Tennessee Railroads and the American Civil War (1861-1865)

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Tennessee Railroads and the American Civil War
Tennessee railroad network at the time it joined the Confederacy in 1861
Tennessee's Civil War railroad experience involved a complex interplay of overall military strategy, major combat engagements that involved railroads in a direct or indirect way, individual attacks specifically aimed against railroad equipment and facilities, and non-combat military events. Any attempt to condense such a complex story risks the distortions inherent in oversimplification, but here we attempt to portray the various aspects of the railroad involvement in the military events of the Civil War in Tennessee.

Tennessee Civil War Railroads
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Tennessee Civil War Railroad Map

(About) The red dots depict major rail junction cities in Tennessee during the Civil War.

In the 19th century, railroads tended to converge at major cities and towns, where they participated in and added to the economic life of those communities. In Tennessee, many such communities served as significant river ports before the railroads appeared--and profited greatly from the interaction of river and rail traffic after the railroads arrived. Of course, their strategic placement also meant that these communities would attract the attention of contending sides when war broke out.

Although Tennesseans considered railroads as early as 1827, the first actual railroad construction began with the Hiwassee Railroad in 1837 (it failed in 1842), and the LaGrange and Memphis Railroad in 1842 became the first to actually operate a train in Tennessee (this company failed a few months later). By the 1850s, with organizational and financial arrangements finally in place to support a large scale construction effort, a railroad development boom ensued, and by 1860 Tennessee had completed 1,197 miles of track. This represented about 13% of the South's total of 9,167 miles. Southern railroads represented only about 30% of the total national rail mileage, and they were small organizations with inferior equipment running on lighter rail. However, Tennessee's strategic location as a border state between North and South destined its railroads to play a significant role in the Civil War.

Early Tennessee Railroads
Tennessee Railroads.gif
Tennessee Railroad Map

(About) This map reflects the Tennessee rail line in 1850 and further displays the state's phenomenal railroad boom between 1850 and 1860.
At the outset of the Civil War, Tennessee's antebellum railroad network fell completely within the geographic area controlled by the Confederacy. Although Tennessee's overall railroad system was smaller and more modestly equipped than those of more northerly states, it nevertheless covered most of the state and provided a new form of transportation which could move masses of people and supplies more rapidly than any previous form of land transport used by Tennesseans.
Unlike the Confederacy, the Federal government took a very strong role in the wartime control of railroads. Although Federal forces were authorized (by an Act of Congress on January 31, 1862) to seize any railroad when necessary to support the successful conduct of military operations, actual seizure was generally limited to former enemy railroads captured through military conquest. Early Federal railroad operations in the western theater (including Tennessee), generally under the auspices of the Quartermaster Department, supported basic railroad operations but sometimes proved chaotic (instigating investigations in spring of 1863). Eventually the U.S. Military Railroads (USMRR), utilizing railroad management practices perfected in the eastern theater, established (under the leadership of D. C. McCallum) a more effective organizational structure for managing construction and operational activities on the seized railroads in Tennessee using its own personnel (usually experienced railroad men drawn from private companies).

Source: Middle Tennessee State University

Recommended Reading: Civil War Railroads: A Pictorial Story of the War Between the States, 1861-1865 (Hardcover: 192 pages) (Publisher: Indiana University Press). Description: With more than 220 black and white photographs from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and private collections across the country, this is the essential pictorial guide for all those interested in the role of the Iron Horse in the American Civil War. Like all wars, the Civil War was not all gunfire and panic. It was supply and transport, trains and trouble on the line, men in Blue and Gray fighting against almost unbelievable odds with lumbering, woodburning engines. Continued below...

About the Author: George B. Abdill, Civil War Railroads: A Pictorial Story of the War Between the States, 1861-1865, before his death, was a railroader's writer--A working hoghead on the Southern Pacific's Portland Division and historian of the great days of steam. His special gift was as a collector of truly remarkable photographs illustrating the pioneering days of the railroads. And he had a special place in his heart for military railroaders since he, himself, served with the 744th Railway Operation Battalion during World War II, running his engine in France, Belgium, and Germany. He had first-hand knowledge of railroading under fire.

