Friday, November 4, 2011

Emerging Technology for National Defense

Early Railroads and Military Strategy 1830-1848

Courtney B. Wilson, Executive Director
B&O Railroad Museum

Railroad technology had not advanced to the point that it was useful for military purposes until near the end of the Mexican War (1846-1848) yet early railroad entrepreneurs, citizens and government officials eyed the possibilities from its genesis.

The American Army did not particularly distinguish itself during the War of 1812 and, subsequently, political and military leaders became absorbed by problems of national defense in the ensuing decades. Inevitably, with the establishment of America’s first planned long distance railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio in 1827, military strategists began to view the endless possibilities of this new transportation system.

In the immediate years following the War of 1812, Congress began to appropriate funds for wagon roads, turnpikes and other sustainable ground transportation routes that may have commercial interests but also for the purpose of military transportation. As is common today, many a congressman raided the national treasury for infrastructure improvements in their home districts under this initiative.

Even before the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad proved that railroads were not the frivolous products of impractical visionaries, other railroad companies had been formed and city, state and federal governments were receiving requests for financial aid. With railroads popping up rapidly in the period 1830-35 and with no unanimity as to how the railroads would improve, or even serve, national defense every private and public railroad promoter was not shy in assuring the military necessity of their line no matter where it was located or what points on the landscape it connected.

As early as 1829 the directors of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company asked the federal government to subscribe to 2,500 shares of their company assuring that their efforts would anticipate a “higher benefit” for the “protective arm of the General Government” by the greater efficiency with which troops could be rushed across the country. (1)

The citizens of Adams County Illinois petitioned that a railroad be constructed between Buffalo, NY to a point on the Mississippi River eloquently stating how inexpensively troops and munitions could be transported and that those troops would reach the battleground “…presenting the spectacle of an Army fresh and fit for immediate action…” Similarly, the directors of the West Feliciana Railroad Company asked Congress to help build their line from St. Francisville, Louisiana to Woodville, Mississippi in exchange for a promise to transport military troops free of charge. (2)

Most of these early petitions were concerned only with the fortunes of a single company, however, on March 16, 1836 a mass meeting of citizens was held in Uniontown, Pennsylvania that was instigated by the Baltimore & Ohio to present a larger vision (and thus profit the Baltimore & Ohio) for national defense. Appropriate resolutions were unanimously adopted to favor federal aid to the Baltimore & Ohio whose company presented the best and nearest connection between the Atlantic seaboard and the West. The preamble states that the line was of the “…highest national importance, whether in reference to the mail, military or commercial operations of our country.” Other resolutions, more of a general character, envisioned a network of railroads traversing the Atlantic seaboard that would be “…superior to any system of fortifications.” This, one resolution stated, would be “…equally available for the repulsion of invasion from abroad and the suppression of insurrections at home.” Records of this meeting put forth the idea that, were such a system in place during the War of 1812 it would have “…saved the country from the mortification and disgrace of having its capital destroyed by hostile hands.” (3)

The War Department was well aware of the military and strategic use of railroads and some of the suggestions developed in the Uniontown meeting mirrored a report to Congress by Secretary of War Lewis Cass in 1836. That report acknowledged the phenomenal growth of the United States since the war of 1812, increased national security problems and suggested that the use of railroad transportation systems would enhance troop mobility and rapidity of deployment, provide for the efficient transport of arms, munitions and sustenance, and disable the ability of hostile navies to plunder coastal cities long before defensive tactics and troops could be rallied and brought to the front. (4)

Lewis Cass, Secretary of War

 Of course the Secretary’s encouraging words inspired railroad promoters and profiteers to approach Congress for more and more support. In 1838 the Alabama, Florida and Georgia Railroad petitioned Congress for 500,000 acres of public land the sale of which would finance the completion of a railroad line from Pensacola, on the Gulf of Mexico, to Montgomery, Alabama on the Alabama River. Their principal argument was that this line would provide an “…economical defense of the maritime frontier on the Gulf of Mexico.” With strong support in the Senate, the House of Representatives sent the matter to Lieutenant Colonel J.G. Totten, chief of engineers for his opinion of the military importance of the proposed road. Totten, a graduate of West Point, had been working on coastal defense issues for the preceding 30 years. He concluded that the proposed Alabama, Florida and Georgia line would be a welcome contribution to the solution of southern coastal defense problems. Ultimately the proposal failed to gain support in the House of Representatives. (5)   
J.G. Totten
Numerous proposals for new railroad lines were received all stating their strategic military purpose. The Selma & Tennessee Railroad, Alexandria & Falmouth Railroad, the Citizens of Detroit and others all recalled the embarrassing military performances of the War of 1812 in their proposals to Congress. Up until 1840, all of these proposals to Congress based on military importance made up a bundle of disjointed, personally profitable and self serving railroad projects that were not a part of any grand plan. In slightly more than a decade about 1,800 miles of track had been laid and while certain areas of the country like New England and the Mid-Atlantic region were fairly well served by a railroad network the remainder of the country, in particular the West and southern coastal regions were without.

