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How Railroads Shaped the Civil War and Beyond

How Railroads Shaped the Civil War and Beyond
photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain/How Railroads Shaped the Civil War and Beyond
02 / 11 / 2023

Throughout the 19th century, railroads significantly influenced the course of history and became integral to major historical events. America's first steam locomotive famously lost a race to a horse, trains played a pivotal role in the Union's victory in the Civil War, and even the assassination of President Lincoln inadvertently promoted rail travel.

America’s First Locomotive Loses to a Horse

In 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was the first American company to receive a charter for transporting both passengers and cargo. Industrialist Peter Cooper offered his expertise to design and construct a steam engine. On August 28, 1830, the "Tom Thumb," Cooper’s prototype engine, was being tested on the B&O tracks near Baltimore when a horse-drawn train rolled up and challenged it to a race. Cooper accepted the challenge. Initially, the steam engine surged ahead, but a loose harness forced "Tom Thumb" to halt, allowing the horse to triumph.

Brown Brothers / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

Despite the setback, B&O executives were captivated by the engine's potential power and speed, deciding to transition their nascent railroad to steam power. The B&O flourished, becoming one of the United States' most successful railroads. Cooper, bolstered by his newfound wealth, became a notable investor and philanthropist, contributing to the establishment of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.

Trains Tip the Balance in the Civil War

During the Civil War, railroads were vital in transporting vast numbers of troops and heavy artillery swiftly across extensive distances. A landmark instance occurred following the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, when Abraham Lincoln dispatched 20,000 urgently needed reinforcements from Washington, D.C., to Georgia—a journey of over 1,200 miles completed in just 11 days. This operation remains celebrated as the longest and quickest troop movement of the 19th century.

Dominance over regional rail networks was crucial to military strategy, with rail lines frequently becoming targets for sabotage to sever the enemy's supply chains. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman excelled in railroad destruction. His infamous march through Georgia and the Carolinas left a trail of wrecked Confederate rails, famously dubbed "Sherman’s Neckties" by the disheartened Southerners.

Alexandr Gardner / Wkimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

Lincoln’s Assassination and the Rise of Luxury Train Travel

George Pullman, an engineer who gained recognition in the 1850s in Chicago, was inspired to create a luxurious railroad "sleeping car" after enduring a particularly uncomfortable train journey in upstate New York. By 1863, he had completed his first models, the "Pioneer" and the "Springfield," named in honor of Abraham Lincoln's Illinois hometown.

Pullman's cars were the epitome of comfort but came with a high price tag, which initially deterred many railroad companies. However, the assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865 changed their fortunes. A Pullman car was utilized for the procession that carried Lincoln's body through several Northern cities before returning to Illinois. The spectacle brought the Pullman car into the national spotlight. Two years later, Pullman founded the Pullman Palace Car Company, which would go on to transform luxury rail travel across the globe.