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Recommended Reading: A History of the American Locomotive: Its Development, 1830-1880 (Trains) (528 pages). Description: Important and beautifully illustrated volume chronicles the explosive growth of the American locomotive from British imports to grand ten-wheelers of the 1870s. Over 240 vintage photographs, drawings, and diagrams tell the exciting tale. Includes comprehensive introduction, appendices and index. Continued below...

Superb and scholarly effort from Mr. White is readable and laudable, and he offers to us enormous access to the best pictures.


Recommended Reading: The Railroads of the Confederacy (400 pages) (The University of North Carolina Press: April 15, 1998). Description: Originally published by UNC Press in 1952, The Railroads of the Confederacy tells the story of the first use of railroads on a major scale in a major war. Robert Black presents a complex and fascinating tale, with the railroads of the American South playing the part of tragic hero in the Civil War: at first vigorous though immature; then overloaded, driven unmercifully, starved for iron; and eventually worn out—struggling on to inevitable destruction in the wake of Sherman's army, carrying the Confederacy down with them. Continued below...

With maps of all the Confederate railroads and contemporary photographs and facsimiles of such documents as railroad tickets, timetables, and soldiers' passes, the book will captivate railroad enthusiasts as well as readers interested in the Civil War.


Recommended Reading: Confederate Industry: Manufacturers And Quartermasters in the Civil War (412 pages) (University Press of Mississippi: September 2005). Description: For those with an interest in the Civil War, this book gives new insight into the efforts of the Confederacy to keep its armies in the field during four years of Union onslaughts. Harold Wilson, an English professor at Old Dominion University, looks largely at the textile industry but also focuses on armaments and other production. Continued below...

He also discusses the Confederacy's efforts to supply itself from Europe with blockade-running ships, and the efforts of Northern armies - especially under Sherman - to destroy the Confederacy's industrial base. He examines the rise of Southern industry in the decades after the war. This is a solid, well-researched book that covers an important area of Civil War history in unprecedented depth.


Recommended Reading: Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor. Description: "The Great Locomotive Chase has been the stuff of legend and the darling of Hollywood. Now we have a solid history of the Andrews Raid. Russell S. Bonds’ stirring account makes clear why the raid failed and what happened to the raiders."—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Continued below...

On April 12, 1862 -- one year to the day after Confederate guns opened on Fort Sumter -- a tall, mysterious smuggler and self-appointed Union spy named James J. Andrews and nineteen infantry volunteers infiltrated north Georgia and stole a steam engine referred to as  the General. Racing northward at speeds approaching sixty miles an hour, cutting telegraph lines and destroying track along the way, Andrews planned to open East Tennessee to the Union army, cutting off men and materiel from the Confederate forces in Virginia. If they succeeded, Andrews and his raiders could change the course of the war. But the General’s young conductor, William A. Fuller, chased the stolen train first on foot, then by handcar, and finally aboard another engine, the Texas. He pursued the General until, running out of wood and water, Andrews and his men abandoned the doomed locomotive, ending the adventure that would soon be famous as The Great Locomotive Chase, but not the ordeal of the soldiers involved. In the days that followed, the "engine thieves" were hunted down and captured. Eight were tried and executed as spies, including Andrews. Eight others made a daring escape to freedom, including two assisted by a network of slaves and Union sympathizers. For their actions, before a personal audience with President Abraham Lincoln, six of the raiders became the first men in American history to be awarded the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest decoration for gallantry. Americans north and south, both at the time and ever since, have been astounded and fascinated by this daring raid. Until now, there has not been a complete history of the entire episode and the fates of all those involved. Based on eyewitness accounts, as well as correspondence, diaries, military records, newspaper reports, deposition testimony and other primary sources, Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor by Russell S. Bonds is a blend of meticulous research and compelling narrative that is destined to become the definitive history of "the boldest adventure of the war."


Recommended Viewing: American Experience - Transcontinental Railroad (2003) (PBS) (120 minutes). Description: Go behind-the-scenes of one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century: the building of a transcontinental railroad across the United States. Completed in only six years by unscrupulous entrepreneurs, brilliant engineers, and legions of dedicated workers, the Transcontinental Railroad left a horde of displaced, broken Native Americans in its wake. See how the railroad helped shape the politics and culture of mid-19th century America.

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