May 24, 2012

Destroying Railroads

Michigan engineers destroying track in Atlanta using the
Haupt's hooks and levers. This photo also
shows a nice close up of the turnout frog.
As I am finishing up reading Sherman's memoirs I am struck by how much importance he attached to  destroying the southern railroad network. Thomas discusses this in his book and I mentioned this in an earlier post.  

I find it interesting and somewhat contradictory that he was able to take his army of 60,000 men across Georgia without any railroad link to the rear with a primary objective to destroy railroads and other industrial capacity of his opponent. 

This ability to break the connection with his own rails to his supply sources was because his march was really a giant raid. (The military defines a raid as an operation to or mission with a specific purpose but not intended to capture and hold terrain.) His army was able to forage easily on the previously undisturbed countryside of Georgia.

The first night out we camped by the road-side near Lithonia. Stone Mountain, a mass of granite, was in plain view, cut out in clear outline against the blue sky; the whole horizon was lurid with the bonfires of rail-ties, and groups of men all night were carrying the heated rails to the nearest trees, and bending them around the trunks. Colonel Poe had provided tools for ripping up the rails and twisting them when hot; but the best and easiest way is the one I have described, of heating the middle of the iron-rails on bonfires made of the cross-ties, and then winding them around a telegraph-pole or the trunk of some convenient sapling. I attached much importance to this destruction of the railroad, gave it my own personal attention, and made reiterated orders to others on the subject.
Nevertheless, once his army reached the sea, he reestablished supply lines with the north mostly relying on ships though he also rebuilt some of the rail lines in South and North Carolina. I don't think a comparable march could have been made in Northern Virginia in 1864 as the countryside would not support the forage needs of the army.   

In observing previous raids by both Union and Confederate cavalry, Sherman was unimpressed by the damage they did and with the ease at which both sides could repair them.  He came to believe that to really destroy a railroad required the dedicated effort of a large body of infantry supported by pioneers. These pioneers would use the hooks and levers developed by Haupt.

This next passage describes how effective the hooks and levers were in wrecking a railroad. He contradicts his earlier passage by saying the hooks were more effective than heating and bending around a tree - the so called, "Sherman's Neck Ties."

I have been so busy lately that I have not yet made my official report, and I think I had better wait until I get my subordinate reports before attempting it, as I am anxious to explain clearly not only the reasons for every step, but the amount of execution done, and this I cannot do until I get the subordinate reports; for we marched the whole distance in four or more columns, and, of course, I could only be present with one, and generally that one engaged in destroying railroads. This work of destruction was performed better than usual, because I had an engineer-regiment, provided with claws to twist the bars after being heated. Such bars can never be used again, and the only way in which a railroad line can be reconstructed across Georgia is, to make a new road from Fairburn Station (twenty-four miles southwest of Atlanta) to Madison, a distance of one hundred miles; and, before that can be done, I propose to be on the road from Augusta to Charleston, which is a continuation of the same. 
While most civil war campaigns were fought within 20 miles of a rail  or river line, some of the most memorable campaigns, such as Sherman's March to the sea, Grant's Vicksburg Campaign and Lee's two invasions of the north were conducted for long periods without rail or riverine logistics support. In all these cases the armies were marching across relatively unspoiled terrain that allowed for foraging.

These active scenes of destruction are largely absent from my railroad as I model a line when it was competently rebuilt and under heavy service. Instead I show the aftermath of destruction and the quickly rebuilt nature of the line. Nonetheless,  I think the destruction of a piece of railroad would make a good subject for a diorama.

Union soldiers burning water tanks and their pump houses at Jarret's Station south of
Richmond. This is not on Sherman's march, but it is one of the only views of a railroad water pump house I
 have been able to find.


  1. A fascinating subject, and the conclusions would be forgotten again until WW2 and after. Railroads are quite hard things to destroy effectively.

  2. On May 24, 2012, at 9:29 PM, Pete Magoun wrote:


    Just read the blog on ripping up rails. Although you've stated that yours are rebuilt and in "heavy service," would it make sense to make a small "stack" of twisted, burned out rails on the side of the ROW somewhere? This would serve to highlight the extent of the destruction and yet nearby, the resurrection of rail lines. Of course, I have no idea whatsoever of whether or not this technique was used in NOVA, but it sounds interesting and it might help with frustration some fine night....


    My reply:

    Not a bad idea but....

    The confederates destroyed the line first. They actually pulled up the rails and ties and took them south. Then they trampled the roadbed with cavalry.

    I am not sure what the Union did with the rails in Nov 1862 when they destroyed the line under Burnsides'order. No photos of the line show twisted rail along the side of the right of way. If there was any they may have policed it up by then to reuse or prevent the rebs from using it by the time I am modeling.