This page is the work of one of our newest recruits Travis Roth.  Pvt. Roth joined our unit in Gettysburg 2013 and has undertaken the field of Railroads in the Civil War as his area of concentration.  The work below is his submission to warrant the rank of Artificer.  We welcome any constructive criticism which will help him/ us improve the information provided. -Capt. Raymond Ball Co.A US Engineers, Commanding

 An Overview of Railroad Engineering in the Civil War

Submitted by Travis Roth, Artificer, Co. A US Engineer Bn.


The American Civil War is really the first conflict in which the railroad successfully played a significant role; moving troops and supplies rapidly around the country on both sides. Although the expertise in managing and operating the railroads still primarily lay with the civilians who were in charge of these lines, the armies on both sides quickly realized the importance of their use. As such, the railroads during the Civil War became highly sought-after targets for raiding parties and moving armies. This is where the engineers came in.

First, let us discuss the importance of gauge, or track width as measured between the inner edges of the rails. When the war broke out, there were approximately 20,000 miles of track in the North and about 9000 in what would become the Confederacy. As shown in Figure 1, the North’s rail network was largely built to so-called ‘standard gauge,’ or 4 feet, 8.5 inches. In addition, the network was largely unified and, in some cases, redundant. This allowed for a rather robust system in which railroads helped each other through an efficient, streamlined system. On the other hand, the rail network in the South was fairly disjointed and used a wide variety of gauges. As such, this system was not as efficient; as time was lost as train loads changed gauges at junctions and railroad towns. It should also be noted that the Southern track was in poorer condition than that of the North; as heavy traffic frequently caused derailments by spreading the rails beyond the gauge’s tolerance and simply causing trains to slip off of the rails.

Figure 1: Much of the Northeast has been omitted fr this illustration. 

However it should be noted that the vast majority of this track was standard gauge.

On a similar note, let us switch to the subject of track construction. At the time, railroading in the United States was just over 30 years old, though the engineering design practices of the industry were fairly well-understood. The rails themselves were constructed of various grades of cast iron, as the mass-production of steel for such purposes was still in its infancy, and, at the time, largely confined to Great Britain. Fastening plates and rail spikes were constructed of the same material. Cross ties were constructed of various sorts of wood, treated with coal-tar creosote to resist rotting. Although nowadays, railroad track is well-elevated above the ground through a padding of ballast and sub-grade soil, this was not used as much during the Civil War, leading to, on one hand, simpler construction. This is gathered through photographic evidence, such as a quick glance at Figure 2, showing rather rough, unkempt roadbeds for railroads all over the country. On the other hand, this also meant higher maintenance requirements, particularly on Southern railways.


Figure 2: Men of the Federal Army rebuilding a bridge.  Notice the bed construction of the tracks as well.


Construction of what is termed ‘right-of-way’ was, and still is, fairly simple business. A small detail of men with shovels can move earth to level a roadbed, another group comes forward and lays down cross ties at regular intervals, and a final detachment comes through with fasteners, spikes, and rails, hammering the assembly to the cross ties in the process. General Herman Haupt, a skilled railroad engineer and organizer, is shown observing a detail of men excavating earth to build a new turnaround track in Figure 3.

Figure3:  General Haupt, in charge of field railroad operations, stands atop the embankment on the right to observe field work. Note that the locomotive bears his name. This photograph was taken at Devereux Station on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad in 1863.

As vulnerable as rail infrastructure was to moving armies and raiding parties, there was no part of this more vulnerable than bridges. Largely constructed of timber, these structures presented a prime target to any raiding party equipped with anything involving fire. General Herman Haupt once again put his expertise to excellent use in bridge replacement (The man was hand-picked by Secretary of War Stanton himself), having already distinguished himself in restoring operations to the Alexandria yard and wharf, and he had already had much experience in helping to build the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad.

