Control of the railroads won the Civil War

RailroadsoftheConfederacy-ACW02-LRVicksburg, Gibraltar of the West, was the grand prize of the Union’s early plans to control the Mississippi River. This would isolate the Confederate states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Coupled with a blockade of Southern ports, this would insure a Union victory. The frightening effects of simultaneous attacks in December 1862 by Nathan Bedford Forrest in West Tennessee, Earl Van Dorn in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and John Hunt Morgan in Kentucky all involved attacks on rail facilities. The attacks caused U.S. Grant to rethink his plan for a second attack on Vicksburg initiated from Memphis. Attacks from multiple Confederate units made him acutely aware of potential danger to his troops and vital supply lines. As Grant’s invasion moved south, the ensuing battles delayed his plans for the siege of Vicksburg and proved costly in terms of men and supplies.

President Abraham Lincoln understood the value of the railroads for shipping men and supplies. Under the Railways and Telegraph Act passed on January 3, 1862, all railway and telegraph companies’ officers and employees were subject to military authority. On February 11, 1862, the United States Military Railroads (U.S. M.R.R.) was established by the War Department. At first, authority was just over railroads serving the military, but on May 25, 1862, the act was changed to cover all railroads in the United States. However, the U.S. M.R.R. directed most of its attention to the railroads in hostile Southern territory. There is an extensive history of the railroad acts available for study in the Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference book by Margaret E. Wagner, Gary W. Gallagher, and James M. McPherson.

I’m grateful to the Department of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point for offering the map of the railroads for my book. In 1962, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point produced a map of the main railroads of the Confederacy in 1861 in the book, “The West Point Atlas of the Civil War,” compiled by the Department of Military Art and Engineering, the United States Military Academy, chief editor, Vincent J. Esposito.

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