Tag Archives: Railroads

End of March 1865 – Lee’s Confederacy, where the war would be decided

General Robert E. Lee spent his first winter in command of the Army of Northern Virginia confronting the Federals along the Rappahannock River.  For support, in theory if not in very efficient practice, he could call upon the resources of the Confederacy from as far away as Mississippi, if not beyond to the Rio Grande.

During Lee’s second winter in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he could still call upon support from places as far away as Alabama, Florida, or, even parts of Mississippi.  Responding to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, Lee drew troops from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee (where Lieutenant-General James Longstreet had wintered).  Most importantly, Lee could still draw resources from large areas of Virginia, to include much of the Shenandoah Valley.

Just a few weeks into the winter of 1865, Lee was promoted to command of all the Confederate armies.  More than at any other time in the war, Lee needed strategic mobility to concentrate combat power and supplies to meet the needs at the front.  However, given the pace at which Federal operations came in March and April 1865, realistically Lee could only plan to wield resources (manpower, material, or supplies) that were close to railroad depots.  A day or two for rail transportation was cutting things close. Anything more than a few days march or wagon ride from a working (stress working) railroad was out of Lee’s reach, and thus of little help.  Not to diminish the activities that took place in that time period in other theaters, but for Lee’s needs those Confederate forces may as well been in Siberia than Texas or Alabama.

So what did Lee’s reach look like at the end of March?  Here’s my rough depiction:


The rose-colored section is that reach.  You see that just past the South Carolina line, Sherman had destroyed the infrastructure.  Not to say that troops or supplies from South Carolina were inaccessible.  Rather that would be a question of time and effort.  Neither of which the Confederacy had in abundance.  The one remaining transportation artery was a triangle of railroads connecting Richmond-Petersburg with Raleigh and Charlotte, with key junctures at Salisbury, Greensboro, and Danville.  And no seaports.

And the situation was bound to get worse into April.  I’ve depicted one of the next “blows” to fall 150 years ago this week on the left side of the map – Major-General George Stoneman’s raid out of Tennessee, which would disrupt the already teetering transportation system.  Only a matter of days before the major forces started moving on the other side of the map.

As the month of March 1865 came to a close, Lee’s reach, and thus ability to react to those Federal advances, was severely limited.  In more ways than one, Lee’s actions would decide the fate of the Confederacy, determine how the Civil War would close, and, if we step up to the big podium, decide several important questions about the future of the United States as things sat in 1865.  All of that would play out within the rose-colored section labeled “Lee’s Confederacy.”

At the start of the war, the seceded states included over/around 775,000 square miles across eleven states.  For all practical purposes, at the close of March 1865, Lee’s Confederacy was just 40,000 square miles, mostly in two states.

“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.)

150 years ago: Delays due to delivery of corn and transportation of prisoners

The Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida had a new commander at the close of April 1864.  Gone was General P.G.T. Beauregard.  Now Major-General Samuel Jones had command.

But while the command changed, from the perspective of those in Richmond, some problems persisted – namely delays moving troops to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee.  Just as the Federals moved Major-General Quincy Gillmore and the Tenth Corps to Fort Monroe, the Confederates issued orders pulling troops north in anticipation of the spring campaigns.  This movement now became Jones’ responsibility.  And on April 27, General Samuel Cooper, Confederate Army Adjutant and Inspector General, called in question some delays moving the troops – “Explain why the movement of the troops ordered from Savannah to Virginia and to Tennessee is delayed.”

Shortly after receipt, Jones forwarded his response:

Charleston, S.C., April 27, 1864.
General Samuel Cooper,
Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.:

Your telegram of this date regarding movements of troops from Savannah received. The orders for their movement were given without delay. Your change of orders for the Sixty-third and Sixty-fourth Georgia Regiments occasioned some delay, as the latter had not returned from Florida. Another delay has been caused by the obligation of the South Carolina Railroad to deliver a certain amount of corn in Richmond per day, and I have not thought proper to give any order which would interfere with compliance with that obligation. The transportation of prisoners to the South has also caused delay in transportation of troops.

Sam. Jones,

This was not the first time, despite the short time in command, that Jones complained about the railroads.  Two days earlier, Jones responded to an inquiry asking why HIS movement to Charleston, assuming command there, had taken too long.  After establishing the date he had been relieved from duties on a court of inquiry, Jones proceeded to detail the problems encountered with his movement south:

As the Government had prohibited the running of passenger trains on some of the roads going South, and as I desired to send my horses to the department to which I had been ordered, I consulted the Quartermaster-General as to the route it would be most convenient to his department I should travel. He designated the route by Danville, Va., and through North Carolina. I accordingly started by that route on the 9th, and stopped that night to procure my personal baggage at the place, where I had left it. It rained heavily on the 9th and 10th instant, producing a flood such as had not been known in that section of country within this century.

The president of the Richmond and Danville Railroad informed me that his road had been much damaged by the flood, and that I would find difficulty and delay if I attempted to continue by that route.

The superintendent of the road informed me that trains could not pass over his road without interruption in less than two weeks. All the information I could obtain convinced me that I could reach Charleston sooner by way of Weldon than by the route on which I had started. I accordingly telegraphed to Richmond to ascertain if I could go by that route on which, as I had been informed, the Government had prohibited the running of passenger trains. On being informed that I could go by Weldon I started by that route, and traveled as rapidly as the cars would carry me. I was detained twenty-one hours at one point by the failure of the trains to connect, and arrived at this place without other stoppage on the 19th instant, and immediately on my arrival reported to General Beauregard.

So even before serving out his first few weeks in command, Jones found himself with a few “demerits” on his report card.  As he argued, none of the delays were his own fault.  Rather the by-product of the Confederate railroad policies which put the emphasis on moving much needed sustenance to Richmond and shuffling prisoners to camps in the deep south.  Somewhere between train-loads of corn and prisoners, troop trains ran.  And then somewhere between those, Sam Jones managed to get himself and his party to Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 453.)