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Topic Forty-five:  U.S. Military Railroad History

Those Great Civil War Battlefield Technologies, Weapons and Firsts

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        A new concept for old school generals, had to be learned quickly in the field.  Railroad generalship at the strategic level dealt with long-distance movements of troops and war resources. Since most American railroads in the 1860s were still small-scale local enterprises, such movements typically involved coordination among multiple corporate entities. Naturally, the military desired priority treatment by the railroads, but railroad managers still had an obligation to show a profit and to maintain civilian traffic. Railroad corporations, civil government, and the military were all involved in this delicate balancing act.



        Federal legislation would give the authority of the railroad and telegraph systems to the U.S. Military. In January 1862, the United States Congress authorized President Abraham Lincoln to seize control of the railroads and telegraph for military use. The operation of any rail lines seized by the military was entrusted to a new War Department agency called the U.S. Military Rail Roads (USMRR). In practice, however, the USMRR restricted its authority to Southern rail lines captured in the course of the war. Except in time of extreme emergency, the military counted on cooperation rather than coercion in dealing with Northern railroads. Realistically, the military had no choice. Relatively few military men were experts in railroad transportation. The true experts in railroad generalship at the strategic level were the civilian executives who managed railroads as a profession.


General Herman Haupt

Herman Haupt, the civilian railroad man in uniform, established a system for tactical rail generalship that eventually came into use throughout both the eastern and western theaters. His principles were simple and direct and received the blessing of the secretary of war.

1.      No military officers were to interfere in the running of trains.

2.      Supplies would be sent forward only as needed.

3.      Trains reaching the front were to be unloaded immediately by anyone available. Officers who refused to cooperate faced dismissal.

4.      Where telegraph communications were unavailable, trains would run according to a rigid schedule. All trains departed on schedule, fully loaded or not. Extra trains would pick up the slack.

5.      On lines where the absence of sidings prevented opposing trains from passing each other, convoys of five or six trains would travel as a group. Each convoy delivered its cargo and returned to base before the next convoy started out.



The American Civil War was the first conflict in which railroads played a dominant role, thus introducing to the world a military instrument that changed the face of warfare forever.

Later World Wars in Europe would organize their military railroad systems after the pattern of the USMRR of the Civil War.

Civilians were a necessary part of managing the new concept of "RAILROAD GENERALSHIP."  The Civil War was perhaps the last war that showed the high level of cooperation of civilian, political and military cooperation.





What of the Confederates?

They also relied heavily on railroads at both the strategic and tactical levels and conducted many noteworthy troop movements in the course of the war. However, the Confederacy began the war with a fragmented and incomplete rail system (9,000 miles, as opposed to 20,000 miles in the north). Unlike the Union, the Confederacy lacked the manufacturing capacity to expand, or even maintain, its railroad infrastructure once the fighting began. Moreover, it was not until February 1865 that the Confederate government asserted its authority over the railroads. For most of the war, military traffic moved only at the discretion of civilian railroad managers. There was no Confederate equivalent of Thomas A. Scott or John W. Garrett who possessed both the expertise and the authority to mesh military requirements with corporate capabilities. There was no Confederate Herman A. Haupt to institutionalize and enforce the procedures for effective tactical rail operations, and no Confederate Military Rail Roads to operate lines in immediate support of the armies.

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