150 years ago: Railroads west to Tennessee

If you read the monuments at Gettysburg for the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps, specifically the battle honors of the regiments, you will notice a lot of western place-names listed along with the great eastern battlefields.  Most recall this is due to the transfer of the two corps in the fall of 1863 to reinforce the besieged Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga.  We often wave our hand over the map to explain this movement, but forget this was a herculean effort of strategic mobility.

Earlier in the season, the Confederates shifted part of General James Longstreet’s Corps to northern Georgia using some sixteen different railroad lines.  The first of those troops left the station in Orange, Virginia on September 8 or 9, 1863.  The lead elements of the force arrived in Georgia in time for the battle of Chickamauga.  But it is a misconception to say the movement was complete at that time.  Significant combat force remained on the trains or at the depots on September 20, and baggage would arrive only in the weeks following the battle.

Now it was time for the Federals to demonstrate their rail lines.  As reports from the battle trickled into Washington, President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and others debated the best way to reinforce Major-General William Rosecrans’ (for the moment) Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga.  On paper, Major-General Ambrose Burnside was close by at Knoxville.  But in reality the terrain did not allow for a rapid march, particularly where provisions were scarce and Confederate raiders were thick.  Likewise the movement of 20,000 troops from Vicksburg, Mississippi, under command of Major-General William T. Sherman, looked easy on paper but was not easily conducted on the ground.

The solution offered was to move two corps from the Army of the Potomac in Virginia out by rail to Tennessee.  But such estimates were largely based on pre-war experience.  Stanton and the railroad men felt the move could be done with much more speed, if properly organized.  Orders went out on September 24 to Major-General George Meade to release the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps for movement.

Initially, the Eleventh was to use Bristoe Station and Rappahannock Station.  But after organizing the rolling stock and coordinating troop movements, Major-General O.O. Howard loaded his troops at Manassas Junction (with artillery going on the trains at Alexandria).  The Twelfth loaded at Brandy Station.   And there was some counter-marching required in order to keep this movement of troops out of sight from the Confederate observers on Clark’s Mountain.

To reach Chattanooga, the troops started their journey on the Orange & Alexandria (O&A) at some of the war’s most important rail junctions.  The trains then would move, by way of Washington, to Baltimore and switch to the B&O for a westward leg. Reaching the Ohio River at Benwood, the troops were to ferry (later move by pontoon bridge) across to Bellaire, Ohio where they would board trains on the Central Ohio Railroad and make the run to Columbus, Ohio.  Next the troops would switch to the Indiana Central and move to Indianapolis.  There the plan called for another transfer onto the Jeffersonville, Madison, and Indianapolis Railroad for a trip to Jeffersonville, Indiana.  Another ferry ride would put the troops in Louisville, Kentucky where they would take the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N).  In Nashville the troops would board trains for their last leg on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad (N&C).  The closest terminus would be Bridgeport, Alabama.  All told the troops would transit eight states, plus the District of Columbia, and cross four major rivers (the Ohio and the Potomac twice), in their journey of 1200 miles.

Leading this movement effort was a mix of civilian and military officials.  Stanton coordinated with John M. Garrett of the B&O, Samuel M. Felton of the Pennsylvania Railroad, H.J. Jewett of the Central Ohio, James Guthrie of the L&N, and several others with connecting rail lines.  And on the military side, Colonel Thomas Scott (who was more a War Department official with military rank) supervised the operation.  There was at times friction with Colonel William Innes, who supervised Rosecrans’ railroad department.  But Stanton’s directives brushed aside any disagreements.

While planning the move on September 23, Stanton forwarded inquiries to Brigadier-General Jeremiah T. Boyle in regards to the L&N:

Please ascertain and report to me immediately:
1. How many men can be transported by employing the whole rolling stock of the road from Louisville to Nashville, enumerating the number of cars of every description that could be employed?
2. How many hours it usually takes to make the trip from Nashville to Louisville, and at what rate of speed?
3. Is the road from Nashville to Chattanooga the same gauge as the road from Louisville to Nashville, so that cars can go direct from Louisville to Chattanooga, and what time does it take from Nashville to Chattanooga?
4. If the gauge of the roads is different, what is the supply of rolling stock on the  [Nashville] and Chattanooga road?

The following morning, Boyle responded that the L&N could transport 3,000 men a day, requiring sixteen hours to cover the 185 mile distance.  The L&N connected to the N&C in Nashville, but Boyle was unable to determine the rates for that last leg of the trip.  Military campaigns of the last eight months had used up and badly damaged the N&C, but with repairs, Boyle felt the lines could support 4,000 men.

Contrary to some statements you hear today, the Federal railroad lines were not uniform gauge.  An alternative route crossing the Ohio at Cincinnati and using the Covington & Lexington Railroad was considered.  However, the president of that line warned of the different gauge of track between Lexington and Louisville.  Later, the War Department would spend an estimated $38,000 to rectify this issue.  Another modification to the rail lines was the laying of connecting track in Indianapolis to allow cars to switch over, instead of having the troops disembark.

On September 25, the first troop cars passed through Washington as the first of nearly three days of nearly continual movement through the city.  Some 390 B&O railcars sent down the O&A allowed for rapid transition in Baltimore.  By September 28 the first troop trains reached Indianapolis.  A day later those lead elements prepared to recross the Ohio River into Kentucky at Louisville.  On September 30, four trains arrived in Nashville with the lead elements of the Eleventh Corps.  Within a few days, the bulk of the Eleventh Corps arrived at Bridgeport, where they looked over the Tennessee River at the broken bridge which prevented their transit to Chattanooga.

