The Nashville and Decatur Railroad in the Civil War: History of an Embattled Railroad by Walter R. Green Jr. McFarland, 2022. Cloth, IBSN: 978-1476688527. $39.95.
The Civil War was the first war in U.S. history in which railroads played a significant role transporting troops and martial supplies. In the two decades before the conflict, the relatively new technology had developed into a significant source of transportation in much of the country, although large segments still lacked reliable service. Differences in track gauges, particularly in the South, still hampered inter-railroad connectivity as the war began. Yet those same railroads became military objectives—either to protect the lines or to capture or neutralize them. Bold cavalry raids marked the early operations against the railroads in both the North and the South. Eventually, entire armies moved against key railroads—or defended them.
Much of the early historiography of the wartime railroads consisted of general studies of the entire networks, or else focused on segments within the North or South. In recent years, those studies have focused more on individual railroads and their local impacts, as well as the nearby military operations. Among the best of these recent books is Walter R. Green Jr.’s fine volume, The Nashville and Decatur Railroad in the Civil War: History of an Embattled Railroad.
One of the newest railroads in central Tennessee and northern Alabama, the Nashville and Decatur had only been placed in service a few months before war erupted. It soon became critical in military operations in that area. As the federals eventually seized control of the region and began using the Nashville and Decatur, Confederate raiders and local secessionists began an unrelenting campaign of sabotage, focusing on the railroad’s infrastructure. The Union army had to deploy significant numbers of troops to protect vulnerable bridges and trestles. Among the highlights of the book is the discussion of the region’s Blacks, who flocked to a contraband camp near Nashville in 1864 for protection and perceived freedom. After the North began raising regiments for Black men, many men in the region enlisted in the new United States Colored Troops.
Green provides a sweeping overview of the Nashville and Decatur, including its early history and the Union army’s efforts to utilize, maintain, and protect what by then had become a vital asset. He discusses the creation of blockhouses and other defenses, as well as Nathan Bedford Forrest’s efforts in 1864 (concurrent with Sherman’s “March to the Sea” in Georgia) to destroy or hamper the operations. The cat-and-mouse tactics resulted in the deployment of some 3,000 federal cavalrymen to stop the rebel cavalryman. Many of the prisoners that Forrest seized in his lengthy raid were taken to Confederate prison camps and later paroled or exchanged. Several died in the tragic explosion of the steamer Sultana.
Augmented profusely with maps, photographs, and illustrations, Green’s carefully researched history of the Nashville and Decatur Railroad is among the best of recent publications on individual railroads in the Civil War. It will appeal not only to railroad aficionados, but also to readers interested in the Western Theater—particularly the maneuvers in Tennessee and Alabama.
Scott Mingus Sr. is the author of many books about the Civil War, including Targeted Tracks (co-authored with Cooper H. Wingert).