It’s easy to take trains for granted in this day and age, so it’s important to remember that, in Civil War times, they were cutting edge. In fact, at the beginning of the War, we hadn’t quite figured out the military applications of the railroad beyond basic supply delivery. Although they had fewer tracks at their disposal, the Confederates were quicker to learn their value, using trains to speedily provide reinforcements that made the difference at battles like Bull Run. As the War progressed, both sides developed greater strategic dependence on the railroad as they realized its potential.
An army without supplies is not much of an army, so large forces typically stayed close to the tracks. This allowed them to protect the railways and trains, as well, since the newfound significance of the tracks made them targets for the enemy. A common practice was to plant pressure-sensitive “torpedoes” (essentially landmines) that would explode and derail the first train to roll over them. That led to precautionary tactics like sending an empty car ahead on the tracks. Trains were also susceptible to sharpshooters, who would try to puncture the boiler or take out the crew.
In spite of such weaknesses, locomotives were a powerful tool. You wouldn’t think of a train as a good scout vehicle, but a single engine could be sent on a reconnaissance mission into enemy territory, quickly reverse, and speed away at 60 mph. That might not seem like much to us, but it was fast enough to escape the cavalry that would pursue them. On top of that, they could be mounted with heavy artillery or loaded with riflemen, they could be used to ram enemy trains or set fire to their bridges, they could even be used as decoys to draw out concealed enemies. Trains were a true force to be reckoned with over the course of the Civil War.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating subject—it’s really worth a visit to the Lincoln Train Museum to learn more!