Chapter 14: Civil War Extra Credit
The Civil War is renowned for the introduction and employment of many new weapons, including rifled artillery, machine guns and submarines. To this list should also be added railroad weapons, which were the predecessors of modern armored fighting vehicles. Along with the transportation of artillery, these trains brought over fighting soldiers and were also a way of communication.
During the war, railroads were second only to waterways in providing logistical support for the armies. They were also vital to the economies of the divided nation. A great deal has been written about railroads in the war, and in particular the spectacular engineering feats of the U.S. Military Railroads' Construction Corps under Herman Haupt. But strangely, the tactical employment of locomotives and rolling stock, which was actually quite widespread, has thus far escaped serious attention.
Large military forces were, of course, the worst danger to railroads. Because they supplied the units that were on campaign, railroads were often major objectives–an army without supplies cannot operate for long. Since the only sure way to deal with large-scale threats was with a force of similar size, armies often stayed near the railroad tracks. While armies campaigned, locomotives and rolling stock provided logistical support, and some also performed tactical missions. These missions included close combat, especially when the situation was fluid or when the railroad provided a convenient avenue of approach to an opponent.
In such situations, commanders sometimes sent locomotives to reconnoiter the terrain and gain information on enemy troop dispositions. While this may seem like a risky venture, gathering information was often worth the risk, and lone locomotives could quickly reverse direction and move as fast as 60 mph, far faster than pursuing cavalry. With such great mobility, locomotives were also...