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Transportation and Commerce In The Civil War

        In the areas of commerce, imports and exports, as well as transportation, the eleven Confederate states were far behind their Northern border-state brethren. From July 1, 1860, to June 31, 1861, United States Exports totaled $249,344,913 according to incomplete returns. Of the figures for exports eight Confederate states had only $27,145,466 of the total with no figures given for Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, and incomplete totals from other states. This gives the Northern states a figure of $222,199,477, with New York alone having $158,606,518.
        As to imports, the total for the twenty-five states reporting $335,650,153. Eight Southern states could make up only $14,654,129 of the total. Again Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi are missing. Of the Southern total Louisiana had $11,960,869 of the imports, showing clearly the importance of New Orleans.
        In shipping, a total of 11,079 American vessels cleared U.S. ports for the year ending June 30, 1861. Of these 819 were from 8 Southern seaport states. Tonnage totaled 4,889,313, with 286,445 tons of this from the South. Foreign vessels clearing the United states totaled 10,586, with 220 of these from the South. The total number of ships, foreign and U.S., clearing from the country and coming into the country in the ending June 30, 1861, totaled 43,625, with only 1975 of these coming in and out of the South. Total tonnage of all these movements was 14,392,826 tons, of which 737,901 tons moved in and out of Southern ports.
        While railroads spread rapidly in the decade or so before the Civil War and hooked up many cities, the primary growth again had been in the North. In 1850 the nation boasted only 9021 miles of railroads which had grown to 30,626 miles by the end of 1860. Of this 1860 mileage, 8541 was in seceded states with over 22,000 in the North and border areas. Virginia led the South with 1771 miles, but in the North, Ohio had 2900, Illinois 2867, and New York 2701. Not only were there more miles of track in the North but more connecting lines making for better long-distance traveling and hauling. In the South the only route east to west from Richmond to the Mississippi was via Chattanooga and across southern Tennessee to Memphis; all other routes were very roundabout. Of course, as the war went on, Confederate railroads were captured, broken, and disrupted. Locomotives, rails, and all equipment were hard or impossible to replace and the already inadequate transport system fell apart. By the same token the virtually uninvaded North was able to transport men and equipment for war without very much disruption and was also able to maintain commerce and trade. Nevertheless the South on the worn-out equipment made at least two spectacular movements of large bodies of troops, complicated by several changes of gauge. The North, too, did well in moving troops, particularly from Virginia to Chattanooga in 1863, and were also handicapped by the lack of a uniform gauge. While military railroads had been specially constructed in the Crimean Was by the British to a small extent, the American Civil War was the first true railroad war both in use of domestic lines and in construction of special military roads, such as that by the North at Petersburg.
        Most neglected among the many heroes of the Civil War are the horses and mules which served by the hundreds of thousands in many ways, large numbers of which suffered painfully and died in service. Total U.S. horse population in 1860 was put by the census at 6,115,458, of which only 1,698,328 were in the seceding states. On the other hand, the South was much ahead in mule power, with 800,663 against the North's 328,890 for a total of 1,129,553. Working oxen were still important and the country had some 2,240,075, of which 856,645 were in the South.
        Not only were horses vital for the cavalry of both armies and for the use of officers, but horses and mules were the main motive power for hauling supplies, ammunition, food, and guns. "Trains" were horse-drawn wagon trains, whereas "the cares" generally meant railroads. The demand of the war for livestock greatly increased breeding. In the North the government furnished the cavalry mounts and remounts, whereas in the south the soldier was expected to furnish his own. This policy further strained the Confederate economy as the horses were needed at home as well as in the Army. Replacement of killed, wounded, or diseased horses became a vexing problem to the South and contributed to the decline of their once magnificent cavalry. For example, on July 3, 1863, the Confederate Army had over 6,000 convalescent horses in the Army of Northern Virginia. In the middle of the war it required about 500 new horses a day to replenish the Federal services. At the start of the war a good horse cost about $125; by the end the price was up to $185. The service of the average cavalry horse at the North lasted only four months. Obtaining huge amounts of hay and other feed for the immense numbers of horses both for cavalry and trains was a never-ending logistical challenge.
        Despite the ascendancy of the railroads, the horse remained the backbone of short-haul operations, a necessity for cavalry and the artillery essential to army supply, and, in short, an indispensable soldier in the war.
        General Sherman was to say, "the value of the magnetic telegraph in war cannot be exaggerated." It was developed into an extremely valuable field instrument as well as for long-distance communication. Authorities in Washington often held "talks" of telegraph with commanders in the West and ofttimes hastily strung wires carried battlefield orders and information. A lack of operators and equipment handicapped the South, but at the North the telegraph was put to full use. The United States Military Telegraph grew to 15,389 miles of line constructed during the war, plus all the existing lines. The Telegraph Office of the war Department in Washing became the nerve center of the war. The telegraph had seen active service in the Crimea, but in the American Civil War it proliferated and gained an impetus in its wartime use that carried over into civilian development in the postwar years.
        Riverboat traffic, long a medium for heavy, cheap transport, also went to war, carrying not only the usual civilian products in the North but military supplies and, of course, troops. A large proportion of the riverboats, captains, and pilots stayed with the North and for most of the war the Federals had the advantage of the principal river waterways. Then too, in the novel and typically American mode of warfare developed during the conflict, the river gunboat came into being. The chronology of the war shows the extent for its contribution to both sides, particularly to the North.
        Without the technology of the railroads, telegraph, and riverboats, the American Civil War would have differed little from previous wars. These innovations combined to weld a transport and communications network of a relatively modern nature and at the same time worked hand in had with the older and sometimes more reliable horse and wagon.
Source:  "The Civil War Day By Day" by E.B. Long

This Page last updated 10/25/04


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