He’s been working on the Railroad…
By Morgan Gates
As the Union Armies marched across the South, one of their favorite practices was the destroy the Confederacy's rail lines. The American Civil War was the first significant conflict in which railroads had played a major role. Steam-powered transportation via rail was relatively new in the world in the 1860’s, the first public steam railway in the world, had been opened in England only 35 years before. Railroads had however proved invaluable to the war effort of both sides, able to move troops and supplies at previously unheard-of speeds, using imperishable, easily obtainable and readily stockpiled fuels (mostly wood in the south) its main weakness was its fixed tracks. The Union was, of course, quick to recognize this and it became standard practice to destroy southern railways. Putting the rails out of service was easy enough, pry the tacks from their wooden ties and trains could no longer run on them. The problem was how to put them out of service long term? Wooden ties could be burned, but the iron rails were a bit more durable. Remember, this was well before the advent of light but powerful explosives, or even cutting torches. Serviceable wooden ties could be hewn from the nearest woodlot and the rails re lain, especially in an area where slave labor was employed. The rails had to be made useless somehow. The answer was to melt them. The ties were piled up and made into a bonfire the rails lay across them, and when they became red hot they could be bent, the most effective method was to use a handy tree to act a center point to ensure a good angle was applied. Please note: this method would not work with modern steel rails as their melting point is too high. At the time the rails were made of rather poor-quality iron which can become malleable at temperatures as low as 700 degrees. I do not know whose idea this was the first time it was done, but rails bent by such a method became known as "Sherman Neckties" as his men practiced this widely during the Atlanta Campaign. Atlanta, however, was not the first pace it was practiced, it was also done in Mississippi in 1963 and early 1864. In one of the displays in the new Mississippi History Museum in Jackson, there is a severely bent rail, an example of Sherman's handiwork in Mississippi, proof that he was tying his neckties here long before he traveled to Georgia and beyond.
Want to know more about Sherman in Mississippi? Come to the Vicksburg Civil War Symposium July 3-4 2018.