Railroad Generalship: Foundations of civil war strategy, railway conquest of the world

By Frederick Arthur Ambrose Talbot

Since the dawn of history, military strategy has been dominated by the inexorable calculus of logistics — distance, time, transport capacity, and consumption. For thousands of years, every army that waged war relied upon the muscles of its men and animals to carry it across the countryside. It is sobering to consider that, up until 1830, every soldier that ever went into battle got there on his own feet or by the efforts of an animal. Every weapon, every round of ammunition, every pound of food eaten by an army, every tent peg, and every bandage reached the battlefield by muscle power. The only exceptions were those resources transported by water and those extracted from the countryside.

Ironically, the armies with the largest contingents of draft animals for their supply trains also, faced the most difficult logistical challenges: each of the animals pulling a supply wagon had to eat too, which meant that even more wagons and animals were needed to carry food for the animals hauling supplies for the fighting troops. Naturally, one then needed animals to carry fodder for the animals carrying fodder. This pattern of diminishing returns compounded dramatically the farther an army got from its supply base. Typically, food for animals constituted more than half of an army’s supply requirement. Under the best of circumstances, an army relying exclusively on muscle-power transport could carry a maximum of about ten days’ worth of supplies. No wonder that armies of the preindustrial age were so often hungry, ragged, and exhausted, spending far more time scouring the countryside for food than they did fighting the enemy.

Nowhere was this more true than in North America. The New World was just too big a battleground for armies moving by muscle power. In addition to the vast distances involved, roads were generally poor, and much of the countryside was undeveloped, offering little to a foraging army. Consider the various conflicts fought in North America–colonial wars, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812–and one finds that often the biggest challenge in planning a campaign was just getting to the battlefield without starving en route. Fighting the enemy was almost incidental. This is why, in colonial days, a log fort containing a few dozen soldiers and some barrels of wormy flour could dominate thousands of square miles of wilderness-nobody else could get there in any condition to dispute ownership.

What exactly did steam power do for military logistics? Obviously, a railroad train could carry more tons of cargo than a mule-drawn wagon, but this alone did not confer any logistical advantage, for one could make up the difference in tonnage simply by adding more mules and wagons. The steam locomotive’s advantage resided in the fact that it could haul more supplies farther on a given amount of fuel. A team of six mules drawing a wagon carrying 1.5 tons of supplies could travel approximately 333 miles on one ton of food. Multiplying 1.5 tons by 333 miles yields 500 ton-miles of transport capacity generated by that ton of mule forage. In contrast, a Civil War-era freight locomotive could travel only thirty-five miles or so on a ton of fuel, but its payload could be as high as 150 tons, yielding 5,250 ton-miles per ton of fuel consumed. (Steamboats, incidently, did even better.)

Trains, moreover, traveled about five times faster than mule-drawn wagons, which not only expedited the delivery of supplies but actually reduced the number of supply vehicles required. Faster travel meant more round trips in a given time, which meant that fewer vehicles were needed to maintain the required flow of supplies. Faster travel also meant that cargoes, be they men or supplies, arrived at the front in better condition. 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.

In sum, the advent of the steam-powered railroad boosted logistical output by at least a factor of ten. Such a dramatic development was bound to have a major impact on strategy in the American Civil War. Most notably, the railroad increased enormously the geographical scale of military operations. An army supplied by railroad could operate effectively even when hundreds of miles from its main base of supply. Such a capability allowed the waging of war on a continental scale, enabling armies to conduct campaigns that would have been unthinkable with wagon-haul logistics. Railroads also permitted armies to become larger. In previous North American wars, armies of 30,000 taxed the limits of wagon-haul logistics and local requisition. But in 1864, Major General William T. Sherman waged an offensive campaign with an army of 100,000 men and 35,000 animals. 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!

Railroads were first employed on a great scale in the Italian War of 1859, both to transport the Austrian army into Italy and to move the French troops to the center of the Mediterranean country. The role of the Italian railroads should also be recalled in moving the French troops from the right to the left wing (Pontecurone-AlexandrieCassale). With this exception and that of the War of Secession and the Campaign of Schleswig-Holstein in 1864, railroads in Europe were used more or less only as an expedient and did not possess the fundamental importance which they held in the wars of 1866 and 1870-71.

In 1866 the Austrians profited by the experience of 1859 and realized considerable advantage in strategic development and in the movement of the Italian troops to the vicinity of Vienna. The employment of railroads for the mobilization and the development of the Prussian troops was a model. Finally the Franco-German war proved from the point of view of strategical development what extraordinary service to the State a well developed network of railroads can render in case of war, under a rational system of administration and when the methods of transportation have been prepared in the most minute details. The rapid assembly of the German troops at their proper destinations was one of the principal factors of the victory gained over the French who were not sufficiently prepared in this respect.

