Since the Civil War, American railroads have supported U.S. combat efforts, developing the innovative technologies needed to strengthen military operations and achieve victory.
During the Civil War (1861-1865) — often called the ‘first railroad war’ — railroads became the vital new technology for both Union and Confederate forces. They moved unprecedented numbers of troops and supplies, while introducing ironclad railcars — capable of carrying big guns and artillery — that later evolved into modern armored combat vehicles.
1. A Military Advantage: Railroads
During the Civil War, the industrialized Union possessed an enormous advantage over the Confederacy — they had 20,000 miles of railroad track, more than double the Confederacy’s 9,000 miles. Troops and supplies that were previously dependent on man or horse power could now move easily by rail, making railroads attractive military targets. The Union controlled 70% of the country’s total miles of track and owned 96% of U.S. railroad equipment, which meant it was ideally prepared for damage replacement when bridges, rail rights-of-way or rolling stock were destroyed. This strength was an early indicator of rail’s ability to shape future military strategy.
2. A Turning Point in the Civil War
In the winter of 1863, President Lincoln ordered Union army reinforcements of 25,000 men and ten batteries of cannons to join the battle in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Thanks to the speed of freight rail, this torrent of troops and firepower covered the 600-mile distance in only eleven days. Since Chattanooga was an important Confederate rail and industrial center, many historians consider the Union’s victory in the Chattanooga Campaign to be the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
3. The Future of Combat: Railroad Guns
Moving massive artillery to battlefields presented significant challenges during wartime. In a letter dated June 5, 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee asked, “Is there a possibility of constructing an iron plated battery mounting a heavy gun on trucks, the whole covered with iron to move along the York River railroad?” The newly conceived rail guns provided the mobility and force that changed future combat. The first railroad gun was used during the Siege of Petersburg in Virginia that same June. Called The Dictator, the cannon weighed more than 17,000 pounds when mounted on a flatbed railroad car.
4. The Precursor to Contemporary Military Vehicles
The cannons mounted on railroad cars meant a battery could fire while moving, while the thick armor protected troops. These iron boxcars, with openings for artillery fire, were the precursors to today’s tanks. Rifle cars — armored from the inside — protected rail repairmen and supply trains, serving as early models for infantry fighting vehicles. Similar mounted guns and weapon technology would later be successfully adopted by battleships in the first and second World Wars.
5. Boosting World War I Efforts
America’s entry into World War I pushed its railroads to new levels of operation. President Wilson nationalized railroads in March 1918 and guaranteed the return of the railroads to their former owners within 21 months of a peace treaty. The government ordered 1,930 locomotives and bought 100,000 new cars to transport supplies critical for making munitions and delivering the next generation of railway guns and artillery cargo to the U.S. Navy. The numbers of boxcar coal shipments and tank cars carrying petroleum, oils, lubricants and chemicals soared, while passenger train use was curtailed to help conserve precious fuel.
6. Carrying the Wounded On Hospital Trains
The Civil War introduced wartime use of trains for medical evacuation, improvising rough versions of hospital cars from available rolling stock. This tradition carried into World War II. In 1917, the wounded were cared for and moved in custom-built unit trains made from converted Pullman cars. Army hospital trains flourished during World War II, when medical evacuation by air was in its infancy. Two years before America’s entry into World War II, the U.S. Army began building enhanced hospital unit cars, boasting new features such as side doors to facilitate patient loading and compact operating rooms.
7. Readying America for World War II
In 1940, just prior to World War II, American railroads moved 70% of all freight transported in the United States. That number skyrocketed between the war years of 1942 and 1944. The nation saw record-setting increases in both passenger and freight volume, with railroads carrying more than 90% of the military’s freight and 98% of its personnel. Massive troop movement filled available passenger trains, and railroads worked overtime to accommodate demand. Period ads showing trains packed with servicemen encouraged patriotic Americans to avoid all unnecessary travel.
8. Improving Performance through Diesel Locomotion
Diesel-electric locomotion was first introduced during World War I, but it was during World War II that it became truly integral to expanding America’s rail capacity during wartime. Unlike steam locomotives, the diesels could travel longer distances without stops for servicing or water. They could also be mass-produced to meet the growing rail demand of America’s booming post-war economy. The conversion was well underway by 1944, with 608 diesel-electric locomotives built that year, compared to only 491 steam locomotives. Once again, U.S. railroads were leading America and its allies to victory by developing and deploying new transportation technology.
9. Troops & Tanks Delivered by Rail
From the end of 1941 to June 1945, American railroads carried nearly 44 million servicemen and women, and in the war’s final years the United States averaged 2,500 troop trains monthly. America’s railroads continued transporting armed forced personnel in the Korean War (1950-1953), with large numbers of unit trains brining troops west to ship out to Japan and then Korea. During the Korean War, the Army bought flatcars capable of moving the new, heavier M46 Patton tanks, while the Navy purchased DF damage free boxcars, specially constructed with a load securement system for the safe transportation of ammunition.
10. Freight Rail Answers America’s Call
Early on, American railroads learned that technical innovations improved safety and efficiency — qualities the country came to rely on in times of war and peace. That same dedication to advancing technology continues to enhance military rail transport operations today. Building rail facilities near military bases facilitates supply shipments and decreases deployment time. A division deployment that would take 28 days back in 1991 will now only take a single week. Essential to transporting military personnel, supplies and weaponry since the Civil War, railroads continue to answer the call, supporting America’s military goals while helping to return our armed forces home safely.