GENERALSHIP" & PROFITS
Command and General Staff College, Railroad
Generalship: Foundations of Civil War Strategy by Dr.
Christopher R. Gabel at
A new concept for old
school generals, had to be learned quickly in the
field. Railroad generalship at the strategic level
dealt with long-distance movements of troops and war
resources. Since most American railroads in the 1860s
were still small-scale local enterprises, such movements
typically involved coordination among multiple corporate
entities. Naturally, the military desired priority
treatment by the railroads, but railroad managers still
had an obligation to show a profit and to maintain
civilian traffic. Railroad corporations, civil
government, and the military were all involved in this
delicate balancing act.
would give the authority of the railroad and telegraph
systems to the U.S. Military. In January 1862, the
United States Congress authorized President Abraham
Lincoln to seize control of the railroads and telegraph
for military use. The operation of any rail lines seized
by the military was entrusted to a new War Department
agency called the U.S. Military Rail Roads (USMRR). In
practice, however, the USMRR restricted its authority to
Southern rail lines captured in the course of the war.
Except in time of extreme emergency, the military
counted on cooperation rather than coercion in dealing
with Northern railroads. Realistically, the military had
no choice. Relatively few military men were experts in
railroad transportation. The true experts in railroad
generalship at the strategic level were the civilian
executives who managed railroads as a profession.
Herman Haupt, the civilian railroad man in
uniform, established a system for tactical rail
generalship that eventually came into use
throughout both the eastern and western
theaters. His principles were simple and direct
and received the blessing of the secretary of
- No military
officers were to interfere in the running of
would be sent forward only as needed.
reaching the front were to be unloaded
immediately by anyone available. Officers
who refused to cooperate faced dismissal.
telegraph communications were unavailable,
trains would run according to a rigid
schedule. All trains departed on schedule,
fully loaded or not. Extra trains would pick
up the slack.
- On lines
where the absence of sidings prevented
opposing trains from passing each other,
convoys of five or six trains would travel
as a group. Each convoy delivered its cargo
and returned to base before the next convoy
What of the Confederates?
They also relied heavily
on railroads at both the strategic and tactical levels
and conducted many noteworthy troop movements in the
course of the war. However, the Confederacy began the
war with a fragmented and incomplete rail system (9,000
miles, as opposed to 20,000 miles in the north). Unlike
the Union, the Confederacy lacked the manufacturing
capacity to expand, or even maintain, its railroad
infrastructure once the fighting began. Moreover, it was
not until February 1865 that the Confederate government
asserted its authority over the railroads. For most of
the war, military traffic moved only at the discretion
of civilian railroad managers. There was no Confederate
equivalent of Thomas A. Scott or John W. Garrett who
possessed both the expertise and the authority to mesh
military requirements with corporate capabilities. There
was no Confederate Herman A. Haupt to institutionalize
and enforce the procedures for effective tactical rail
operations, and no Confederate Military Rail Roads to
operate lines in immediate support of the armies.
Civil War was the first conflict in which railroads
played a dominant role, thus introducing to the world a
military instrument that changed the face of warfare
Later World Wars in
Europe would organize their military railroad systems
after the pattern of the USMRR of the Civil War.
Civilians were a
necessary part of managing the new concept of "RAILROAD
GENERALSHIP." The Civil War was perhaps the last war
that showed the high level of cooperation of civilian,
political and military cooperation.