Confederate Railroad Rails and Navy Armor

   Critics of the Confederate Navy often point to the amount of iron expended in armoring warships and claim that the same iron would have made a big difference to the railroads. How much armor was created for the Navy? How much rail would this amount of iron have produced?

    The Navy constructed about 26 ironclad warships to the point where armor was produced for the ships. Some of the ships were never completed, but the armor was committed. An additional 20 ironclads were started to some degree, but never completed, and had no armor provided for them (though the Navy was trying to get armor for them). There were also several ironclad batteries that were rail protected.
   From incomplete data, it appears that about 450 tons of armor was required for the average ironclad. Thus, 26 completed ironclads times 450 tons means that 11,700 tons of armor was provided (some as plate, made from railroad rails, and some as railroad rails). It took about 100 tons of rail to build a mile of track (both sides). Therefore, the armor provided could have provided 117 miles of track. The incomplete ironclads were creating a demand for another 9,000 tons of iron -- another 90 miles of track.
   The rails in use by the railroads were frequently bent by accidents and Union troops and were subject to lamination. Rails could have been easily returned to near new condition if they could have been re-rolled. However, no Confederate iron work had the capacity to re-roll rails because of the other Government work they were doing -- especially rolling Navy armor. This need to re-roll rails was so important that railroad conventions called for the creation of re-rolling mills for the sole purpose of restoring railroad rails. Though acknowledged as a vital need, no one ever created such a plant.
   Finally, it should be noted that many of the rails rolled into armor were damaged and laminated ones. There was a conscious effort, at least after the Spring of 1863, to remove good rails from non-critical roads, lay them in place of damaged rails on critical roads, and then make armor from the damaged rails.
   For comparison, the absolutely vital Piedmont Railroad required 50 miles of track and was delayed in its completion for many months because of lack of labor and lack of iron. Several other roads, like the Blue Mountain connection, were never laid iron because there was none to be had, regardless of how important the roads were.
   It should also be noted that many ironclads were armored with the rails themselves since the rolling mills did not have the time to roll them as plates. Two of the railroad rail ships were the CSS Arkansas and CSS Georgia. 
   The final part of this issue is usually not asked, because it hard to produce a factual answer. If the iron and rolling capacity devoted to armor had been devoted to railroad rails, what would the result have been? Certainly, several important links would have been completed earlier or at all. Also, higher speeds could have been maintained. This would have kept the Army of Northern Virginia in better supply, but would probably not have changed the outcome of any campaign, much less the war. But how would the removal of ironclads from the Confederate arsenal affected the progress of the war? My estimation is that, except at Wilmington and Charleston, the absence of ironclads would have made only a minor difference in the way the naval campaigns progressed.
Also see Atlanta Armor Shipping Impact, C. S. S. Virginia Armor Shipping Impact and photo of CSS Georgia Armor