The citizens of Uniontown, in their effort to assist the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, manifested a broader vision than most of their contemporaries but fell short of a new vision offered by General Edmund P. Gaines. A veteran of the War of 1812 and with decades of Army service on the frontier Gaines would offer the War Department a comprehensive plan for a national railroad system designed to enhance homeland defense. In 1831 he quietly launched a campaign to inform and convince the War Department that railroads embodied the future of military tactics. In 1838, he had developed his plan well enough to submit it to Washington. Unfortunately, Gaines had few friends in the Department and had often been at loggerheads with General Winfield Scott and other high ranking leaders throughout his career due his proclivity to criticize Departmental policies and action. His plan for the railroad system therefore received a less than warm reception. Convinced that the War Department had a vendetta against him he broke through the chain of authority and launched his proposal directly to Congress in 1840 by presenting a lengthy memorial outlining “…a system of national defense, and praying its adoption by Congress.” (6)
Edmund P. Gaines
  In his proposal was a plan to design and construct seven railroad trunk lines radiating from Tennessee and Kentucky, the two most central states in the Union, to seven strategic locations on the frontier. One line would go from Lexington, Kentucky to Buffalo, New York with branches to Detroit, Albany and Boston; the second from Knoxville, Tennessee to Baltimore, Maryland with branches to Richmond, Virginia and Newbern, North Carolina; the third from Memphis to Charleston, South Carolina with branches to Milledgeville, Georgia and the Northeast coast of Florida; the fourth from Louisville to Mobile with a branch to Pensacola; the fifth from Lexington to New Orleans; the sixth from Memphis deep into Arkansas and the seventh from Albany, Indiana to St. Louis with branches to Chicago and the upper reaches of the Des Moines River. He supplemented this vision for a national railroad system with powerful coastal floating batteries, heavily armed and propelled by steam engines. This, he argued, would all but eliminate the need for standing coastal and interior fortifications.

Gaines asserted that the 600 miles of right of way he proposed would average $15,000.00 per mile of double track laid. If constructed by the U.S. Army the total cost would be approximately $64 million. A large investment, no doubt, but Gaines credibly illustrated that troops and munitions could be moved throughout he country in one tenth of the time and at one tenth of the expense under current conditions. He also argued that “…we shall save our citizen soldiers from what they usually deem the most irksome and insupportable afflictions and privations attending their tours of military service; we shall save them from long and tedious marches, and from still more painful separation from wife, children, friends and business.”

This system was calculated by Gaines meticulously right down to the salary of the labor of the lowest enlisted man required to construct the seven roads. Ending his memorial he made a passionate plea to Congress stating that he had previously been ignored and, even, snubbed by the War Department on many occasions prior.  Within a week of his presentation he was immediately disillusioned when Congress referred his proposal right back to the Secretary of War J.R. Poinsett. (7)

Upon receipt of Gaines’ proposal, Poinsett replied “…with every respect to the gallant author…” he could hardly agree with any proposal that relegated the entire defense of the nation to a system of railroads and floating batteries. Congress laid aside Gaines’ ambitious scheme and, once again, centered its attention on individual railroads and their promoters to achieve a network that could be efficiently used by the military when required. Perhaps General Gaines made one fatal error in his proposal-despite his sour reputation inside the War Department, by proposing that his system of railroads and floating coastal batteries would eliminate the need for all coastal fortifications and garrisons.

During the next several years proposals by individual railroad companies continued to flood through Congresses doors almost all singing the same song by highlighting their strategic and economic importance for military strategy. In further assessments by the War Department up until and through the Mexican War the argument continued over whether the strategic use of railroad would replace or reduce the size and number of standing fortifications and coastal defense systems and little was accomplished.

While some transportation historians have dubbed the Mexican War America’s first ‘steamboat war” railroad networks and technology had advanced to the point that the military was able to utilize the system, not in the theater of war which was concentrated in the Southwest, but to transport troops from city centers to points where the great caravan of war gathered to move West. In March of 1846 the First Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, raised in Philadelphia, was able to move by train in relatively rapid fashion in order to join General Winfield Scott’s army in New Orleans. (8)
Winfield Scott
  At the end of the War in 1848 and with a net gain of more than 500,000 square miles of former Mexican land, the United States at once had an uninterrupted passage to the Pacific.  Railroad companies once consumed by petitioning Congress for financial aid in constructing relatively short lines with an argument for national defense now turned an eye to the embryonic concept of a transcontinental railroad. It would be another dozen years following the opening guns of the American Civil War before the railroads would make their mark in military strategy, troop and munitions movements and, even, as tools of destruction but it is clear that the military might of this emerging technology in the United States did not go unnoticed by the profiteers, politicians and citizens alike.



1.                  Memorials of the President and Directors of the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company, Feb. 9, 1829 and January 3, 1830. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), SEN 20A-G10 and SEN 21A-G10.
2.                  NARA SEN 23A-G13, January 10, 1832
3.                  NARA SEN 24A-G15, March 28, 1836
4.                  House Executive documents, 24th Congress, 1st Session, No. 243, pp. 17-18
5.                  Senate Journal, June 25, 1838 p. 493, and House Executive Documents, 25th Congress, 3rd Session, No. 198.
6.                  James W. Silvers, Edmund Pendleton Gaines and Frontier Problems, 1801-1849 (Nashville, 1935).
7.                  Memorial of Edmund P. Gaines Outlining a system of National Defense, March 6, 1840. NARA SEN 26A-G11
8.                  House Executive Documents, 32nd Congress, 1st Session, no. 5, pp. 230-232

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