The Original Secret Services

Spies and scouts of the Army of the PotomacToday, the United States Secret Service is known primarily for protecting the President and other government officials but it wasn’t always the case. The original mission of the Secret Service was to apprehend counterfeiters. It still does that but in the avalanche of bad press about the Protective Division that mission has been obscured to the public.

But the Secret Service had it roots on both sides of the Civil War. On the Union side, General George C. McClellan employed Allan Pinkerton as the head of his intelligence operation in the Department of the Ohio. Pinkerton who styled himself as Major Allen naturally moved with McClellan to Washington when the latter was promoted to commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Employing a number of fellow spies Pinkerton’s main assignment was to seek out the Confederate Army’s location and estimate its strength. Unfortunately for the Union Army his estimates were always on the high side. Before the Battle of Antietam he reported that the Army of Northern Virginia was twice the size than it actually was in reality. This intelligence made McClellan extremely tentative in his movements before and during the battle.

After McClellan was removed from command by Lincoln, Pinkerton refused to continue in the military end of the service after the general’s removal in November, 1862. He remained, however, in Government service, investigating cotton claims in New Orleans, with other detective work, until the close of the war, when he returned to his agency in Chicago.

Following Pinkerton’s departure the Union intelligence effort fell into neglect. By the time General Joe Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac his knowledge of his Confederate adversary across the Rappahannock was almost non-existent. Hooker rectified the situation by appointing Colonel George H. Sharpe, of the 120th New York Infantry to command a special and separate bureau, known as Military Information. Sharpe was also appointed deputy provost-marshal-general.

From March 30, 1863, until the close of the war, the Bureau of Military Information, Army of the Potomac, had no other head. Gathering a staff of keen-witted men, chiefly from the ranks, Sharpe never let his commanding general suffer for lack of proper information as to the strength and movements of Lee’s army.

Meanwhile in the city of Washington a different type of bureau was taking shape. Spying had become endemic in Washington and the Union government found it necessary to create an organization to hunt down and apprehend Confederate spies while also spying in the Confederate capital of Richmond. For this job General Winfield Scott tapped Lafayette C. Baker.

Baker’s exploits are mainly known through his book A History of the Secret Service which he published in 1867 after his fall from grace. During the early months of the Civil War, he spied for Scott on Confederate forces in Virginia. Despite numerous scrapes, he returned to Washington, D.C., with information that Scott evidently thought valuable enough to raise him to the rank of captain.

As Provost Marshal of Washington, D.C. from September 12, 1862 to November 7, 1863, Baker took charge of the Union Intelligence Service from the Scottish-American detective Allan Pinkerton. He was appointed colonel of D.C. Cavalry, May 5, 1863. Baker’s concerns were chiefly with matters that had little to do with active conduct of the war. He took charge of all abandoned Confederate property; he investigated the fraudulent practices of contractors; he Lafayette Curry Bakerassisted the Treasury Department in unearthing counterfeiters; he was the terror of bounty-jumpers.

After Scott’s retirement, Baker owed his continued appointment largely to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton However,he suspected the secretary of corruption and was eventually demoted for tapping his telegraph lines and packed off to New York.

Baker was recalled to Washington after the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865. Within two days of his arrival in Washington, Baker’s agents in Maryland had made four arrests and had the names of two more conspirators, including the actual presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. Before the month was out, Booth along with David Herold were found holed up in a barn and Booth was himself shot and killed by Sgt. Boston Corbett.

Baker received a generous share of the $100,000 reward offered to the person who apprehended the president’s killer.President Andrew Johnson nominated Baker for appointment to the grade of brigadier general of volunteers, April 26, 1865, but the United States Senate never confirmed the appointment.Baker was mustered out of the volunteers on January 15, 1866

During the Civil War, a number of secret Confederacy organizations emerged. Some of these organizations were under the direction of the Confederate government, others operated independently with government approval, while still others were either completely independent of the government or operated with only its tacit acknowledgment.