First taking command of the United States Military Railroads in Virginia, Haupt began by assembling a full-time crew of railroad construction workers, including soldiers, civilian craftsmen, and freed slaves. He then expanded the existing rail yards in Alexandria, and then distinguished himself as an engineering genius in the rebuilding of the Potomac Creek Bridge (Figure 4). To illustrate the expertise of Haupt and his crew, the original bridge took three years to construct. After retreating Confederate soldiers burned it down, Haupt and his men surveyed the damage. Using green saplings and local wood, it took just over one week before trains were running over the bridge again. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “Haupt has built a bridge over which loaded trains are running every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but beanpoles and cornstalks.” A quick glance at the structure shows that it is, indeed, rather sparse. The scale is, nonetheless, rather imposing. The train gives a rather impressive sense of scale; the actual bridge is dimensioned at 400 feet long and 100 feet above the creek. Furthermore, 200,000 feet of boards were used to construct the bridge. As further testament to the ingenuity of Haupt and the engineers of the United States Military Railroads, the bridge was rebuilt twice more during the course of the war and was not abandoned until 1899, when a sturdier, more modern span was built just down the creek. Finally, this persistence, ingenuity, and improvisation proved rather irritating to the Confederacy; as one Southern soldier put it, “Them Yankeescan burn bridges faster than us Rebels can burn ‘em down.” Other bridges constructed more sturdily, in fact, used a truss of Haupt’s design, as shown in Figure 5. These were known as ‘shad belly’ trusses by the troops and workers due to their unusual, fish-like shape.


Figure 5: A Haupt Truss Bridge design for railroad applications


Though these could theoretically be constructed of metal, they were virtually all constructed from timber. We can see the parabolic arch spanning the truss, which transfers weight outward to the ends of the bridge, where it is balanced by the earth and abutments on either side. Their prefabricated design meant that they could easily be shipped to the front lines for rapid bridge construction. Furthermore, their relatively small size, with each chord being 60 feet long, meant that they could be moved quickly by ship or by rail to the nearest build site.

It can clearly be seen that a multitude of areas of civil and mechanical engineering converged during the great War Between the States. Locomotive technology, metallurgy, surveying, and the telegraph all played their own roles in different ways, though, for our purposes, these go beyond the scope of this brief overview. In particular, the Union army was ultimately able to bring the mighty industrial power of its railroads to bear due to the brave people behind the scenes who ran this vast war machine. Engineering expertise also played a role in even the destruction of various railroads, as shown in Sherman’s March to the Sea and attempted in such feats as The Great Locomotive Chase. As such, it is with great pride that I conclude this overview of railroad engineering during the great rebellion.


Works Cited


Blay, John S. "Communications." The Civil War: A Pictorial Profile. New York: Crowell, 1958. 238-41. Print.

"Civil War Love Letters: June 23, 1862." History Happens Here. Web. 07 Aug. 2013.

Hogg, Ian V. "The Supporting Services; Railroads."Weapons of the Civil War. New York: Military, 1987. 134-41. Print.

Miller, William J., and Brian C. Pohanka. "Railroads." An Illustrated History of the Civil War: Images of an American Tragedy. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, 2000. 196-201. Print.

"Potomac Creek Bridge." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 07 Aug. 2013.

"Potomac Creek Bridge Marker." The Historical Marker Database. Web. 07 Aug. 2013.

"The Railroad In War." The Civil War: A Visual History. Ed. Jemima Dunne and Paula Regan. 1st ed. New York: DK Pub., 2011. 218-19. Print.

"Railroads Gauges in 1861." Railroads and the Making of Modern America. Web. 07 Aug. 2013.

"Records Relating to the U.S. Military Railroads."Records Relating to the U.S. Military Railroads. Web. 07 Aug. 2013.

"Thetford and the Sayers Bridge." Vermont's Covered Bridges, Vermont, Tours, History, Trusses. Web. 07 Aug. 2013.

"United States Military Railroad System during the Civil War." A. Lincoln Learning. Web. 07 Aug. 2013.


I would first like to thank the re-enactors of Co. A of the US Engineers for granting me this opportunity. I have been able to show what I do know and even learned a bit more in the process. In addition, I extend thanks to the re-enactors of the 3rd Maryland United States Volunteer Infantry, Co. A, for bringing me this far into my historical knowledge of the Civil War and immersing me in the period for the past five years. Finally, I would like to extend my greatest thanks to my family, who have both supported and put up with my involvement in this hobby. -T. Roth, Artificer, Co. A, US Engineer Bn.