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. Though some cautioned the movement would require over a month. 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.)