Skip to content
Interpreting the Evidence

Union Army's Method of Destroying Railroads, 1860s

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 - 1877)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Civil War

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Union Army's Method of Destroying Railroads, 1860s in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
The Union Army's method of destroying railroads, 1860s - American Civil War.
Historical Context
During the Civil War, railroads were an indispensable resource for both sides. Railroads were the fastest method available for transporting troops, information, and supplies over great distances, therefore railroads became a strategic focal point for both the Confederate and Union Armies. About two-thirds of all rail tracks were located in the Union. The tracks in the North were standard gauge and width, allowing the trains to move easily from one region to another. The remaining one-third in the Confederacy were not standardized, which was a significant disadvantage.

The Confederacy was first to utilize the railroads to transport troops and support to areas under attack. The Confederate Army was smaller than the Union Army and had to defend its borders. Early in the war, the railroads helped win battles, such as the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, when General Stonewall Jackson’s troops arrived by rail to support General Beauregard’s troops and to stop the Union advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond. Throughout the war, the Confederates continued to utilize this strategy of transporting reinforcements by rail to aid troops under Union attack.

It was not until Ulysses S. Grant was given command of all Union forces that the Union marked railroads as strategic military targets. Grant’s general strategy was to attack the Confederacy at multiple locales, restricting its ability to transport support troops. The Union plan was for General Tecumseh Sherman to march from Tennessee to Atlanta as General Grant attacked Petersburg and Richmond.

Before Sherman left, he had 10,000 troops trained in railroad repair to prevent his supply line from Tennessee from being permanently cut. He also created stockpiles of materials in order to expedite the repair of the lines if necessary. After the fall of Atlanta, Sherman used his troops to destroy the rail lines. Sherman continued to destroy the rail lines as he marched his troops down through Georgia and the Carolinas, knowing that the Confederacy had only one industrial factory capable of replacing them.

When General Grant put Petersburg and Richmond under siege, he controlled the railroads surrounding the cities. He also had a direct line built between his supplies at City Point, Virginia, and his front lines. Without the use of the railroads, Grant probably would not have been able to maintain the siege. After the fall of Richmond, the Confederates under General Lee retreated to southern Virginia, and within a few weeks the war was over.

Essential Question
How does war impact a society?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and evaluate the impact of the Civil War on the Southern economy and geography.
Historical Challenges
How did the railroad companies react to the destruction of their rail lines during the Civil War?
Interdisciplinary Connections
English Language Arts: Pretend you are General Sherman. Write a letter of commands to troops ordering them to keep the rail lines open. Be sure to explain why you need the rails in working condition.