Abraham Lincoln was a superb railroad lawyer before he became a superb president, so it should come as no surprise that the American rail network grew during his four years in office not despite the Civil War but because of it.
There were fewer than 3,000 miles of track in the U.S. in 1840, 10,000 miles in 1850 and 30,000 miles at the beginning of the Civil war, some 20,000 miles of that in the North.
By 1865, another 5,000 miles of track were brought into service, much of it in Union states, as well as the first legs of the Transcontinental Railroad in the Colorado Rockies and Sierra Madre. In fact, the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was to be one of Lincoln's crowning achievements although it was not completed until four years after his death.* * * * *By the early 1850s, Lincoln's law practice in Springfield, Illinois was changing. While he continued to represent smaller clients for small fees, he was increasingly drawn to lawsuits relating to the rail network that was spreading across his state.
Lincoln, long an advocate of improved transportation as a key to economic development, recognized that wherever rails were laid there were going to be legal problems, notably those including charters and rights of way. And as an old riverboat man, he knew that there would be litigation when railroad bridges interfered with river navigation.
Lincoln would represent whatever side engaged his services, but that was usually a railroad.
His first significant case was in 1851 involving the tiny Alton & Sangamon Railroad, while he represented the powerful Illinois Central in a major case in 1852 that dragged on for years. Although the railroad did not prevail, Lincoln charged it $2,000. When railroad executives balked, he hiked his fee to $5,000 and went to court to collect it.* * * * *Along with the introduction of rifles and the telegraph, the railroad was to have an immense impact on how the Civil War was fought. The railroad allowed both sides, but particularly the Union, to move and resupply large armies year round.
The North began the war with an inherent advantage that it never ceded:
* There was a better system of trunk lines.
* There were many more locomotive factories, most of them well beyond the reach of Confederate forces so that production was never disrupted, whereas the Confederacy had only two small factories that had trouble replacing locomotives as they were destroyed.
* There were many more iron ore and coal mines.
* The railroads were almost all built to the standard track gauge of four feet-8 ½-inches, meaning that cars could be interchanged from one line to another, whereas the smaller Southern network had a multiplicty of gauges.
The Confederacy did have moments of brilliance when it came to using railroads, notably Brigadier General Joseph Johnston's use of the Manassas Gap Railroad to move his troops to Manassas Junction to reinforce Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 that so demoralized the North.
Lincoln, who was a fine judge of men, entrusted the expansion of the Union rail network to Herman Haupt.
Haupt, a civil engineer, was appointed in the spring of 1862 to organize a new War Department bureau responsible for constructing and operating military railroads. He quickly set to work repairing and fortifying war-damaged lines in the vicinity of Washington, arming and training railroad staff, and improving telegraph communications.
Observed Lincoln after inspecting one span: "That man Haupt has built a bridge four hundred feet long and one hundred feet high, across Potomac Creek, on which loaded trains are passing every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but cornstalks and beanpoles."
Haupt was promoted to brigadier general in September 1862, but officially refused the appointment, explaining that he would be happy to serve without official rank or pay. In reality, he did not want to limit his freedom to work in private business and bridled at the protocols and discipline of Army service.
By the time he stepped down in September 1863, his hastily organized supply trains were arming and feeding Union armies in the Northern Virginia, Maryland and Gettysburg campaigns and he was running 1,500 tons of materiel a day over the Western Maryland line alone. That would be enough to sustain two World War II combat divisions.
IMAGES (From top): Union locomotive Fred Leach near Union Mills, Va., in August 1863. The stack and tender have taken cannon shpt and the main rod is missing; Herman Haupt; The Union's City Point, Va., rail yard; Haupt's Potomac Creek bridge; A cannon car; The Union's Hanover Junction, Pa., rail yard; Destroyed Confederate rail cars near Richmond.