By 1864, the Confederate government was attempting to gain control over the various operations that had sprung up since the beginning of the war, but often with little success. Secret legislation was put before the Confederate Congress to create an official Special and Secret Bureau of the War Department. The legislation was not enacted until March 1865 and was never implemented; however, a number of groups and operations have historically been referred to as having been part of the Confederate Secret Service.

In April 1865, most of the official papers of the Secret Service were burned by Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin just before the Confederate government evacuated Richmond, although a few pages of a financial ledger remain. Thus, the full story of Confederate secret operations may never be known.

The Confederate armies used a number of spies and scouts who were most often paid by the army’s high command. Perhaps, the best known was General James Longstreet’s scout Henry Thomas Harrison who worked for Longstreet from November 1861 until after the Battle of Gettysburg. It was Harrison who fixed the position and strength of the Army of the Potomac and thereby triggered the events that led to the battle.

The Confederate government had spies and couriers up and down the Eastern Seaboard who relayed information from throughout the North back to their Department of State. There were even Confederate sympathizers within the Federal government who relayed key information to their masters in Richmond.

As the war went on information-gathering became more decentralized. Army commanders on both sides employed their own scouts, spies and counter-spies who kept the information flowing to them.

The St. Albans RaidPerhaps, the most spectacular operations that was carried out by the Confederates were those that were planned by Confederate agent Jacob Thompson who was located in Canada. Among other operations, Thompson planned operations with Ohioan Clement Vallandigham who wanted to detach Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio from the Union. Their goal was that Confederate authorities would, at the same time, move sufficient forces into Kentucky and Missouri to hold those lukewarm Federal States. The five commonwealths would thereupon organize the Northwestern Confederacy upon the basis of State sovereignty.

The plot was aborted by Union spies that had infiltrated Vallandigham’s Sons of Liberty and the Confederates returned to Canada. Later in the year there was the attempted capture of the United States gunboat Michigan, which was guarding Johnson’s Island Prison Camp on Sandusky Bay of Lake Erie. This plot was also thwarted and a number of Confederates were captured.

Finally, there was the ill-fated St. Albans, Vermont raid on October 19, 1864. Shortly before 3 p.m. 21 Confederate soldiers staged simultaneous robberies of the city’s three banks. They identified themselves as Confederate soldiers and took a total of $208,000 (US$ 3,140,000 in 2014). During the robberies, eight or nine Confederates held the villagers at gun point on the village green, taking their horses to prevent pursuit. Several armed villagers tried to resist, and one was killed and another wounded.

Their leader, Bennett H. Young, ordered his men to burn the city, but the 4-US-fluid-ounce (120 ml) bottles of Greek fire they used failed to ignite, and only one shed was destroyed by fire. The raiders escaped to Canada, despite a delayed pursuit. In response to U.S. demands, the Canadian authorities arrested the raiders, recovering $88,000. However, a Canadian court ruled that because they were soldiers under military orders, officially neutral Canada could not extradite them. Canada freed the raiders, but returned to St. Albans the money they had found.





An Epitaph for the Southern Railroads

Railroads of the Confederacy

By the end of the American Civil War the Southern railroad system was all but destroyed. Where there was once 9,500 miles of track very little of it remained undamaged. Locomotives and rail cars were either captured or destroyed by the Union Army.

The Southern rail system began to deteriorate from the very beginning of the war. Most Southerners were more interested in agrarian pursuits and many of the skilled workers that were needed to maintain and run the railroads were from the North.

The skilled railroad men began to return to the North once the war began. Those who remained were overwhelmed by the maintenance and construction that was necessary during wartime.

The Southern railroads were not a system per se but a series of unconnected lines that ran from ports to inland destinations. They were seen as transportation of primarily cotton to ports for export to the North and Europe. This lack of inter-railway connections caused many railroads to become useless once the Union blockade was in place. A look at the map shows how the various rail lines were disconnected.

Another deficiency of the Southern railroads was a a break of gauge. Much of the Confederate rail network was in the broad gauge format. However, much of North Carolina and Virginia had standard gauge lines. Southern railroads west of the Mississippi were isolated, disconnected, and differed widely in gauge.

