Civil War Wednesday: Western & Atlantic Railroad

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W&A Map, Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G3924.D2S5 1864 .W4

During the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, a series of maneuvers, skirmishes, and battles occurred along the line of the Western & Atlantic Railroad throughout northwestern Georgia. The W&A, the only direct-rail connecting Atlanta and Chattanooga, served as the lifeline for both armies, and each also utilized the rail to carry the wounded to various hospital locations. Major General William T. Sherman, fond of calculating logistical needs, determined each locomotive could “…haul a payload of 160,000 pounds…[and] he strove to reach 120 cars per day.”[1] General Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, supplied his force with box cars of provisions from Atlanta. Absent the railroad, the 1864 military action in Georgia, had such occurred, would most assuredly have taken on a much different profile.

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Stephen H. Long, Colorado Historical Society.

Approving construction of what many called at the time the “state line,” the Georgia legislature gave final consent to construction of a railroad running from the Chattahoochee River to the Tennessee line in December 1836. Two years later, former western explorer Stephen H. Long, operating from his Marietta headquarters, oversaw the beginning of the building of the railroad. Economic depression halted construction of the W&A in late 1841; almost one year passed before dirt began moving again. In early 1843, workers completed a stretch from Marthasville (present day Atlanta) to Marietta. Overcoming the challenge of Chetoogeta Mountain outside Dalton, workers finished a tunnel through the hillside (Tunnel Hill) on May 9, 1850, and for the first time, passengers could traverse, unimpeded, the 138-mile trip from Chattanooga to Atlanta.[2]

Advancing deeper into Georgia, Sherman exercised great caution in protecting his line of supply, and indicated in a post-war account, “I doubt whether the history of war can furnish more examples of skill and bravery than attended the defense of the railroad from Nashville to Atlanta during the year 1864.”[3] Johnston, after President Jefferson Davis relived him of command in favor of General John Bell Hood, expressed the importance of the W&A, and how this vital rail line had factored into his strategic plan, which circumstances prevented him from fulfilling. The Virginian suggested he “…hoped to be able to break, or to procure the breaking of, the railroad by which the invading army was supplied, and thus compel it to assail ours on our own terms, or to a retreat easily converted into a rout.”[4]

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Alfred Waud sketch of the water tanks along the W&A in Big Shanty, LC-DIG-ppmsca-20204

During the coming months, as we commemorate many sesquicentennial events throughout northwest Georgia, recall the importance of the Western and Atlantic Rail Road, realize the various battles occurred in specific locations because of this line, and remember, as did Sherman, without the W&A,“…the Atlanta campaign was an impossibility….”[5]



[1] Lee Kennett, Sherman: A Soldier’s Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 239.

[2] About North Georgia, Building the Western and Atlantic Railroad, http://www.aboutnorthgeorgia.com/ang/Building_the_Western_and_Atlantic_Railroad (accessed April 18, 2014).

[3] William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 518.

[4] Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations during the Civil War, A Da Capo paperback (1874; repr., New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1990), 358.

[5] William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman, 751.

shafferMichael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center , a Civil War historian, newspaper columnist, and author of ‘Washington County, Virginia in the Civil War.’ He is a member of the Society of Civil War Historians, Historians of the Civil War Western Theater, Georgia Association of Historians, and the Civil War Round Table of Atlanta. Michael also serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and Center Combined Logo-page-001as a Civil War consultant for the Friends of Camp McDonald.