Best Defense

What the railroad and Civil War might tell us about our military leadership today

Few senior military leaders sat down during the 1850s to look at how the railroad and telegraph might affect the conduct of a future war.


In the years before the Civil War, as we were discussing the other day, the United States was transformed by the railroad and the telegraph. But to my knowledge, few senior military leaders sat down during the 1850s to look at how those changes might affect the conduct of a future war.

Even George McClellan, who was an expert on railroad logistics and served in senior positions at two railroads during his time out of the Army, didn’t really focus on railways and their junctions as military objectives, William Thomas argues in The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America. Instead, McClellan took a more traditional approach, focusing on the enemy’s capital. (A mistake Gen. Tommy R. Franks would repeat 140 years later in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

Yet, Thomas writes, it soon grew clear that, “The geography of the railroads became, almost overnight, the geography of war.”

Only a few generals grasped this, he says — Grant, Sheridan and, foremost, Sherman. “For Sherman the railroad was the object — 75 percent of the time he used the word, he did so as the object of a verb.” And his verbs tended to be warlike: break, destroy, threaten, reach, attack. “In the intensity and single-mindedness of his focus, Sherman stood out among northern commanders. By late August [1864] he seemed for the most part uninterested in offering the Confederates a battle. Instead, he sought only to knock out the junctions and dominate the railroads of Georgia.”

My question: What is the “geography of the information world,” and might it become the geography of our future war?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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