Due to the heavy emphasis on steam transportation, especially by rail the government was better equipped to man and supply vast areas of the nation in combat. The train also traveled at a far greater speed than other more traditional forms of transport, as much as 5 times faster than the mule-drawn wagons of the day. Therefore fewer vehicles were needed and supplies and people arrived in far better condition than they had in the past.
Troops traveling by train rather than on foot experienced less fatigue and fewer instances of straggling and desertion, even though the freight cars used for most troop movements were anything but comfortable. Supplies hauled by rail were more likely to reach the troops in useable condition, owing both to the speed of delivery and to the shelter afforded by enclosed railroad cars.
There are countless examples of the alterations that these controls had over the war logistics as well as the advantage it afforded the government to control the rail systems.
A in 1864, Major General William T. Sherman waged an offensive campaign with an army of 100,000 men and 35,000 animals (see map 1). His supply line consisted of a single-track railroad extending 473 miles from Atlanta to his main supply base at Louisville. Sherman estimated that this rail line did the work of 36,800 wagons and 220,800 mules!
The Atlanta campaign, won by Sherman is but one example of the logistic advantage of the rail system, in government control. This is not to say that the Confederate army did not also have control of such resources, as they controlled many of what are known as the interior lines, or rail lines that led into the center of fighting, rather than exterior lines that flanked the general area of combat. The difference seems to be that the Union rail lines were superior to those held by the Confederates and therefore made the interior lines less than effective by traditional standards, even though they were significantly more strategically placed. Gable gives two apposing examples of this change in what he calls the irrelevance of geographical disposition created by the superior Union rails, controlled by the government.
Effective use of railroads by the force on exterior lines might allow it to move as fast or faster than the force on the inside. In September 1863 Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps of 12,000 men traveled by rail, on interior lines, from Virginia to northern Georgia where it reinforced General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Chickamauga. Longstreet's corps traveled roughly 800 miles in about twelve days. Two weeks after the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, two Union corps (the XI and XII), totaling 25,000 men, traveled 1,200 miles from Virginia to the Chattanooga front, where they reinforced the defeated Army of the Cumberland (see map 2). This movement on exterior lines also took about twelve days, even though the distance was greater and the number of troops larger. Thus, the more efficient Union railroads demonstrated the potential to nullify Confederate interior lines.
The control of the rail system, be it interior or exterior also dictated the distribution of the fighting, because the rails dictated the proximity of soldiers and supplies. It is therefore unique up to this point that a form of transportation dictates the battle lines of a war and created a much smaller scope of fighting in many cases.
Paradoxically, at the level of the individual field armies, railroads actually restricted maneuver. Field armies tended to bunch up around their railheads. One reason for this was the interface at the railhead of two very different modes of transportation. Up to the railhead, supplies and reinforcements traveled on the industrial-age railroad. Beyond the railhead, transportation depended upon muscle power. In other words, it was often easier to move troops and supplies hundreds of miles from the home front to the railhead than it was to move even a few miles beyond it. Like water behind a dam, armies gathered in large, nearly unassailable masses around their railheads.
The Potomac Union army is the best example given by Gable in this demonstration of change:
The Union Army of the Potomac spent most of the war operating on one of two railheads -- the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the Aquia Creek section of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac (see map 3). The Aquia Creek line was particularly noteworthy; railroad cars could run straight through Washington D.C. To Alexandria, where they were loaded onto barges carrying eight cars apiece. Steam-powered tugs took the barges to Aquia Creek where the cars were reassembled into trains and run to the front at Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg. A sixteen-car train could travel from Washington to Falmouth in twelve hours. There was no transloading involved. By 1863 the Aquia Creek line averaged about 800 tons of supplies (eighty railroad cars) per day (see table 3).
Subsequently, a great deal of fighting in this area took place in the general area of Fredericksburg, as there was then little need to transport this mass of supplies and men from the railhead, and therefore the mule-transport system was not relied upon as heavily, as it would have had to be if the fighting moved farther away from the railheads.
Additionally, the army standing near a railhead had significant advantage in that it could reinforce and re-supply faster than any outside force, attempting to attack it and relying on muscle power to do so.
If one were to juxtapose the two maps above, it would be realized that the Confederate army, at least up to 1863 had a considerable advantage, looking simply at the number of rail lines they controlled. Yet, the difference is made for the two forces when the Union rail lines are continually improved upon, in the face of superior technology to begin with, as the war goes on and as the interior lines become less strategically advantageous to the Confederates. Furthermore, it seems that government control, by the forces that had greater resources, and less real strategic damage to their own land would be at advantage as the war went on. Lincoln's appointment of experts to logistical forces, both military and civilian proved extremely useful to the effort of reunification of the seceded states and the official U.S. government, as did the establishment of official governmental control over the rail lines. The rail system, through the rail car hospital even made fighting injury and illness different than had been done in the past, as the system allowed the hospital to travel to the greatest area of need.
In fact many officers of the Union and Confederate armies were given commendation as much for their ability to run a campaign as for their ability to help build railroads, and use them effectively, as well as sabotage those that were in the hands of the enemy.
The Union had superior technology but more importantly superior ability to apply what some experts call "railroad generalship."
Civil War generals had to learn "railroad generalship" in the field. Robert E. Lee graduated from West Point in 1829-the same year that the first steam locomotive ran in the United States. Needless to say, his formal military education included nothing on railroads. The situation had changed little, if at all, ten years later when Ulysses S. Grant graduated. These men, like other higher commanders, quickly learned that railroad generalship was a critical factor at all levels of war. 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.
The government took action by establishing a dominance in a partnership with private rail lines, as most were still local and private enterprises at the time of the war.
The Union had to figure out a way to organize and manage a transportation system, that they neither owned nor controlled, or really even completely understood. For this reason the Union created a system of cooperation that allowed the military to manage, with help and learn about how to manage the Southern rails as they were captured.
A 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. On the Union side, the solution to this challenge involved both formal legislation guaranteeing military priorities and an informal agreement that the railroads could support the war effort and still turn a fair profit. 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…