Henry Slocum’s Guide to Destroying Railroads

February 8, 1865 (Wednesday)

General Sherman’s troops had been on the march in earnest for just over a week. Already, they had fallen upon the railroad linking Charleston and Augusta, cutting each Confederate stronghold off from the other.

With three of me, the job will be a breeze!
With three of me, the job will be a breeze!

As Henry Slocum’s Seventeenth Corps neared the railroad, he deployed the leading division in line of battle, expecting to face some opposition before its capture. Sherman, in his memoirs, explained: “Sitting on his horse by the roadside, while the deployment was making, he saw a man coming down the road, riding as hard as he could, and as he approached he recognized him as one of his own ‘foragers,’ mounted on a white horse, with a rope bridle and a blanket for saddle. As he came near he called out, ‘Hurry up, general; we have got the railroad!’ So, while we, the generals, were proceeding deliberately to prepare for a serious battle, a parcel of our forages, in search of plunder, had got ahead and actually captured the South Carolina Railroad, a line of vital importance to the rebel Government.”

When they reached the railroad, Sherman ordered that his man utterly destroy the fifty miles of surrounding track. What follows are the instructions, given by General Henry Slocum after the war, on how to completely destroy a railroad:

A detail of men to do the work should be made on the evening before operations are to commence. The number to be detailed being, of course, dependent upon the amount of work to be done, I estimate that one thousand men can easily destroy about five miles of track per day, and do it thoroughly. Before going out in the morning the men should be supplied with a good breakfast, for it has been discovered that soldiers are more efficient at this work, as well as on the battle-field, when their stomachs are full than when they are empty.

NO! This is the wrong way, boys!
NO! This is the wrong way, boys!

I will suppose the detail to consist of three thousand men. The first thing to be done is to reverse the relative positions of the ties and iron rails, placing the ties up and the rails under them. To do this, Section No. 1, consisting of one thousand men, is distributed along one side of the track, one man at the end of each tie. At a given signal each man seizes a tie, lifts it gently till it assumes a vertical position, and then at another signal pushes it forward so that when it falls the ties will be over the rails. Then each man loosens his tie from the rail. This done, Section No. 1 moves forward to another portion of the road, and Section No. 2 advances and is distributed along the portion of the road recently occupied by Section No. 1.

The duty of the second section is to collect the ties, place them in piles of about thirty ties each — place the rails on the top of these piles, the center of each rail being over the center of the pile, and then set fire to the ties. Section No. 2 then follows No. 1. As soon as the rails are sufficiently heated Section No. 3 takes the place of No. 2; and upon this devolves the most important duty, viz., the effectual destruction of the rail.

This section should be in command of an efficient officer who will see that the work is not slighted. Unless closely watched, soldiers will content themselves with simply bending the rails around trees. This should never be permitted. A rail which is simply bent can easily be restored to its original shape. No rail should be regarded as properly treated till it has assumed the shape of a doughnut; it must not only be bent but twisted.

We're ready for the fire, General Slocum!
We’re ready for the fire, General Slocum!

To do the twisting Poe’s railroad hooks are necessary, for it has been found that the soldiers will not seize the hot iron bare-handed. This, however, is the only thing looking toward the destruction of property which I ever knew a man in Sherman’s army to decline doing. With Poe’s hooks a double twist can be given to a rail, which precludes all hope of restoring it to its former shape except by re-rolling.

And so, with but 3,000 men, Sherman’s wished-for goal of fifty total miles could be reached in just over a week.

Meanwhile, the Confederates hung on Sherman’s left and right flanks, guarding Augusta and Charleston, though, by this point, it was fairly clear that the Federals had, perhaps, neither place in mind. Sherman, though it was known to few, had Columbia in mind. After a day or so spent consuming the tracks, he would begin his march anew.1

Today's unbelievably approximate map.
Today’s unbelievably approximate map.

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 2, various pages for this date; Battles & Leaders, Vol. IV; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John G. Barrett. []


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