A few days later, the troop movement was complete with the two corps ready to assume operations in what would become the Chattanooga Campaign.  Historian Thomas Weber summarized the movement:

By October 3, the first regiments of the 11th Corps began arriving at their base camp 26 miles from Chattanooga.  October 6, the last regiment passed through Indianapolis, and by October 8, the troop movement was complete.  In 14 days, 23,000 men had moved 1,233 miles, an accomplishment not to be surpassed during the war …. The baggage of the two corps, including horses, wagons, ambulances, and commissary, moved west over the same route during the first two weeks of October…. Thus the complete transfer of men and equipment took only about three weeks, a time so far under the general estimate that it must have greatly surprised Halleck and Lincoln.

Indeed, the movement put two veteran corps in a place that left the Confederates concerned.  More than the bickering among generals, I would submit the rapid movement of the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps contained the Confederate gains in September 1863.

And as a side note, this is perhaps the only post narrative that one might mention “Brandy Station” with “Louisville” and “Bridgeport.”  More than anything, this troop movement shows how interconnected the theaters of war really were.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 29, Part I, Serial 48, page 147; Thomas Weber, The Northern Railroads in the Civil War: 1861-1865, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1952, page 186.)

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5 responses to “150 years ago: Railroads west to Tennessee

  1. Excellent post on a much neglected subject. I, like most other CW enthusiasts, am naturally attracted to the big battles and famous cavalry raids; but in fact the more mundane aspects of campaigning were what really won the war. Halleck was awful as a field commander but he did an expert job keeping the supplies flowing to the armies in the field.

    I transported CSX Railroad crews back and forth between Nashville, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Louisville and points in between for a year or so and came to realize that most of the present rail lines in the Mid-South here follow the same routes as they did during the Civil War. It is not widely recognized, but in the western theatre the back and forth campaigning of the Army of the Cumberland versus the Army of Tennessee largely followed those same routes–especially the one between Nashville and Chattanooga. Likewise, one rarely hears about all the L of C duties which the Federals carried out–small potatoes compared to Shiloh, Stone’s River, the Tullahoma Campaign and, of course, Chattanooga, but crucial nonetheless.

    But it was not simply a matter of transporting troops and supplies by rail from point A to point B. Raiding by both Confederate cavalry and guerilla bands remained a constant problem throughout the war for the Federals in the west and without innumerable small garrisons posted at virtually every railroad trestle, the field armies would have run out of ammo, food and other supplies very quickly. No romance here and no glory–but that was how the war was really won.

    • One of the 150th events that is in my “Would have liked to have seen” is reenactors boarding one of the “excursion trains” at Brandy Station (or Culpeper if logistically more practical) and heading west. But that would be for us extremist sesquicentenial types!

  2. Pingback: No amount of energy will move a sand-bar: Sherman reinforcing Chattanooga | To the Sound of the Guns

  3. Reblogged this on The Civil War in the West and commented:
    Here is a great article from the excellent Blog: TO THE SOUND OF THE GUNS. The author, Mr. Craig Swain, discusses a spectacular feat of Federal railroad logistics,

    In brief the story is this. In August of 1863, Federal Major General William Rosecrans had skillfully maneuvered his Army of the Cumberland to drive Confederate General Braxton Bragg out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a key railroad junction and a key to north Georgia.

    After the battle, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered two corps from Robert E. Lee’s (Eastern Theater) Army of Northern Virginia transferred by rail to support Bragg. Their commander Lt General James Longstreet came with them.

    On Sept 19, Rosecrans and Bragg’s Army clashed again, along Chickamaugua Creek, south of Chattanooga. The first day’s fighting was in conclusive, but Longstreet’s corps were available to reinforce Bragg’s force for the second day’s fighting.

    The battle developed slowly, until Rosecrans ordered troops moved to fill a non-existent gap in his line….in inadvertently creating a REAL gap. Longstreet lead an attack into the gap, smashing the Federal right, and driving one third of the Federal army….including Rosecrans….out of line and back towards Chattanooga. The Army of the Cumberland was saved by the stubborn defense of elements of the center and right of the army, lead by Major General George Thomas, who earned the nickname “The Rock of Chickamaugua”.

    Despite the heroic stand, it was still a retreat, and the previously successful Army of the Cumberland found itself besieged at Chattanooga, as Bragg’s troops took up positions on the heights overlooking the strategic city. Rosecrans was exhausted, and probably mentally defeated. Lincoln described him as “confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head”.

    The risk was that now the hard-won city might be lost….even if the army could be extracted.

    This brings us to Mr. Swain’s fine article. On Sept 23 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton proposed sending two corps from the inactive (Eastern Theater) Army of the Potomac to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland (as Jefferson Davis had for Bragg). Historian James M. McPherson relates:
    “It would be a trip of 1,200 miles by the routes they would have to take. Stanton had consulted railroad officials and said the twenty thousand men could reach Nashville in five days and Chattanooga in a few more. Mindful of the previous movements by the sluggish Army of the Potomac, Lincoln responded skeptically that they could hardly get from Culpepper [VA] to Washington in five days! [A surface distance of only about 70 miles.]

    “In the end Stanton prevailed. The movement began September 24. It when like clockwork, a marvel of organization and coordination between the War Department and several railroads. Eleven days after the start, more than twenty thousand [23,000] men of the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps [under Major General Joe Hooker] arrived at the railhead near Chattanooga with their equipment, artillery and horses after a trip of 1,233 miles through the Appalachian and across the unbridged Ohio River twice [!] It was the longest and fastest of such a large body of troops before the twentieth century”

    These fresh easterners helped stabilize the position in Chattanooga, although the city remained besieged and supplies remained tight. They provide vital to the subsequent successful campaign to break the siege and drive Bragg back into Georgia. This opened up the center of the Confederacy to invasion….but that is another story.

    Now read how almost magical transfer was made……..

  4. Pingback: Minty’s Bad Day | To the Sound of the Guns

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