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Map of the railroads of the Confederacy


One of the key factors in determining strategies during the Civil War were the railroads of the Confederacy. The map above shows the principal  lines. Each  number indicates the stretch belonging to a particular private owner, and traveling from one stretch to another usually involved a change in gauge. This required either changing engines and rolling stock, or a time-consuming adjustment in the width of the wheels when the engines and cars were set up for this.

The two east-west trunk lines ran, respectively, from Atlanta to Vicksburg and from Lynchburg to Memphis. The more northern trunk line was complete at the beginning of the war, but contested by both sides from the beginning. The more southern line was relatively safe from attack by Union troops during most of the war, but it was not complete. The stretch from Meridian, Miss. to Selma, Ala. was completed during the war, but the stretch from Selma (an important manufacturing center with steel production and cannon works) to Montgomery, Ala. was never completed during the war. Traffic either continued for those 50 miles on the Alabama river, or made the detour to Mobile, Ala. which, however, also involved the inconvenience of taking a boat across Mobile bay.

Given the vulnerability of the northern line, it seems astounding to us today that the Confederate government, which surely understood the importance of the more southern line, could not marshall the resources to complete it. There are various reasons, however, which help to explain why it could not do this. The shortage of rails is not a reason because, although the Confederacy did not produce one single rail during the entire conflict, it did dismantle several secondary lines in order use their rails as armor for iron-clads.

The Confederacy was simply not able to find the political backing for taking over the management of the railroads from their private owners, so the owners were allowed to formulate their policies and and carry out planning almost completely in view of their particular economic constraints. Business in Mobile were, for example, able to hinder the completion of the stretch between Selma and Montgomery because said completion would have reduced the traffic through Mobile and over the existing lines serving Mobile, thus harming business interests in that area.

As the famous epitaph expressed it: "Here lies the Confederacy, died of an idea."


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