Most of the Southern locomotives had been imported from England. When the Union blockade began the steady strangling of Southern trade spare parts became hard to come by. Tracks and locomotives began to wear out. By 1863 a quarter of the South’s locomotives needed repairs and the speed of train travel in the South had dropped to only 10 miles an hour (from 25 miles an hour in 1861).

Replacement track and crossties became a problem. The South had very few steel miles that made track. The railroads resorted to tearing up track and crossties on less important lines as replacements on their key lines. The line from Nashville to Chattanooga had 1,200 broken rails in 1862 alone.

Most Southern locomotives used wood as fuel. As the Confederate army took more and more men into its service the rail lines were hard pressed to provide wood for their trains. Crews sometimes found it necessary to stop their trains and chop their own wood.

Accidents also wrecked a lot of equipment. Because telegraph communication was sporadic at best, railroad crews were often unaware of broken rails and Ruins of Atlanta's rolling mills destroyed by retreating Confederatescollapsed bridges. Cattle on the tracks caused accidents, sparks from the locomotives’ woodfires burned cars, and boilers exploded.

In the last year before the end of the war, the Confederate railroad system was always on the verge of collapse. The impressment policy of quartermasters ran the rails ragged. Feeder lines would be scrapped for replacement steel for trunk lines, and the continual use of rolling stock wore them down faster than they could be replaced.

Finally, the Union armies became quite proficient at destroying the Southern railroads. A Union Army division could destroy miles of track in a single day. Even though the Confederates repaired the track when they could the constant destruction gradually destroyed the effectiveness of the lines. In areas where the Union Army advanced the Confederates applied a scorched-earth policy by destroying their own lines and equipment.

The Union Army targeted the main rail junctions of the South in order to destroy the effectiveness of the railroads. Rail junctions in cities like Nashville, Chattanooga, Corinth and Atlanta were either captured or destroyed.

Union troops would often have to rebuild an entire line from scratch for it to be usable. Due to the vagaries of the war, some lines would be rebuilt 6 or 7 times by differing sides, especially in states like Virginia, where fighting was most intense.




The United States Military Railroad

Alexandria rail yardOne of the lesser known departments of the Union government during the Civil War years was the United States Military Railroad. Established by an act of Congress in January 1862 it began with a mere 7 miles of track under its control. By the end of the war it controlled over more than 2,000 miles.

The U.S. Military Railroad operated as autonomous units within the Department of War although the Secretary of War tended to micromanage them from time to time. Other operating military departments also affected their operations, such as Union Army commands throughout the areas of operation.

Although the department had the authority to requisition track and rolling stock across the country, in practice the USMRR restricted its authority to Southern rail lines captured in the course of the war. It started with 7 miles of track of the Washington and Alexandria Railroad but as the Union Army’s area of operations the department seized ever increasing miles of track and rolling stock.

The USMRR had the benefit of experienced railroad executives from the private sector.  Thomas A. Scott, vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad served as an Assistant Secretary of War during the period 1861-1862. In January 1862 Scott prepared a report on military transportation that anticipated the creation of the USMRR.

Daniel C. McCallum, former general superintendent of the New York and Erie Railroad, was appointed as Military Director and Superintendent of U.S. Railroads. Herman Haupt former chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad was appointed as Chief of Construction and Transportation in the Virginia theater.

Herman Haupt was a West Point graduate who almost immediately upon graduation at the age of 18 resigned his commission and went to work for the a railroad in Pennsylvania. He built railroads until 1862 when he accepted a commission in the Union Army in a new bureau responsible for constructing and operating military railroads in the United States.

Haupt began by repairing and fortifying war-damaged railroads around the nation’s capital. He began by arming and training railroad staff and improving telegraph communications along the railroad lines.

Among his most challenging assignments was restoring the strategic Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad line, including the Potomac Creek Bridge, after its partial destruction by Confederate forces. With an inexperienced workforce and other serious impediments, Haupt had the line back in use in under two weeks.

President Abraham Lincoln was impressed with Haupt’s work there. In a visit on May 28, 1862, he observed: “That man Haupt has built a bridge four hundred feet long and one hundred feet high, across Potomac Creek, on which loaded trains are passing every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but cornstalks and beanpoles.”

