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The Railroads (Part 2)

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Much in the same way it is easy to overlook the connections linking Belmont, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson to Fort Columbus, at first glance railroads do not appear to be of significant concern to military operations in the Western Theatre. And yet, from the very beginning the American Civil War was a railroad war: each side viewed destruction of their adversary's rail lines, bridges and rolling stock as fair game. Case in point: the first volunteers from Iowa (1st, 2nd and 3rd Regiments of Infantry) were sent to Missouri in June 1861, tasked with protecting the Hannibal & St. Joseph and its equally important connection at Hudson to St. Louis (via the North Missouri Railroad.)  It seemed to be a rite of passage for green regiments from Illinois, Iowa and Missouri to 'do their time' on Missouri railroads, before moving on to more demanding operations.

Out of harm's way, Federal rail lines north of the Ohio River were quickly operating at full capacity, transporting thousands of troops expeditiously from across the Midwest to Cairo, where the human cargo was trans-shipped to paddle steamers bound for operations against Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. Following on the success at Fort Henry, Phelps led three timberclad gunboats on a raid up the Tennessee River, and destroyed at least one railroad bridge: perhaps the first offensive operation against a Confederate-operated railroad in the West.

Following the success at Fort Donelson, the next Federal expedition was all about railroad destruction: General C.F. Smith was sent south, tasked with finding a weakly defended segment of the Memphis & Charleston, and cutting that strategically vital line. Many attempts were made, all under the direction of W.T. Sherman, but none were successful. (Meanwhile, as troops began to assemble at Savannah/Crump's/Pittsburg, General Lew Wallace sent an expedition west and cut the Mobile & Ohio north of Purdy.) As Federal troops continued to gather, their mission evolved into an operation with dual objectives: to defeat Albert Sidney Johnston's Army; and to take control of the railroad junction at Corinth.

The Confederate pre-emptive strike (Battle of Shiloh) forced the Federals to 're-visit their plans;' delay the push south; and alter the conduct of that push. But, at the end of May 1862, possibly four-to-six weeks later than originally anticipated, General Halleck's Army of the Mississippi strolled into an abandoned Corinth, accomplished half the mission almost without a fight. The other half of the mission -- defeating the Rebel Army, now under Beauregard -- appeared to be happening on its own: General John Pope reported the apparent self-destruction of that body, and was advised by General Halleck to stand by and watch it happen: 'Do not bring on an engagement if our objectives can be achieved without one.' [OR Serial 11, pages 251-2]

 While awaiting the anticipated collapse of Beauregard's Army, Henry Halleck attempted something novel: rebuilding an extensive rail network in enemy-held territory, with a view towards using that rail network to speed men and supplies where needed. By June 22nd the stretch of Memphis & Charleston between Corinth and Memphis had been restored; General Sherman declared it would be ready for use on June 26th [OR Serial 17, pages 27-28]. But on June 25th, a Confederate raiding party loosened a segment of track near LaFayette Station, and derailed a train leaving Union-occupied Memphis with the 56th OVI aboard: the Colonel of the regiment and fifty men were captured... just the first of many successful strikes against the impossible-to-defend rail lines (especially from cavalry, which was particularly well suited, making use of hit and run tactics.)

Just another way of looking at things



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