Civil War Railroad: Savannah Campaign

The causes of the Civil War which lasted from 1861 to 1865 can be traced back to tensions that formed earlier in the nation’s history. Major causes that led to the war between the states include social and economic differences between North and South. The emergence of federal versus state rights made many people feel that the new constitution neglected the rights of states and continued to act independently. This difference in ideas led to nullification and eventually secession of the federal act. The fight between non-slave and slave state supporters that started with the expansion of America from the Mexican War and Louisiana Purchase saw passing of anti slave bills that banned slavery in the states, but tension started with the fate of the acquired new territories and the Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854 that created new territories, and thus led to the bleeding Kansas fight .

Another reason is the Abolition Movement Growth that saw the northerners to be polarized against slavery, which led to many historic events and eventually fugitive Slave Act and John Brown’s Raid. Finally, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s election saw the Declaration of the Causes of Secession by Carolina. In turn, seven states secede from the union since they believed that Lincoln was in favor of Northern interests and anti-slavery policy. These chronological events led to the beginning of the Civil War and the Savannah Campaign which will be discussed in this paper.

The railroad train had significantly positive effects on waging the Civil War and notably its exploits relied more on the logistics. Compared to the traditional mode of transport, which was the mule-drawn wagon, the railroad train could carry more supplies on a longer distance. It made traveling faster and this increased speed and more trips were made in a stated time. Smaller amount of vehicles was needed so that to maintain the necessary supplies flow. The cargo arrived faster and in a better condition. In addition, the troops that traveled by train rather than by foot started to experience less desertion as well as less fatigue.

It also played a major part in change of the war strategy and allowed to wage the war on a continental level due to the increased geographical scope of its military operations. For example, an army that was supplied by the railroad was able to effectively operate even when located hundreds of miles from the main supply base. It also allowed the armies to maintain a larger amount of soldiers, for example, in 1864, Major General William T. Sherman carried out the offensive campaign with the army of 35,000 animals and 100,000 men. His main supply line from Atlanta consisted of the 473 miles railroad extension to connect to his base located at Louisville.

On the other hand, over reliance on the rail lines had its cons on the Civil War, mainly it expanded the scope of warfare and contributed majorly to its prolongation, since it made it difficult for the generals to carry out the decisive campaigns. With interior lines technique, armies could reinforce quickly and this saw a dragging in the war. This affected even the individual field armies since the railroads minimized maneuvers and forced them to bunch together at the railheads. Its use for communication directed offensive attacks along the clearly stated advance axes and made prediction of their offensives easy and this reduced the strategic surprise element in the war. For example, Bragg’s Army consisting of Tennessee was surprised by Major General William S. Rosecrans when they moved from the rail line to the backcountry. This forced Bragg to come out of the defensive position in the state of Tennessee .

The establishment of the railroads led to creation of rail centers, which were important both politically and economically. With this understanding, armies centralized their advance on cutting the enemy’s transportation system, mostly by capturing or destroying their rail centers which would in turn hinder their ability to fight. Frequent small raids targeted at destroying the railroads were common for both sides. Even though such maneuvers were rarely influential, they were cost-effective in producing hostility within the enemy’s camps. An example of a memorable rail lines interdiction being a decisive factor in the campaign is Sherman forcing General John B. Hood by holding the captured railroads that supplied the city in 1864. In this aspect, the railroads were a clear target and a disadvantage for both sides .

However, in the terms of asset the railroad knowledge dominated the strategic thinking necessary for waging the Civil War with a lot of factors favoring the confederates, since it allowed them to be strategically protected and to have better rail communication if used strategically. The ability of the Civil War generals to adapt railroad generalship in their tactics helped them to easily control the direction of the war to their advantage this was on aspect that the younger generals had over the older ones like in the case of General Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. In addition, the incorporation of the U.S. Military Rail Roads into a war department is a state asset since it not only helped in waging the war but also aided in its progression by acting as a force multiplier while adding advantage for the Union in both greater work force and industrialization. It also helped to enable successful strategies of overland invasion and exterior lines.

The Union side organized their railroad system by first involving a formal legislation that guaranteed the informal agreement over the railroads. That is they could be used to assist in the war effort and the military were given priority to use both the telegram and the railroad. The rail lines seized by the military were entrusted to the caretaking of the USMRR. However, their authority extended mostly on the captured Southern rail lines only at times of extreme emergency, and it depended on cooperation in dealing with the Northern railroads .

The Union Government also commissioned civilian railroad men and placed them in responsible positions in the USMRR. With this arrangement, the Union Government managed to create a centralized military railroad organization with an effective coordination and a clear chain of command. With full time experts in this organization, the following two distinct functions emerged: the operation functions and the distinct construction. The latter made the rail lines fit for military use by mainly using prefabricated components that helped speed up the repair of bridges and damaged tracks. This group mostly comprised of skilled workmen, manual laborers and professional civil engineers. The main duty of transportation department was to maintain the trains and provide regular maintenance. It had subdivisions that were responsible for different sections of the line. The Union Railway System organization was efficiently organized during the Civil War .

