The American Civil War: Railroads


Figure 1.--Railroads played a major role in the Civil War. They are one of the reasons that the Civil War is commonly considered the first modern war. Railroad locomotives appealed to the boys of the era, in part because they were large, poweful, loud, and dirty. As a result they soon became a favorite toy. Here we see a portrait of a boy and his toy train taken just afyer the Civil War. The toy appears to be tin with cast iron wheels, sporting a diamond shaped smoke stack and pulling a coal car.

Railroads played a major role in the Civil War. The railroads in fact played a role in exacerbating the slavery issue. A major issue before the War was the building of an trans-continental railway to connect California and the Pacific coast with the East. There was general agreement that this was needed. The political problem case over a disagreement about the route. Southern states wanted a southern route while northern states wanted a more central route. Senator Stephen A. Douglas was a major proponent of the railway and in an effort to win Congressional approval, he was willing to make concessions to the South on slavery. These concessions, however, angered northerners, hightening sectional politics. His sollution was to undo the Missori comptmise with popular soverignity. This was one of the major issues debated by Douglas and his political challenger for the Senate--Abraham Lincoln. When war came the inter-continental railway project had not yet been resolved because of the sectional strife. The project was finally approved by the Republican controlled Congress suring the War, although actual construction did not begin until after the War ended. During the War, the North had a huge advantage becuse of its much more extensive railway network. Railways played an important role in several battles, but the major significance was in supplying field armies. Here the South had an increasing problem as the war progressed. The Southern commitment to states rights was relected in the railway system which was poorly connected between states. And with the limited industrial capability, they could not build new locomotives and jad trouble maintaining rilway cars and lines. Thus the limited, poorly connected system deteriorated bady as the war progressed. [Gordon]

Linking the Coasts

The railroads in fact played a role in exacerbating the slavery issue. A major issue before the War was the building of an trans-continental railway to connect California and the Pacific coast with the East. The subject began to be discussed in the 1830s. There was general agreement that this was needed. After the Mexican American War (1846-48), the issue became much more pressing with the acquisition of California and the discovery of gold. Thousands flocked to California insearch of gold, but getting to California was a major undertaking. The first potential route was a northern route surveyed by Howard Stansbury (1848-50). His route ran though the Black Hills and south of Salt Lake City. Congress approved a measure instructing the War Department to survey various other routes (1853). As early as 1858, the visionary George Pullman began building sleeping cars that would one day be used on the transcontinental railroad The political problem case over a disagreement about the route. Southern states wanted a southern route while northern states wanted a more central route.

Senator Douglas (1813-61)

Senator Stephen A. Douglas was a major proponent of the rans-continental railway. He made a great deal of money speculating on land in Chicago. Chicago became a major American city because in served as a railway hun, connecting the Mid-west with the large eastern cities. He entered politics winning election to the Illinois legislature (1836). His career prospered and was elected to the U.S. Sente (1847). He was one of a new generation of politicans that replaced the leading figures of the Jacksonian era, legendary sentors like Benton, Calhouun, Clay, and Webster. Douglas promoted the trans-continental railway project, but saw sectiona; politics were making agreement possible. He supported the Compromise of 1850 which undid the Missouri Compromise. In an effort to win Congressional approval, he was willing to make concessions to the South on slavery. These concessions, especially aa strengthened fugitive slave effort, angered northerners, hightening sectional politics. Douglas also sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) which introduced Popular Sovereignty. This was the right of people in each state to choose or reject slavery. He thought this would defuse the slavery issue making consensus on the trans-continental raulway project possible. The result was just the opposite--"Bleeding Kansas". This further enflamed sectional feeling. This was one of the major issues debated by Douglas and his political challenger for the Senate--Abraham Lincoln. The Democrats nominated Douglas for president (1860). Southern Democrats despite the fact that Douglas had attempted to compromise, refused to support his canfidacy. They supported John C. Breckenridge. This split in the Democratic Part assured the election of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln.

Approval

When war came the trans-continental railway project had not yet been resolved because of the sectional strife. The project was finally approved by the Republican controlled Congress during the War. Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act(1862). Actual construction did not begin, however, until after the War ended. At the time, the railway network of the United States extended only as far west as Council Bluffs, Iowa, located across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska.

First Modern War

The American Civil war is often reerred to as the first modern war. One of the reasons for this was the employment of many technolically advanced weapons (improved artillery, rifled barrels, repeating riffles, Gatling guns, iton ships, and other innovations). Another factor was the use of railways, the first major war in which railways were extensively used.

Northern Railways

During the War, the North had a huge advantage becuse of its much more extensive railway network.

Southern Railways

Here the South had an increasing problem as the war progressed. The Southern commitment to states rights was relected in the railway system which was poorly connected between states. And with the limited industrial capability, they could not build new locomotives and had trouble maintaining rilway cars and lines. Thus the limited, poorly connected system deteriorated bady as the war progressed. [Gordon]

Importance

Railways played an important role in several major battles, but the major significance was in supplying field armies. The difficulty of moving suppies beyond railway lines meant that battlefiels were often determined by rail lines. Beyond the rail lines generally poor roads and the logiistical pronems associated with mule-powered waggons greatly limited mobility. Ironically the first major battle at Bull Run was a Condederate victory because the rail hub at Manasas Junction was expeditionally used by Confederate commanders to repell a Federal force moving overland from Washington. The defeat was a shick to the North, but could not be exploited by the South because the Federal troops fell back to their supply bases in Washington which could be easily supported because of the northern rail network. More commonly the Federal forces were able to use the superior northern rail network to their advantage. This wa in large measure due to Herman Haupt, a civilian railroader who established an effective system for tactical use of the railways to support Federal armies. Haupt once his system was in place (1863) worked wonders, both in repairing and expanding lines to support the Army of the Potomac as it moved to fight off Lee's advance into Pennsylvania. And then when the Army under Gant drove south toward Richmond. The railways also played a key role in Federal operations around Chatanoga and in Sherman's advance on Atlanta. The railways assisted Federal armies inovercoming advantages that normally acrue to the defendrs and forces operating on interior lines.

Civil War Toys

One interesting topic is Civil War toys. Unfortunately we have very little information about them. Photography was still very news in the 1860s. We do have some Civil War images, but unlike subsequent decades, it was not yet common to picture children with their toys in period portraits. Thus our primary source of infoemation is unavailable to us. We know there were toy cannons. Willie and Tad used one to fire on their father's cabinent in the White House. We assume they were toy soldiers, but we have no details at this time. Toy locomotives surely would have been popular. The image here is, however, a boy with a great toy locomotive a few years after the War. It is the earliest image we have found so far of toy trains. The fascination with trains continued for quite a long period after the Civil War. We suspect there were also toy buggles and drums.

Sources

Gordon, Sarah. Passage to Union.






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Created: August 26, 2002
Last updated: 9:14 PM 3/9/2006