around their railheads.”
To put this another way, beyond the ACW railhead looms the logistics of the War of 1812. Gabel gives this example: “By 1863, the Aquia Creek line averaged about 800 tons of supplies (eighty railroad cars) per day... To advance beyond Falmouth meant that the army would have to resort to wagon-haul by 400 to 800 wagons per day.” Gabel shows a bar chart with daily railroad deliveries to Falmouth: over 400 tons of forage, over 200 of commissary stores, almost 100 in quartermaster stores, and about 50 of mail and passengers. Rairoad supplies and ammo hover around 10 tons.

Two more points from Gabel:
“When defeated, an army supplied by rail often could be reinforced before the victor, traveling on muscle power, could exploit his success.”

“The general reliance on rail lines of communication, moreover, tended to channel offensive operations along clearly defined axes of advance.”
And finally, offensives of of rail lines could never be more than raids, since the offensive force could not be supplied adequately in forward positions.

For some readers, this may be ho-hum. Our understanding of railways in the ACW has advanced this far. For others, some of this material may be eye-opening.
Here is a roundup of some relevant titles for further reading.

Vital Rails by H. David Stone Jr. - This history of the Charleston & Savannah RR in the ACW is interesting in its depiction of the Lee/Pemberton team learning to become “railroad generals” in fighting Adm. Samuel DuPont and Gen. Tim Sherman. We have Lee in his “granny” phase directing an inflexible and determined field commander (Pemberton) reprising the kind of generalship that failed so dismally against McClellan in (West) Virginia. Their interactions with the railroad are fascinating and a microcosm of the South’s private railroads supporting a war effort through negotiated rates, limited availability, and set timetables.

The Railroads of the Confederacy by Robert C. Black III is a chatty tome with topical chapters drawn a little too broadly for my taste. What it lacks in analysis it supplies in odd details, although these have to be gathered like acorns. The map, “Principal Interstate Railroad Links,” is interesting. Another map, “Railroad Approaches to Manassas Junction” is similarly worth a few minutes study as is the table of Southern passenger schedules in 1860. The author reaches for color and interest and succeeds.

Victory Rode the Rails by George Edgar Turner is a well known title in this field. As good as this 1992 book is, as essential (even), I blame author Turner for some of the railroad misdirection that followed. The research here is superb on whatever specifically interests Turner. The Cameron stuff is not to be missed and the lowdown on Thomas Scott is very low down indeed. There is so much here that needs its own post. However, there is very little logistics or supply. This is a compilation of engineering, administrative, and military incidents (with a healthy dash of troop movements). Victory, I think, blazed a false trail for a lot of lazy, derivative authors. Nevertheless, it is not cited nearly enough and it shines a fascinating light on the Lincoln Administration, its dealings and foibles, as well as the field commands and their various issues.

The American Civil war and the Origins of Modern Warfare by Edward Hagerman remains a classic. This man’s balanced appetite for details and analysis is rarely matched in the field. His discussion of the controversy over the ratio of wagons to men under Hooker is eye-opening. Likewise, his analysis of the Grant/Meade waterborne supply system in 1864/65 bears heavily on related tactical developments. The book covers too much technical ground to be specific to railroads, but Hagerman fixes his eye on the logistics element in each major campaign.

Civil War Command and Strategy by Archer Jones shows Jones as fully aware of the logistical dimensions of ACW railroading but the topic does not feature much compared to troop movements. A typical Jones insight is that with a drawn battle at Sharpsburg, McClellan was nearly on top of his railhead while Lee was at the end of a wagon-forage line of communication. McClellan’s position was therefore much stronger. Similarly fresh analysis: railroads were less important in the Franco-Prussian War which had countrysides that could better support foraging. The ACW’s exhausted terrain made field armies more dependent on rail supply. You shouldn’t need a railroad interest to dig into this work.

Combined Operations in the Civil War by Rowena Reed. The is the only work I have seen that details (with map!) McClellan’s railroad-based plan for defeating the Confederacy. Where riverine operations might follow waterways to their limits, McClellan would follow rail lines to their limits, which is what in fact happened anyway after GBM left the scene. There is more water than rail line in this work but it remains the essential analysis of water-based operations, with more detail on the struggle between Lee/Pemberton and DuPont/Tim Sherman. Reed’s views are pungently stated and will delight a few while offending most ACW readers.

Rails to Oblivion by Christopher Gabel. In another Army paper, Gabel argues that “Southern railroads were in fact sufficient to win the war ... or a war.” See especially his map of Richmond with six RR termini and no interchange. He develops the known meme of CSA mismanagement of the railroad asset but adds more clarity, more facts, and sharp insights. Free download.

Stealing the General by Russell S. Bonds has little grand strategy but the grounds-eye view of Southern railroad depots, low-level management, and certain grass-roots minutiae is intriguing.

Some books I have not read:
The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America - Looks sociological, promises new sources.

The Northern Railroads in the Civil War, 1861-1865 - Shows its 1999 vintage thusly: “Not only did the railroads materially help the north to victory through movement of troops and materiel...” Argues that the war affected later RR organization and business methods.

Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat - Dates from 2004 and is all about two troop movements.


* Wig-Wags noticed it in more recent times.

** See especially Rowena Reed’s analysis of McClellan’s 11/61 plan for winning the war: it is a continental “Anaconda.”