Confederate railroads: at a deficit from the start
The US Civil War is seen as the first major military conflict in which railroads played a key role.
Besides being essential to communication, railroads were used by both North and South for transporting troops and supplies, beginning with the first major battle of the struggle, First Manassas, in July 1861.
But the South was at a decided disadvantage when it came to rail infrastructure, according to the 2008 book Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina.
“Because of their inferior construction, most Southern railroads of the time could sustain only light traffic. Heavy grading was avoided if at all possible, and most tracks were laid directly on thin earthen embankments,” author H. David Stone Jr. writes.
“At certain points along the road, the clay-enriched soil used for embankments retained so much water that the constant addition of sand and gravel was required for preservation of the grade,” Stone adds in his work, published by the University of South Carolina Press.
Not surprising to anyone who has spent any time off the beaten path in the Deep South, Southern rail companies tended to face natural obstacles that were decidedly less common up north.
“Railroads situated along coastal plains required trestles and pile bridges to cross the many creeks, streams, and swamps,” according to Vital Rails.
Bridges across larger rivers were mostly wooden trestles that were susceptible to floods and fire, and the construction of such structures added to the considerable expense of railroad construction, Stone writes.
In addition, excessive heat and humidity in the South meant ties needed to be replaced every five years or so, as compared to every eight to 10 years in the north.
And while the rolling stock of the antebellum and Civil War period were in many ways similar to what’s used today, the typical train car of that era had a load limit of 16,000 pounds.
Because most locomotives had an operating capacity of approximately 300,000 pounds, most trains of the 1860s pulled a maximum of 15 cars, and usually at a low rate of speed, 15 to 20 miles per hour due to the relatively inferior condition of the infrastructure, according to Vital Rails.
Remember that the next time you see a modern locomotive pulling 100 or more cars loaded with coal – with each car weighing 120 tons – blasting along at 50 to 70 miles an hour across the countryside.