150 Years Ago: Trouble getting the trains to run on time in Mississippi

On this day (February 14) in 1863, Walter Goodman, the president of the Mississippi Central Railroad Company was certainly not exchanging Valentines to Brigadier General John S. Bowen. Goodman voiced his grievances in a letter to Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton in Vicksburg. Goodman’s letter was a response to criticism made by Bowen of the railroad’s operation in January. Bowen felt the railroad was at fault for delays transporting troops between Grenada and Jackson, Mississippi. Now Goodman felt compelled to respond.

Before the war, the Mississippi Central connected the “Jacksons” – that is Jackson, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi. While the railroad’s southern terminus was at Canton, Mississippi, a connector linked with rail lines going south the Jackson (Mississippi) and thence to both Mobile and Vicksburg. In the winter of 1863, this short rail line offered the Confederates defending Mississippi the means to shift forces to meet threats expected from several directions.

Mississippi Central in Yellow

Goodman made a firm stance against Bowen’s charges:

In reply to the letter and charges made by Brigadier-General Bowen, I have to remark that this road is not chargeable with any delays occurring after the arrival of trains at Canton, the southern terminus of our road. So far as this road is concerned, I pronounce the charges made in the letter of General Bowen as untrue, except in a few cases of accidental detention occasioned by trains running off the track, accidents that do and will occur on the best managed roads. I ask, and think I have a right to claim, the most rigid examination into the truth or falsity of the charges made.

During the movement of troops from Grenada, some three, perhaps four, trains were delayed at different times by up, and in one case a down, train running off the track. The longest detention was six hours, others for a shorter period of time. In one or two cases trains were delayed from one to three hours for want of fuel, our wood at our principal station, Vaiden, having been consumed by troops stationed there, although we had used every means at our command to protect it for the use of our engines.

Bowen’s complaints referenced the use of flat-cars, which were not preferred during the movement. Goodman indicated he had informed Major E.A. Banks, quartermaster at Grenada…

…that out of 500 cars belonging to the road not more than 50 or 60 were on the road in running order; that most of the residue had been taken from our road by military authority and in use on the New Orleans and Jackson, the Southern, and Mobile and Ohio roads, for the purpose of transporting sugar and others freights for military or private speculation; that many of the cars had been absent for six months, notwithstanding my frequent application to the officers of the roads and military authorities to have them returned, and I could not supply the number of cars he required unless ours were returned or cars belonging to other roads were ordered on to ours.

Although Banks worked to return the required cars, none arrived.

Goodman went on to describe some of the confusion and delays loading troops at Grenada:

Nearly all the trains were detained at Grenada from six to thirty-six hours for loading, and I am quite sure the troops must have suffered quite as much by their detention at Grenada, exposed to snow, sleet, and rain, as they did during the transit. As to overloading and crowding, the trains, when ready to receive their freights, were placed at the command of the quartermaster who superintended the movement of troops, and, if overloaded, it was done by military authority, and often in opposition to our protestations. Many of the box-cars, perhaps most of them, were used for the transportation of horses belonging to commanders, and the men were placed on platform cars, and this by direction of those claiming the right of directing how the cars should be loaded, and not by direction of railroad officials.

Not content to simply call out the Army’s poor loading process, Goodman attempted to absolve the railroad any fault for the poor condition of engines and rolling stock.

If the cars are or were in bad condition, it is no fault of the railroad officials; it has been occasioned often by malicious destruction by troops in transit, without interference of their commanders, and the wanton destruction of material prepared for their repairs for fuel, simply because it happened to be well seasoned. As to worthlessness of engines, I have only to remark the charge made by General Bowen may be true, but this I know, that no road in the Confederate States ever had better equipments than the Central had one year ago, and, if his charge is true, it is because the Government has become the purchaser of all the materials that are required to repair engines, and refuse to permit railroads to obtain them when they may be found, and for the additional reason that Government officials are permitted to enter our workshops and entice away our mechanics by offering them increased wages.

Goodman went on to address allegations of unnecessary delays. He knew of one or two cases where trains were delayed half a day, or more, by military authorities due to bad weather. Otherwise the trains ran from Grenada to Canton within nine to eleven hours.

Closing his defense, Goodman wrote:

I think I can convince any man possessing practical business information that the charges made in the communication of General Bowen are in the main untrue, and that all are based on slight foundation. I feel quite confident that “these railroad officials” referred to are quite as competent to manage the affairs intrusted to them as the military officials are to manage theirs, and that they have at all times and on all occasions exhibited as much zeal, made as great sacrifices for the public good, and are actuated by as patriotic motives in the discharge of their respective duties as any general or other military officer. That they will continue to do so, I do not doubt, until those military officers who make such groundless charges have been brought to “their senses,” if a thing so devoutly desired can be effected.

Two days later Goodman forwarded a copy of the letter to Secretary of War James Seddon, adding “…that there is just enough of truth in the charges made by General Bowen to give the semblance of truth to the whole, yet in almost all particulars they are untrue.” This was not the first time Goodman had reached out to Seddon with respect to his railroad. Weeks earlier, he’d related the issues facing the railroad in correspondence to the secretary. And the state of the railroad would only get worse as the war progressed.

What stands out here, at least to me, is the competition between several war-critical activities for the same resources – be that wood fuel, rolling stock, rail iron, or repair parts. The end result was trains could not run on time and thus impeded movement across the theater. If the trains can not deliver the troops on time, then throw away the military maxim about interior lines.

(Goodman’s letters appear in OR, Series I, Volume 24, Part III, Serial 38, pages 627-8.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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