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Illinois, the Railroads, and the Civil War

Erin Burns
Brookwood Junior High School, Glenwood

The expansion of railroads in the North played a major part in the North's defeat of the South in the Civil War. Railroads were still in their early stage when the Civil War began. "The oldest lines in the United States had been operating a little more than thirty years, and on many of the roads, the new iron rails were scarcely rusted and the hastily laid ties were still green," according to railroad historian Robert Sutton.

The 1850s saw great railroad expansion in the North. Almost half of the 30,000 miles had been

The railroad played a significant role in the Civil War. The industrialized
North had the advantage, with many more miles of laid track available
for shipping supplies and transporting soldiers to the front.

Train on Trestle


Rail yard
The United States government relied on the railroad to move soldiers and supplies. While
civilians also traveled by rail, government business was often given priority during the war.

built in the North. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were the states with the most mileage. In 1850 the first Federal Land Grant Act was responsible for the building of the Illinois Central Railroad. Illinois at the start of the decade had only one hundred miles of lines in service. Most of it consisted of two main roads. One was the Northern Cross which connected Springfield with the Illinois River. The other was the Galena Railroad, and the Chicago Union Railroad which ran west of Chicago.

The northern armies depended on the railroads a great deal. Combined with the telegraph, railroads made communication and transportation of goods fast and more reliable. The soldiers relied on trains for their food, their clothes, and other daily living materials. War supplies, such as guns, swords, cannons, bullets, and horses, were also carried to battle areas by the railroads. Between April 1861 and the end of the year, the Illinois Central Railroad moved 75,000 troops. The railroads did not charge to carry soldiers and supplies. The only pay received from the government was for the use of the locomotives and cars.

The attack of Fort Sumter, which started the war, and President Abraham Lincoln's call tor 75,000 volunteers, caused the rapid growth of the Illinois Central and forced it to become of vital importance to the North. The federal government, assisted by the state of Illinois and the Illinois Central Railroad, moved swiftly to protect Cairo, Illinois. Secretary of War Simon Cameron telegraphed Governor Richard Yates on April 19, 1861, urging him to send troops and supplies to Cairo as soon as possible. General Richard K. Swift arranged for extra equipment and troops to be shipped by the Illinois Central Railroad. Throughout the war, with the support from the Illinois Central Railroad, Cairo, Illinois, served as a major Union stronghold.

"Workmen on the railroads complained that keeping the roads repaired was a task for Hercules," according to Sutton. The railroad tracks and cars constantly needed repair. The railroads forced major problems when the Union army ventured into Confederate army territory. The Confederate troops destroyed the tracks. It the rails were simply bent, however, they could be reshaped and reused. As the war progressed, the Union army began putting spiral twists into the rails of the southern railroads. This made the tracks unusable. The track could be sent to a "rolling mill" to be straightened, but the South had very few of these mills.

Rail travel was an adventure for everyone throughout the war. There were many accidents along the routes. For example, as historian William Davis recorded, when a division of Confederate soldiers was bound by rail to Meridian, Mississippi, in September 1862, a car jumped the worn track. Colonel Thomas Hunt, recovering from a wound, leapt from his car to the ground. Officers and enlisted men followed. When the train stopped, soldiers looked back to see a line of strewn comrades. It must have been a terrible sight.

The Illinois Central Railroad was surely the most prominent Illinois railroad before the Civil War. However, ten other routes appeared in the Prairie State in the 1850s. As a consequence, Illinois had one of the finest transportation systems of any state, wrote Sutton.

Railroads played a significant and vital role in the outcome of the Civil War. It is possible that if the North had not had the railroad advantage, the South might have been unconquerable.[From Bruce Catton, The Civil War; William C. Davis, The Fighting Men of the Civil War; David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction; Phillip Shaw Paludan, A People's Contest; Peter J. Parish, The American Civil War; Robert M. Sutton, Illinois Civil War Sketches, Illinois Railroads in the Civil War.]


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