Historian talks about how both sides used railroads during Civil War

July 15, 2012|By DAVE McMILLION |
  • John Hankey talks Sunday at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts about how the Civil War and the nation's railroad industry evolved at the same time.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

The Civil War involved many troop movements, strategies and tragedies.

But John Hankey said the timing and the conduct of the conflict was controlled by one thing: railroads.

The north and the south had two distinctly different railroad systems during the war, and it was the north that proved to be “astonishingly effective” in its use of the railroad, Hankey said.

Hankey spoke to a large crowd at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Sunday during an appearance that was sponsored by the Washington County Free Library.

Hankey is an independent scholar and historian who has served the B&O Railroad in a variety of capacities, including as company historian. Hankey has also worked as a locomotive engineer for the B&O and has been a curator of a B&O railroad museum.

Hankey talked about how the Civil War and the nation’s railroad industry evolved at the same time and how they “fed off one another.”

The north’s railroad systems were larger than those in the south, and although the north’s railroad systems served a variety of purposes, the south’s were set up to move cotton to the East Coast, said Hankey, who used maps of railroads to describe the systems.

But although the north had a more extensive system, the south knew how to use railroads to their advantage, Hankey said.

Hankey pointed to the Battle of Bull Run, which was preceded by Union troops marching to the area for battle.

Confederates, however, transported their soldiers to Bull Run by train, and as a result, they were more prepared for battle because they were not exhausted by marching, Hankey said.

The constant flow of fresh Confederate troops sent the Union troops reeling back, Hankey said.

“It gave the South a great deal of heart and discouraged the north,” said Hankey, adding that the outcome of the war could have been different if the south used its railroads more effectively.

Hankey said the south also realized the importance of railroads and talked about how southern troops took control of the B&O Railroad from Point of Rocks, Md., to Martinsburg, W.Va.

But the south was no match for the north, which had miles of “new rail waiting” in a conflict that saw the intentional destruction of railroad lines, Hankey said.

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