Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat

By Sinisi, Kyle S. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat


Sinisi, Kyle S., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat. By JOHN E. CLARK, JR. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. xviii, 275 pp. $34.95.

IN 1863, both the Union and the Confederacy completed massive strategic transfers of troops that helped define transport capabilities in modern warfare. For the Confederacy, the transfer came in September when Robert E. Lee sent James Longstreet and 13,000 troops almost 1,000 miles by rail to join Braxton Bragg near Chattanooga. Arriving in the midst of battle, many of these troops were decisive in the Confederate victory at Chickamauga. Five days later, the Union reciprocated with its own largescale troop movement to Chattanooga when Ulysses S. Grant sent 23,000 men by rail from northern Virginia. These troops then helped secure a supply line into a starving city and prevented the collapse of the Army of the Cumberland.

John E. Clark uses these troop movements to explore the managerial efficiency of the Union and Confederacy in their handling of the railroads. In the process, he illustrates the staggering complexity of the movements. Soldiers and railroad men had to juggle thousands of troops, multiple lines, different track gauges, and myriad other logistical details. In Clark's story, the resulting operations provide clear lessons with broad implications for managing a war economy.

Clark argues convincingly that the Union's troop transfer was remarkably efficient. Using legislated powers that centralized government control of the railroads, the military was able to work harmoniously with capable rail executives to surmount all obstacles. Clark contends that the Confederacy's railroads, by contrast, were a mess and that Longstreet's movement was only partially successful. Rolling stock and track were decaying. Companies failed to cooperate with the military, and there were literally too few Confederates who knew how to make a railroad run on time. Thus only half of Longstreet's troops arrived in time to affect the course of battle. There is plenty of blame to be assigned for this situation, but Clark focuses on Jefferson Davis and his wartime management of rail transport. To Clark, Davis was either indecisive or simply ignorant of the importance of the railroads. …

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