“We can hardly expect the first through line can be repaired before the middle of February”: Fixing Georgia’s wrecked railroads

On January 3, 1865, Major-General Jeremy F. Glimer, Chief of the Confederate Engineer Bureau, provided an update on the progress of repairs to railroads damaged during the Savannah Campaign.  Addressed to the Secretary of War, James Seddon, the report broke out the status of important rail lines through Georgia:

I have the honor to report the following injuries to the main railroads in Georgia done by the enemy in General Sherman’s advance from Kingston to Savannah, viz:

First. Western and Atlantic road (Georgia State road): Track and bridges from Atlanta to Etowah River, inclusive, are destroyed. Beyond Etowah no injury of moment is reported. Length of track destroyed, about 46 miles; length of bridges at Chattahoochee and Etowah, 1,200 feet. The Governor of Georgia has sent his agents to examine and report as to the extent of injury to this road, the property of the State, but at the time of Captain Grant’s report, 16th of December, no portion of the repairs had been made. All the labor and materials that can be obtained by the Government will be first applied to the reconstruction of the Georgia road (from Augusta to Atlanta), and to the Atlanta and West Point road, with a view to get one connection as soon as possible.

Second. Georgia road: The work to be done on this road is comprised in three important bridges–one over the Oconee River, the other two over smaller streams–and thirty-eight miles of track. Of the latter, fifteen miles will require iron rails from other sources. About twenty-three miles of bent rails can be straightened. Cross-ties will be needed for twenty-five to thirty miles. The most favorable estimate as to time for finishing the repairs of this road is the middle of February. All the labor that can be had by temporary impressments and by impressments for twelve months has been assigned to this work, and to,

Third. Atlanta and West Point road: This road at last report was repaired to Palmetto from West Point; it will be finished as soon or sooner than the Georgia road.

Fourth. The Central Railroad of Georgia: This road, which connects Macon with Augusta via Millen, has been repaired to Gordon, where the branch to Milledgeville has its junction with the main road. Cars now run from Macon to Milledgeville. The Central road from Gordon to Millen is very seriously destroyed. Every effort is being made to induce the company to renew the road, but there are about 100 miles seriously injured; they cannot be repaired as soon as the roads leading through Atlanta. The best engineers that could be furnished from the command of General Beauregard are employed in rebuilding the roads; and General Beauregard has assured this bureau that he will give them every support, and that all that is possible will be done to hasten their completion. With every exertion and with all the assistance that can be brought to bear, we can hardly expect the first through line can be repaired before the middle of February next.

The bottom line addressed a question – how soon will trains run from Alabama to South Carolina?   Prior to the fall of Atlanta, one of the cornerstones to Confederate defense strategies was the ability to move troops from one theater to another as threats emerged.  Of course that changed with the fall of Atlanta.  And damage done in November-December practically cleaved the railroad system in half.

However, that was not to say the railroads were wrecked beyond repair.  As Gilmer’s status indicates, work to repair the roads pressed forward even as Sherman’s force was getting ready to leave Savannah.   Using that status, the map below indicates the area of broken railroads, in red:


With respect to operational needs in the winter months of 1865, the important parts were addressed in section four of Gilmer’s update – the Georgia Central.  If the line could be repaired to Millen and thence to Augusta, it was possible to shift what was left of the Army of Tennessee from Alabama to South Carolina by rail.   And if Sherman vacillated in Savannah for a month or more, Gilmer gained time to implement repairs to that line. Otherwise, the troops would have to travel part of that route on foot.

There are two interesting “between the lines” observations to make in regard to Gilmer’s prioritization of the repairs.   First, while he was able to “unbend” some of the rails, clearly he needed some of the Confederacy’s precious iron resources allocated to this task.  Instead of cannons or ship armor, the Confederacy was putting rails on the top of the list.

Second, consider the big chessboard here – Confederate authorities desired to move what remained of Hood’s army out of the Western Theater to reinforce the Carolinas.  The pressing threat was Sherman and everything – save the defenses of Richmond-Petersburg – would be stripped in the attempt to block his next move.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 1012-3.)

One thought on ““We can hardly expect the first through line can be repaired before the middle of February”: Fixing Georgia’s wrecked railroads

  1. […] staff officers ride while infantry march.  But using the much maligned  Confederate rail system, some of which Sherman had wrecked only a few weeks earlier, was running from Mississippi to central …, many footsteps were saved.  Indeed, for Cheatham’s men to reach Augusta, Georgia, the only […]

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