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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Traveling 52nd Indiana, Known as the Railroad Regiment

by Gordon Thorsby

The Fifty-Second Volunteers like most other volunteer units. The recruits came mostly from Rushville and Indianapolis. It was an average Union regiment but traveled to many of the campaign theaters. Here is a review of the 52nd Indiana regiment and how they became known as the “railroad regiment.”

Before muster, the 52nd had to merge with the 56th Indiana to reach regimental size. The 56th (known as the “railroad regiment”) moniker now encompassed both regiments. In 1862, the name would be permanently cemented forever. Mustered in Feb. 1, 1862, they were off serving as a garrison unit at Ft. Donelson, before moving to Pittsburg Landing and on to Corinth.

At Corinth, Confederate General Beauregard, dismantled railroad engines before evacuating the town and the Union troops upon entering had poor routes to supply. Unable to sit still a moment, Gen. William T. Sherman devised a solution. Sherman ordered the 52nd to make an engine from parts scattered in swamps, ditches and everywhere else. In short order, an engine was reassembled and supplying a hungry Union army and this is where the “railroad regiment” name came to stick.

The regiment moved to Kentucky to halt Bragg’s and Kirby Smith’s move into the state, and then on to skirmish with Faulkner's guerrillas near Memphis in September, a small force with an estimated force of 2,000 cavalry and infantry. The 52nd's loyalty to General A.J. Smith was strong often boasting, “if A. J. Order them to, they would go to hell itself.” The 52nd was engaged in Sherman’s Meridian expedition under Smith in January, Bank’s Red River disaster in May, the pursuit of Gen. John Marmaduke in Arkansas in June, against Sterling Price at Franklin, MO in August, but these engagements were minor and with few casualties. The boys had been fortunate to avoid heavy battle. That is, until December 15th at Nashville

where they were sent to boost the size of Thomas’ new army and to help stop Hood’s strike into Tennessee. This was possibly the 52nd’s greatest fight. The brigade was positioned to assault Redoubt #1.

Reported by Col. Main, “On the morning of the 15th instant I was ordered to move my regiment in front of the fortifications near the Hardin pike… at about 2 p.m. the whole line was again advanced toward the rebel works, my regiment advancing within 200 yards of them, where we received a galling fire of canister and musketry”, moved to cover of Hillsborough Pike and eventually captured a battery…” While Opdycke’s Brigade assaulted the redoubt on north side, the brigade that the 52d was part of, pressed the west and the redoubt was immediately overwhelmed. ​​The 52nd was part of the force to swing left to hit the crook of the refused Confederate line."

On Dec 16, the 52d was in, marched across the broad valley to assault the left center of the new Confederate line and as the gray line dissolved the 52d achieved the near vertical ridge line and joined in the rout of Hood’s army. At Nashville, Col. Main recorded:

“The regiment moved forward in line under a severe fire from a rebel battery in our immediate front and musketry from their works. Yet the whole line pressed forward with a determination that it was plain to be seen that neither rebel batteries nor musketry could withstand the bravery and determination of our officers and men, who had now reached the enemy's works, where prisoners were picked up in squads of six to ten in each ..."

The 52nd continued on, participating at the siege of Mobile, and then to Montgomery. The regiment mustered out Sept. 10, 1865. Its losses light, 167 from fighting and disease. Desertion was almost as heavy as deaths. The 52nd saw almost every state in the Western Theater at one time or another.


The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, Sword, Wiley, University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Corinth, Smith, Timothy B., University Press of Kansas, 2012.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

Image of James Alden Lett, property of Indiana Historical Society.

Historical Data Systems Inc., 2022.

52nd Indiana Infantry Officer Roster - Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana, Volume 2, by W.H.H. Terrell, Adjutant General, Indiana, 1865

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