The confederates relied heavily on the railroads at both their tactical and strategic levels even though they conducted many notable troop movements during the war. However, their railroad network was not as efficient and well organized as the Union’s railroad system. One notable aspect of their railway system is that it lacked centralized expert guidance, manufacturing capability, authority and expertise that could integrate their corporate capabilities with military requirements. They did not have confederates that could enforce and institutionalize the procedures for an effective tactical rail operation, and lastly they did not have military rail roads that could be operated with ease in case the support of their armies was needed. As a result, the confederation army suffered from all the issues their counterparts had resolved and this greatly undermined their efficiency in the war .

Major General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea is one of the successful tactics that the Union generals deployed so that to successfully neutralize the CSA railroad network. By destroying the psychological and economic will of the South, he strategically conducted a campaign that was designed to destroy any useful resource their forces might need. They started by gathering adequate supplies with the specific orders regarding the seizure of material from the local population and foraging relayed. Sherman divided his forces into two. He advanced along two major routes with major general Henry Slocum with the army of Georgia on his left and major general Oliver O. Howard with the army from Tennessee on his right.

They departed from Atlanta by using different routes. Slocum’s and Howard’s columns attempted to confuse Hardee on their main objective. By moving southward before pressing on towards Macon, Howard’s men pushed confederate troops out of the Lovejoy’s Station. Meanwhile Slocum’s two corps were moving east then southeast towards their state capital at Milledgeville. Hardee, upon realizing that Savannah was the intended destination, started concentrating his men on defending the city while the cavalry of major General Joseph Wheeler was to attack the union from the rear and flanks .

The agricultural infrastructure, railroads and all manufacturing plants they came across were systematically destroyed by Sherman’s men as they pushed southeast. One of the common ways of destroying the railroads was by using fire to heat the road rails and leaving them twisted around the trees. An example of this is at the Griswoldville where a lot of casualties occurred. Other minor fights ensured like the Waynesboro and Buck Head Creek as the union military pushed on towards Savannah. Additional 5,500 Union troops under Brigadier General John P. Hatch joined the fray and they tried to cut the Savannah and Charleston Railroad.

When Sherman arrived outside Savannah, he found that Hardee had flooded the fields outside the city. However this did not significantly limit an access to the causeways. Since Hardee had entrenched in a strong position he remained determined to defend the city and refused to surrender. Due to this standoff, Sherman saw it necessary to unite with the US Navy and receive supplies in the process. Therefore, he dispatched Brigadier General William Hazen’s division to the Ogeechee River to capture Fort McAllister . He accomplished this task successfully and managed to open up communications with the Rear Admiral John Dahlgren’s naval forces. With his supply replenished he foretold Hardee to sell the city. Even though Hardee managed to escape, the success of Sherman’s campaign saw to the downfall of the CSA railway network and the states usefulness to the confederates’ initial cause. Through these planned attacks the confederates could not keep up with the precision and organized railroad system that the Union military had evidently leading to their defeat in several battles throughout the Civil War and the above described is one of them .

To conclude, this paper proves that the railroads were a new strategic weapon that easily enabled the North to defeat the South. Moreover, they helped preserve the Union while stopping slavery. Without its contribution in the Civil War effort, the conflict would have cost more lives, and would have been much more different and devastating than it was. Even though the American Civil War was the first event where the railroads played a dominant role, railway transportation over the years has grown to be a formidable warfare strategy instrument that has changed the face of military warfare earning a title of being a strategy in its own right.


Black, Robert C. The Railroads of the Confederacy. Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 1952.

Gabel, Christopher R. Rail Road Generalship; Foundations of Civil war Strategies. Kansas: Library of congress cataloging press, 1954.

Dunphy, Owen. Match to the Sea American Civil War, U.S Army Signal Center Command History Office, 1990.

Turner, George Edgar. Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of Railroads in the Civil War Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Weber, Thomas. The Northern Railroad and in the Civil War 1861-186.5~ New York: Columbia University, King’s Crown Press, 1952.

George Edgar Turner, Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of Railroads in the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992). 45.

Owen Dunphy, Match to the Sea American Civil War, US Army Signal Center Command History Office, 1990. 16.

Christopher R. Gabel, Rail Road Generalship; Foundations of Civil war Strategies (Kansas: Library of Congress Cataloging Press, 1954), 5.

Thomas Weber. The Northern Railroad and in the Civil War 1861-186.5 (New York: King’s Crown Press. 1952), 45.

Christopher R. Gabel, Rail Road Generalship; Foundations of Civil War Strategies (Kansas: Library of Congress Cataloging Press. 1954), 7.

Robert C. Black, The Railroads of the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 1952), 8.

George Edgar Turner, Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of Railroads in the Civil War. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 10.