Germany studied the railroad problem prior to the 1870 Franco-German war, and in that conflict made extensive use of the railways in mobilizing and concentrating its troops. The French, not having sufficiently studied the problem and not contemplating the loss of Paris, were seriously handicapped. The railroad system, being built to accommodate civil commerce only, radiated from Paris to the provinces, and, when Paris was invested, many of the provinces not occupied by the Germans were cut off from each other, as the only transfer junctions were in this beleaguered city.

Transportation by rail which lasts several days necessitates special measures for the supply and care of troops and horses. When, in 1870, the French troops were thrown on to the frontier in great precipitation, nothing had been prepared; the troops had to manage the best way they could. The command “help yourselves, or take care of yourselves” had to be used as a remedy. The consequences were soon to be seen; men arrived hungry and lacking in everything, even in discipline on the battlefield.

In 1870 the French accomplished the movement of the first army of the Louvre, beaten at Orleans, from Bourges to the east frontier to relieve Belfort. The Germans would certainly have utilized the railway in the same manner, if it had not been destroyed in numerous places or protected by the French fortresses. After the capitulation of Metz, the movement of the second German army to the Loire would have quickly decided the crisis which had developed there. Such movements exact great efforts from the military service of railways, for in the greater number of cases the necessity cannot be foreseen and there is only the minimum time for preparation.

By the end of the 19th century, railroads made it possible to transport people and goods quickly over long distances, and this transportation revolution soon affected military operations. Armies became reliant upon railroads for supplies, and during World War I, men and supplies flowed to the trenches in railroad cars. A familiar sight to American “Doughboys” was the French “forty and eight” railroad cars, which carried them to the front. These cars received their names because they could carry 40 men or eight horses, as was clearly painted on each boxcar.

During World War II, the little-changed “forty and eight” boxcars still transported supplies and troops to the front, but they also returned to Germany with new cargoes. Many Allied prisoners of war rode to German POW camps in these boxcars — sometimes with as many as 90 men forced into each boxcar. Millions of Holocaust victims were herded into similar boxcars on their way to concentration camps. Boxcars such as the one on display carried 168 Allied POWs from Paris to the Buchenwald concentration camp in August 1944. Many POWs endured harsh conditions during their trips to POW camps, which sometimes included attacks from Allied aircraft.

Roads were still of greater importance in all operations carried out near the enemy; but for the concentration of armies, for the rapid movements of troops from one theatre of operations to another, for all movements from the rear to the front in rear of an army in the broadest acceptation of the term, for the transport of every kind of materiel and supply, railways rank higher than roads in importance.

The greatest amount of traffic that can be carried on must always depend on the safety with which single trains can traverse the line. To ensure the latter, a train must travel with moderate speed, and be driven by an engine-driver acquainted with the line. Moreover, steps must be taken that the trains must always follow each other in the same direction at known intervals, and when coming in opposite directions not meet on the same line of track.

The speed with which a train is driven, depending on the power and number of the engines, the condition of the permanent way, and the resistance to travelling caused by friction (inclines and curves on the line, weight and number of carriages the train is composed of, and state of the weather) increases the danger of leaving the metals, smashing light carriages, breaking the couplings, etc.; but, on the other hand, on it depends the number of trains that can travel over a given length of line in a given time.

In the case of a double line, each line of track is used for trains going in the same direction only, and a train can at once start from any fixed station (railway station, halting place, or block station) as soon as the line has been reported clear from the next station after the passage of the preceding train. On a single line, the arrival of the train coming in the opposite direction must be waited for, and prudence renders enquiries necessary before departure. The time between trains for a given distance is thus rather more than double that taken by travelling only. The amount of traffic a line of railway is capable of, limited as above, will be relatively greater in proportion as trains move regularly in the same direction, and all overtaking and long delays avoided as much as possible.

Military Railways

Australia Trans Australian Railway
Belgium Orient Express
British Empire Cape to Cairo Railway
Canada Canadian Pacific Railway
China – Manchu Empire Battle of Concessions
China High-Speed Rail – Laos
China High-Speed Rail – Myanmar
China High-Speed Rail – Thai
China Malaya East Coast Rail Link (ECRL)
China Singapore High-Speed Rail
China China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)
French Empire Trans-Saharan Railway
German Empire German Railway
German Empire Berlin to Baghdad Railway
India State Railways
Russia Transcaspian Railway
Russia Orenburg-Tashkent Railway
Russia Trans Siberian Railway
Russia NSTC – North–South Transport Corridor
United States Transcontinental Railway
United States Strategic Rail (STRACNET)
United States NDN – Northern Distribution Network


Kehinde Olusegun

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