The U.S. Military Railroad

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Railways and Telegraph Act into law, which empowered him to seize private telegraph and railroad lines to better facilitate military communication and transportation. Telegraphs were needed to transmit vital military messages, and railroads were needed to transport troops and supplies.

Prior to the war, all northern railroads, which consisted of nearly 25,000 miles of track, belonged to private interests. The variety of track gauges and inconsistent connections impeded the transport of troops and military supplies. Corruption also played a part, with many railroad heads charging the government exorbitant fees for superseding civilian transportation.

Under this law, the president was authorized to take control of any railroad line “when in his judgment the public safety may require it,” and railroad lines assisting the military were organized into the U.S. Military Railroad. This new bureau sought to end corrupt rate fixing practices between government officials and railroad executives. Most railroad companies voluntarily cooperated with the government to avoid seizure. While some were skeptical that the railroads could serve the war effort, engineers knew that railroads were vital.

To make railroad lines more uniform for military purposes, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton appointed Herman Haupt to construct and operate a Federal railroad system in northern Virginia. Soon the Orange & Alexandria, the Manassas Gap, and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads transported troops to various Virginia fronts on a regular basis.


  • Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 8-13
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 165
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 514
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 609-10

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