Haupt made an enormous impact on the Union war effort. He assisted the Union Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac in the Northern Virginia Campaign, the Maryland Campaign, and was particularly effective in supporting the Gettysburg Campaign, conducted in an area he knew well from his youth.

His hastily organized trains kept the Union Army well supplied, and he organized the returning trains to carry thousands of Union wounded to hospitals. After the Battle of Gettysburg, Haupt boarded one of his trains and arrived at the White House on July 6, 1863, being the first to inform President Lincoln that General Robert E. Lee’s defeated Confederate army was not being pursued vigorously by Union Major General George G. Meade.

Once the Union Army’s area of operations moved into the Deep South the importance of moving troops across the landscape became paramount. Both Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman were well-known as superb logistical commanders. Their use of the modern forms of transportation allowed them to move large numbers of soldiers and supplies in the most expeditious manner. At the same time the understood that the destruction of many miles of Southern track and the seizure of rolling stock was a necessary part of their campaigns against the Confederacy.

Two operations in 1863 showed how the mass movement of troops by rail could affect the operations of both armies. The Confederacy used their interior lines of communication to transfer two divisions and an artillery battalion of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s I Corps, Army of Northern Virginia by railroad from Virginia to Georgia to reinforce Gen.Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee.

The troops began arriving at the Catoosa Platform, Georgia on September 19, having begun their journey from Virginia on September 9, ultimately only 5 of Longstreet’s 10 infantry brigades arrived in time to participate in the Confederate victory at Chickamauga but they were enough to turn the tide of battle.

The Union Army responded by shipping 25,000 men over 1,200 miles overshadowing the Confederacy’s earlier movement of 12,000 men over 800 miles in 12 days. The movement involved 9 different railroads in order get the troops from Virginia to Bridgeport, Alabama. In addition to the soldiers involved, 33 cars ofThe Dictator Mortar artillery and 21 cars of baggage and horses were also moved.

Perhaps, the most spectacular use of railroads was during the Petersburg Campaign from mid-1864 until the end of the war in Virginia. General Grant ordered the armies surrounding Richmond and Petersburg to constantly raid and destroy the rail lines that were supplying the Confederates in these two cities.

At the same time he had the USMRR rebuilt and restored service along the Petersburg and City Point Railroad’s line. Eventually, some 30 miles of track were extended to the south around Petersburg. The line was used to shuttle troops along the siege lines and move giant railroad mortars into position to shell the Confederate siege lines.

It was also used to supply food to Union troops in the siege lines. It was said that 100,000 loaves of hot bread were supplied to them daily from the Union’s vast logistical bases around City Point. When Petersburg was eventually abandoned in 1865 the 25 engines and 275 pieces of other rolling stock had logged a grand total of 2,300,000 operating miles.

Over the course of the war the USMRR had grown from a mere 7 miles of track to over 2,000 miles. By the end of the war the USMRR would buy, build or capture 419 locomotives and 6,330 cars beyond the rolling stock that was requisitioned from the various Northern railroads. This vast enterprise was one of the keys to the ultimate Union victory.





The Destruction of the Southern Railroads

Union troops destroying a rail line near AtlantaWilliam Tecumseh Sherman was among the first of America’s modern generals. Like his commander, Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman understood the value and importance of railroads to the Confederate war effort. Grant, Sherman and Phillip Sheridan were proponents of ‘Hard War’, the utter destruction of every resource that the Confederates could use to continue their war against the Union.

One of Sherman’s primary targets in his campaigns in the South were the Southern railroads. His initial target after he took command of the Western Theater was the city of Atlanta. The city was one of the South’s three main rail centers, along with Chattanooga and Richmond.

The Southern government was slow to recognize the importance of railroads and rail centers in their war effort. The Union Army on the other hand understood their importance to both sides and laid out specific plans to cripple the Southern railroads.

In the Eastern Theater Grant ordered the armies surrounding Richmond and Petersburg to make every effort to cut the two cities off from sources of supply by destroying the railroads that led into the cities. The Siege of Petersburg was not so much a siege in the traditional sense but a siege on the Southern supply lines. Gradually, the Union Army began to choke the Confederate capital and the Army of Northern Virginia to death.

