Rebuilding Those Mississippi Railroads

on April 2, 2013 in American Civil War

Two footnotes in Stonewall Goes West are the repair of the damage done by Sherman to Meridian, MS during his February 1864 raid, and the Confederate reoccupation of Corinth, MS and the repair of the railroads there. The conventional wisdom about the Civil War is the industrial incapacity of the Confederacy meant the ability of the South to repair or even maintain its railroads was severely limited or even non-existent. This is another example of how conventional wisdom simplifies a kernel of truth into meaninglessness.

Meridian, Corinth, and History
The point of these two minor notes in my novel is to establish Confederate rail communications from the Alabama Black Belt, where there was plenty of food and a major industrial center in and around Selma, through the Mississippi prairie and its own substantial food resources, to northern Alabama.

The first thing to understand is that the repair of Meridian’s railroad junction is fact, not fiction. As a matter of history, Sherman’s damage to the area’s railroads were repaired in less than a month. The Union, with its superior industrial resources and technical prowess, probably could have done it sooner, but obviously that does not mean the Confederacy was incapable of railroad repair on a large scale.

If the prompt repair of Meridian’s railroads is not widely known, then the reoccupation of Corinth is obscure indeed. I visited this Mississippi railroad junction town myself in 2007, and tip my hat to the friendly folks at the railroad museum there, as well as to Martha’s Menu.

Corinth was of great strategic importance until the capture of Vicksburg, but with campaigning on the Mississippi River over, it could no longer justify a major Federal presence. They left in January 1864, and took their camp for runaway slaves with them. The Confederacy promptly reoccupied the town in their wake, and the Army of Tennessee even camped in Corinth briefly after its armageddon at the Battle of Nashville. The only difference between my story and what actually happened are the specific reasons for and some minor differences in the scale of that reoccupation.

Southern Industry
The Confederacy faced severe industrial difficulties because of the Civil War. Most of their finished heavy industrial products were imported from Europe (not even the North, but Europe!), and these were cut-off by the blockade. Most of their mechanics and skilled technocrats were Northerners, and these people mostly went home once secession got underway. The South’s industrial capacity grew by leaps and bounds during the war, but it never caught up with the effects of mismanagement and simple wear and tear in the rest of the economy, the railroad included.

The result for the railroad industry was constant breakdowns, an increasingly rickety infrastructure, and a general trend towards cannibalizing non-essential areas to sustain strategically valuable main lines. However, the South was fully capable of rebuilding railroads when it found it necessary to do so. It was less a matter of absolute incapacity than a matter of too many demands on too few resources, and therefore one of prioritization.

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