Supplies Brought Through the Blockade

Only one Southern railroad (the Virginia & Tennessee RR) saw the likelihood of war early enough to be able to stockpile critical material for the maintenance of the road and its rolling stock. Since almost all railroad supplies had come from the North or abroad, every railroad was looking for supplies of various materials by the end of 1861. Tredegar Iron Works was able to supply small amounts of spikes, chairs, wheels, axles, bars, locomotive tires, and parts for the construction of cars. Other supplies could not be had (iron rails) or had to come through the blockade.

Several Virginia railroad companies held a convention in February, 1862 to set up a way to create railroad manufacturers in the Confederacy and to create an organization for importing railroad material {LVA, RF&P 2-15C-62

The Confederate government refused to buy or transport railroad supplies from Europe. The railroads were advised to send their own people to buy and ship for themselves. This policy was only relented when the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad's Superintendent was sent to England as an Army officer to purchase Engineer Department supplies and was allowed to buy for 5 Virginia railroads while he was there {NA, ENG 1-27-63, NA, ENG 2-26-63}. Capt. Robinson attempted to make arrangements for the supplying of railroad needs from England {here and here} but he did not succeed. See Piedmont Railroad Blockage Running Plans. Even after Capt. Robinson's successful trip, the Secretary of War refused to help the railroads with blockade running {NA, SWS 10-3-63}. In 1864, Congress allowed importation of railroad materials duty free {AOC, 5-23-64} and it is possible that some few were imported {NP, AC 5-5-64}. Also in 1864, the Secretary of the Treasury reported to the President that he refused to allow the railroads to ship cotton at Government rates, because of the interruption this would cause the Governments own operations {NA, RR 11-17-64}.

It is also possible that in 1864 rails were purchased in, or shipped to, Nassau {here}. The newspaper editorial that says that rails were in Nassau does not hedge his statement. The editor was clearly well informed on railroad matters and may have received information on the importation of rails from Capt. C. C. Sims, Railroad Bureau officer in Macon.

Thirteen railroads' blockade running activities have been located. The Macon & Western Imports are railroad specific -- boiler plate, tires, and steam gages -- while the Western North Carolina Imports show the lack of almost everything in the Confederacy -- paint, oil, tin, screws, tacks, and belting for industrial engines. South Carolina Imports only mentions tires and unspecified equipment (probably for the new shops being created in Columbia). Virginia Central Imports and Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac POA provide details of the financing. Western & Atlantic Imports makes a reference to imports of springs and other supplies received, but not yet paid for. The Wilmington & Manchester mentions English rails purchased and laid down, but the reference may be to the rails purchased from Tredegar. The Petersburg RR bought supplies in 1862, but they had not arrived by the Spring of 1864. In late 1863, the South Side RR reported that some of the materials and tools it had purchased had arrived, but not all of them. The Alabama & Florida (of Alabama) RR reported a contract with an English house to deliver goods between November 1862 and March 1863, but the President of the railroad expressed skepticism that the deliveries would be made. The Nashville & Chattanooga RR sent 950 bales of cotton through the blockade to be sold by Frazier, Trenholm & Co., but the road's officers appear to have stolen the money and no goods were imported to the Confederacy. The Seaboard & Roanoke received some supplies, probably purchased when the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad led a group in purchasing in England (see below), had some lost on a ship and still had some waiting in Bermuda when the war ended {here}. The North Carolina tried to send a man to Nassau in October, 1864 to purchase supplies and forward others that had been delayed six months {here, here and here}.

Atlantic & North Carolina signed a contract with Chamberlain & Co. in October 1862 for the delivery of supplies in the Confederacy by February 1863. The result of this contract is unknown.

It is likely that other railroads made purchases in England for shipment through the blockade. The President of the Cheraw & Darlington cashed two L1,000 checks in London in December 1862. It seems likely that he would buy supplies for his own road while there, but his 40-mile long road was unlikely to have sent him on its own account -- it appears likely that he purchased tires, equipment and other heavy materials, mentioned above and here, that was sent in to the South Carolina RR. Additionally, the Northeastern mentions in its April 1863 Annual Report that "some months ago contracts were entered into for the delivery at any accessible Confederate port, of certain articles most needed by us, but they have not yet been complied with and we question whether they will ever be received." But an article in the Charleston Mercury in May 1864 makes it clear that the road was well supplied with good brought through the blockade {here}. A later letter may refer to these activities. Also, the Charleston & Savannah directed its President to ship cotton out in late 1864 {here}. The Petersburg got approval from the Secretary of War to send an agent to Europe to purchase supplies, provided the agent was not subject to military service {here}. The South Carolina Railroad sought to use their shares in certain steamers to import materials free of Government restriction {here}. The North Carolina Railroad sought a passport for an Agent to go to Bermuda to purchase supplies {here}. The Wilmington & Weldon RR requested permission to ship 100 bales of cotton to Europe on Government steamers {here}. The Atlanta & West Point Railroad had permission to ship cotton for buying supplies, but their success is not known {here}

The Nashville & Chattanooga reports that in order to get several railroads to provide through trains to carry cotton from Augusta to Wilmington, Sims provided a certificate on each train allowing the owning railroad to ship through the blockade, in Government space and at Government rates, 5 bales for each 100 on the train. This road succeeded in getting 950 bales through the blockade this way (75 more were lost), despite the Secretary of the Treasury saying that he did not allow such special permissions {NA, RR 11-17-64}.

