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Civil War Roads
By Sid Sidlo
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor's note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the Spring of 2001.  It's author, Sid Sidlo was then the editor of the North Carolina Roundtable’s RAMROD newsletter and long-time friend of the Cleveland CWRT.


During the Civil War, almost all roads were of dirt that became quagmires of mud after heavy rains. Only a few hard-surface all-weather roads existed. These were called “macadamized” roads after their inventor, Scottish civil engineer John Loudon McAdam, who in turn was indebted to the road builders of the ancient Roman empire. The pavement (from Latin pavinientum) was made of compressed layers of gravel set on a cement bed with limestone shoulders. Ditches at the sides of the road provided necessary drainage. After the advent of the automobile, it became standard to bind the gravel with tar or asphalt for greater durability and to reduce dust.

Corduroy road construction as drawn by Jano Casari

Such a paved road was the Shenandoah Valley turnpike, put to good use by Stonewall Jackson in the 1862 campaign. The road was opened in 1840 and ran for 80 miles from Winchester to Staunton. But during the war such roads were rarities, and armies had to move their men and equipment over the ubiquitous dirt roads, as they had since war began. Also dating from ancient times was the technique of surfacing muddy roads with branches and small tree trunks laid crosswise to allow passage of wagon trains and artillery over mud. From its appearance, this was called “corduroy road.”  Larger logs were used for military bridges and other semi-permanent structures.

Because the felling and cutting of saplings and branches large enough to sustain heavy loads required considerable labor, fence rails were used if these were available. Union army chief engineer Brig. Gen. Orlando Poe, reporting on the engineering achievements during the Carolinas campaign, noted that corduroying was a very simple affair when there were plenty of fence rails, but involved the severest labor in their absence. Engineering officers found that two good fences would furnish enough rails to corduroy a strip of road as long as one of the fences so as to make it passable.1

A plank road, corduroy surfaced with heavy planking, was a permanent and more sophisticated road used over swamps and boggy areas. The Winston-Salem and Fayetteville plank road in North Carolina was the longest in the United States, being 120 miles long. 2

Corduroying of military roads during the Civil War seems to have been exclusively a Yankee technique. Writing from Virginia in the winter of 1861-62, an anonymous rebel comments on “. . .the incredible quantity and tenacity of the mud. Locomotion in rainy or damp weather baffles all description; and to say that I have seen whole wagon trains fast in the road, with mud up to the axles, would afford but a faint idea of the reality. If timber had been plentiful, the roads might have been ‘corduroyed’ according to the Yankee plan, viz., of piling logs across the road, filling the interstices with small limbs, and covering with mud; but timber was not to be procured for such a purpose; what little there might be was economically served out for fuel.”3

Surely rebel armies must have corduroyed roads for passage of their equipment, but I have been unable to come up with any specific mention in Confederate records or correspondence. Can any of our readers help with this?

It was the Pioneer corps, moving behind the main body of infantry and ahead of the heavy trains, that carried the burden of constructing corduroy roads, but other units would be drafted if circumstances required. In addition the Pioneers built bridges and chopped “side roads” for the movement of wagon and artillery trains through heavily wooded terrain. The last two chores were frequently bigger jobs. A Union XVII Corps report for the months of February and March, 1865, mentions that the third division [Leggett’s] laid down 24,753 yards of corduroy road, but built 303 bridges and cut 53,386 yards of side road. 4


Sources:

1. Official Records, Vol. 47, Part I, p. 173
2. Official Records, Vol. 47, Part I, p. 1084
3. Richard Harwell (ed.), The Confederate Reader (Dorset Press, 1992), p. 59
4. Official Records, Vol. 47, Part I, p. 384


John Loudon McAdam
Orlando M. Poe
 
 

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable