The Railroads of the Confederacy

Robert C. Black III

(Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1952), 360 pages.


The Railroads of the Confederacy by Robert C. Black III
The Railroads of the Confederacy by Robert C. Black III

I became interested in this book on the recommendation of Greg Biggs during our field October 2011 field trip to trace General Sherman’s Atlanta campaign (Part 1, up to Kennesaw Mountain).  Greg was talking about Southern railroads and their different gauges, and pointed out that Robert Black’s book has a nifty fold-out map in the back that depicts these.  And indeed, it does.

The War of Southern Secession was considered the first modern war, one indicator being the widespread use of railroads for strategic and operational maneuver as well as logistical support, so I was fascinated at the idea of the differing gauges and the problems that would cause.  Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach.  More contemporarily, it is said, “Amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics.”  Be that as it may, the importance of railroads and their contribution to the Southern war effort was a topic ripe for deeper inquiry.

For depth on the subject, this book fits the bill.  It opens with a tour of Southern railroads – where they were, how they operated, and who operated them.  Aspect by aspect, state by state, it is a comparison of rail lines and companies, personalities civilian and military, as well as successes and failures.   It describes in great detail how keeping Confederate railroads operational was a struggle within a struggle – growing scarcity of parts due to blockade, limited sources internally and overseas – all had telling effect, which Robert Black captures in abundant detail.  He covers technical details of tracks, locomotives, and rolling stock; ownership and corporate structures; personalities; conflicts and cooperation between the various railroad companies, the Confederate government, and the Confederate military; way bills and passenger fares; capacities and capabilities; corporate economies and struggles; and the list goes on.

The large fold-out map in the back of the book is outstanding, but it isn’t alone.  Robert Black filled the books with outstanding rail line maps to cover every sector of the South as he worked his way through them geographically and chronologically.  He also has period photos, drawings and facsimiles of various locomotives, personalities, documents, and other aspects of the history.

It is interesting to see how the Confederacy, with no experience with railroads in time of war, grappled with and learned to use them – never fully efficiently, I might add.  The Confederate war effort needed the railroads, but as commercial business enterprises, the war crushed the railroads.  He details the deterioration of capabilities, railroad by railroad, due to steady depletion of engines and rolling stock, rails, repair facilities, wood (for fuel) and other commodities needed for operation of the trains, and, most especially as the war wore on, trained personnel to run and service the locomotives, rolling stock, rail lines, and rail yards.

Moreover, there was continuing and escalating friction within and between the Confederate military and the railroad companies as the war progressed.  The friction extended to the various states and the central government in Richmond.  Ironically, the philosophical core of the Confederacy – independence of the states – got in the way of the efficient operation of the railroads and their collective contribution to the Southern war effort.  Surprisingly (to me, at least), the Confederacy not only never nationalized the railroads, it never developed and implemented an efficient nationwide rail management system in cooperation with the States.  The Confederate Army stepped up and struggled with the problem, but its efforts were just as disjointed between the various military departments and major commands.

Nonetheless, the railroads of the Confederacy played a critical role in the conduct of the war.  Mr. Black describes the central importance of Corinth, Mississippi in the Western Theater, and how it led to Shiloh and subsequent movements in northern Mississippi and Alabama as operations shifted towards Chattanooga.  While he doesn’t go into great detail, leaving that to other, more specific histories, he does provide overviews of the various strategic movements such as the movement of Johnston’s army to join Beauregard’s at First Manassas, connecting Jackson’s Valley Campaign to the Peninsula operations, the movement of Bragg’s army from Mississippi to Chattanooga, and Longstreet’s corps from Richmond to Chickamauga, among others.  And, of course, he touches on the Great Locomotive Chase.  Again, these are at summary level, but nonetheless effectively demonstrate the importance of rail movements.

As I worked my way through the book, I was struck once again by the enormity of the economic and social dislocation and harm wrought on the South by the war, and the numbing magnitude of rebuilding and renovation that lay before them once the war ended.  Surprisingly, the railroads rebounded rather quickly.  Their importance for rebuilding the South was recognized and leveraged.

Robert Black was a Trinity College history professor (1950-1967), author, and longtime railroad buff.  He died February 5, 2011. According to his obituary in the Hartford Courant (Connecticut), he became fascinated by railroads when he received a set of toy trains from his grandmother when he was 3. After graduating from the Taft School in Watertown and Williams College in Massachusetts, Black pursued his passion by landing a job as a freight clerk for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.  That passion led to Railroads of the Confederacy.

In sum, this is an outstanding book.  It provides an in-depth look at a strategic Confederate resource and, in the process, gives insight to the strengths and weaknesses of the Confederacy itself.  Despite the detail, it is an easy and fun read.  At 360 pages, including Index, it overflows with information critical to understanding how the Confederacy prosecuted the war.

And by the way, if you read this book and want still more detail, try  If the book and the website don’t do it for you, your next step is probably professional therapy!  In the meantime, get your hands on this book, and enjoy!