Governor Vance allowed {here, here} two North Carolina railroads to ship small quantities of cotton on the North Carolina's blockade runner "Vance." The results of this arrangement are unknown. Likewise, the results of the Georgia RR's attempt {and} to get space on Confederate Government runners is unknown.

A man offered to the War Department to import rolling stock and sell in at twice the price paid. {NA, QMR 11-5B-62}

The Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac RR attempted to meet their needs initially by authorizing an import house to purchase for them {here}. They then resorted to sending their own agent to do the purchasing, for themselves and several other railroads {LVA, RF&P 1-24-63, LVA, RF&P 2-9-63, LVA, RF&P 2-12-63, LVA, RF&P 2-16-63, LVA, RF&P 6-16-63, LVA, RF&P 7-28-63, LVA, RF&P 8-4-63, NA, RF&P 8-4-63, NA, RF&P 8-7-63, LVA, RF&P 8-8-63, LVA, RF&P 8-20-63, LVA, RF&P 9-25-63, LVA, RF&P 10-21-63, LVA, RF&P 10-27-63}.

At least one railroad, the Wilmington & Manchester, purchased shares in a company that bought and sent out a blockade runner. The ship, specifically intended to import goods to support industry and the railroads, was, unfortunately, captured on its first outbound trip, in 1863 {NP, WJ 11-25-63, NP, WJ 11-26A-63, The Merrimac and the Railroad}.

In April of 1863, the largest circulation newspaper in Georgia, the Southern Confederacy, editorially exhorted the Confederacy's (particularly Atlanta's) railroad officers to take matters into their own hands to obtain ships and cargoes that would support the nations' railroads {here}. Evidence that the Nashville & Chattanooga and the Western & Atlantic were forming a company to do just that is {here} and the Western & Atlantic RR 1864 annual report shows $180,000 invested in the company {NP, CU 12-6-64}. Whatever blockade running efforts were made, it was clear, even to a remote newspaper editor {here}, that the railroads had made but few efforts to increase their stock of supplies through 1863.

In December, 1863, the Richmond & York River RR wrote the QM General about a cotton shipment from Wilmington {here and here}.

A May, 1864 report of blockade run items sold in Wilmington includes a note of "railroad iron." The quantity imported is not indicated and this is the only such entry yet found. {here}

It is possible that some western railroads traded through the lines late in the war {here and here and here and here and here}. At least one eastern railroad requested approval to trade through the lines, but it was not approved {here and here}. Other railroads purchased goods (primarily cotton) to try to have assets that would retain their value in the climate of severe Confederate currency inflation and appear to have had no intention to fun these goods through the blockade (here).

In 1864, the Chief Engineer of the Galveston & Houston Junction RR got permission to travel to Vera Cruz, Mexico, to buy RR and Engineer supplies. He made the trip, but his success is not known {here}. In 1862, the President of the Galveston, Houston & Henderson RR requested exemption for teamsters he was planning to send to the Rio Grande to get supplies for repairing locomotives, but his results are unknown {here}.

The failure of the Confederate government to control the purchase and importation of railroad supplies is no more difficult to believe than the rest of the blockade running and railroad stories. With only a little forethought and effort, locomotive tires, car wheels, car axles, tin (for bearings), and rails could have been imported with very minor impact on the supplies received for the rest of the war effort.

In the case of locomotive tires, the 1,500 Southern locomotives would require about 2,000 iron tires a year. (Iron tires lasted about 60,000 miles; steel ones lasted 200,000, but were much more expensive.) Some tires were imported, some were made by Tredegar, and some were made by the larger and better equipped railroads -- but the deficit left caused many locomotives to be taken out of service by 1864.

For rails, the possible solution is also painfully obvious. According to Stephen Wise, about 210 blockade runners made it into ports from Mobile to Wilmington in 1863. Another 230 made it in during 1864. If only 10% of that 440 runners had each carried 20 tons (about 5% of their cargo capacity) of 55# rail, some 18 miles of new rail could have been available to maintain the essential rail lines. This would have cost only 1/2 of 1% of the cargo capacity of these ships in their 440 runs. If another 1/2 of 1% of their capacity had been used for other railroad supplies, the results would have been significant.