About Civil War Transportation

Travel during the Civil War was very slow. Railroads weren’t regulated, so frequent transfers were needed in some areas. Generally, trains and ships provided the fastest transportation but, in some locations, traveling via these methods was impossible if the enemy had control of the ports, depots or railroads. Even traveling by horse was dangerous in some areas.

There were three main types of transportation during the Civil War. The main method of travel was by cutters on the waterways. This is how both sides transported the vast majority of goods. The second method of travel was by train. There were three types of train used during the Civil War. Supply trains transported goods. Passenger trains were used by civilians and military troops. Medical trains were used to transport the sick or injured. The third method of travel was by horse, sometimes with a buggy or carriage. Horses were used by civilians and the military. Buggies and carriages were used mostly by civilians.


Many people believe that railroads provided the main transportation during the Civil War. This is untrue. Waterways, such as the Mississippi River, were the main way to travel. Railroads were generally used to move from one large city to another or to go to smaller cities along the railroad. Waterways, however, have numerous channels and outlets that could be used to get to locations not accessible by railroad. Ships, such as cutters, enabled both sides to transport supplies to troops easier than railroads did.


Control of the waterways and railroads played a big part in the Civil War. One of the main objectives of military maneuvers was to gain control of the railroads and ports because railroads and ships were the only ways to haul large amounts of goods over a long distance. Controlling the railroads and ports was an effective way to stop supplies from reaching enemy territory while allowing supplies into home territory.

All of the railroads during the Civil War were made of iron. Most of the railroads in the Northern states used rails that were 4 feet 8 ½ inches apart. In the Southern states, however, the railroads varied. Because of this, the Union military was able to transport more goods and soldiers using fewer transfers than the Confederate military. While both sides relied heavily upon ships to transport goods, Union ships were clearly superior as they were made of new materials. Confederate ships were made, and fixed, with melted, used metal from the homes of Confederate sympathizers.

Risk Factors
One of the major risk factors to any mode of travel during the Civil War was coming into contact with enemy troops. Locomotives and passenger trains, for example, could be intercepted by troops fighting for the other side. If this happened, any valuable goods, including food rations, would be confiscated by the troops. Just as dangerous was traveling by horse and buggy over any long distance. Horses were desperately needed by both sides, so these were often confiscated, leaving the traveler stranded, and many times injured if they tried to stop the confiscation.

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