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“Colton's Railroad And Military Map Of The United States, Mexico,” 1862, showing slave, border, and free states. Courtesy of David Rumsey.

Fractured Nation

The Transcontinental Railroad was planned and construction began during the Civil War, which gave northern Congressmen reason to oppose plans for a southern route. As southerners resigned their seats in the legislature, Republican lawmakers chose a northern route that would insulate the railroad from the conflict and ensure that northern states benefitted from the line more than their southern counterparts. Designed to punish the South for the secession movement of 1861, the North’s transcontinental plans had strategic value as well. As the war dragged on, the perception of the railroad as an asset for the North continued to grow.

Although the railroad was not completed until four years after the Civil War, its potential value to the war effort in the North cannot be understated. A completed railroad would have enabled the North to further capitalize on military and economic advantages over the South. Since only 9,500 miles of track had been previously laid south of the Mason-Dixon line, as opposed to 22,000 north of it, the North maintained a large advantage in terms of moving troops, relocating raw materials, and transporting food and other supplies to the front lines. With a blockade that restricted international shipments of goods and supplies to the Confederacy, southerners were not only prevented from building new railroads, but were forced to pull rails to melt into bullets or to make repairs to more important railway lines.