In Tennessee, Grant’s forces had captured the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Because of Chattanooga’s strategic location, river and rail systems, Chattanooga was considered the gateway to the Deep South and an important location for both the Union and the Confederate armies. The city had been captured by the Union Army of the Cumberland.

With the capture of Atlanta in September of 1864 Sherman completed the job by beginning a methodical destruction of the railroads that ran in all directions from Atlanta.

The Mobile and Ohio Railroad had been chartered in 1848 by the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. It was planned to span the distance between the seaport of Mobile, Alabama and the Ohio River near Cairo, Illinois. The start of the Civil War saw it converted to military use and it quickly became a military target for both sides during the war.

According to an annual report by the railroad in 1866, the line was totally destroyed for 184 miles between Union City, Tennessee and Okolona, Mississippi.  The bridges, depots, trestles and shops were destroyed.  Even the rails were bent and deemed unusable by the Union forces.  At Mobile, most of the rolling stock and engines were destroyed.  The line was also several million dollars in debt ($5.2 million in confederate currency – translated into over $8 billion in today’s dollars).

In November 1862, Ulysses S. Grant began the Mississippi Central Railroad Campaign down the line with the ultimate goal of capturing Vicksburg in conjunction with William Tecumseh Sherman. Grant established a base in Holly Springs and began advancing south along the railroad. Confederate soldiers built earthwork fortifications to defend the railroad’s Tallahatchie River bridge near Abbeville but retreated south without firing a shot when they learned of a flanking maneuver by Grant.

Skirmishes were fought along the railroad to Oxford and in the streets of the town itself. The Confederates were pushed further south past Water Valley, Mississippi but managed to damage a railroad trestle and lead a successful ambush at Oakland, Mississippi that stalled the Federal advance.

While Grant was stalled, Confederate General Van Dorn lead a successful cavalry raid on Grant’s supply base at Holly Springs, burning most of his supplies and then moved north destroying the railroad and telegraph lines along the way. With the railroad destroyed Grant had no way to resupply his army and was forced to end the campaign and retreat to Memphis, TN.

The New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern was a 206 miles 5 ft gauge railway originally commissioned by the State of Illinois in the 1851. The railroad was the South’s longest rail line. It connected Canton with New Orleans and was completed just prior to the Civil War, in which it served strategic interests, especially for the Confederacy. The New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern was largely in ruins by the end of the War.

When the war started, it was one of the best roads in the Confederacy. It actually had 7 locomotives and 11 passenger cars in reserve for an expected increaseSherman's Bowties in traffic. When New Orleans fell under the guns of Farragut’s fleet in April 1862, the road spent four frantic days hauling troops, supplies and equipment out of the city to the north. Only when General Butler’s troops finally arrived on shore did the removal stop.

For the rest of the war, the road operated with Ponchatoula on the northern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, as its southern terminal. There were numerous Union attempts to disrupt the road, and, little by little, it ceased to operate. By the end of the war, the road had only 4 locomotives (2 partially burned) and 40 cars on a limited piece of track.

As Sherman’s forces marched to the sea and then up through the Carolina’s they methodically destroyed the Southern railroads. They used a particular method of rendering the rails useless by bending them around poles and trees. First, they would remove the rails from the sleepers. Then, they would stack the sleepers in a square with a furiously burning fire in the middle. Once the fire was sufficiently stoked they would lay the rails on top. Once the rails were soft enough the troops would bend them around a pole or tree making what became known as ‘Sherman’s Neckties’ or ‘Sherman’s Bowties’.

From 1864 until the end of the war, the Confederacy’s ability to repair the Union Army’s destruction began to decline. Sherman’s February 1864 campaign through Mississippi caused so much destruction that it took four months to repair. His later campaigns were so destructive that many of the railroads remained out of service through the end of the war.

Part of the Confederacy’s repair problems were due to the Confederate government’s near total lack of assistance to the railroads. Neither manpower nor supplies was forthcoming. This was often justified as a matter of state’s rights. On the other hand the very same government was more than willing to conscript railroad workers and supplies. The Confederate government was willing to take but not to give.


Confederate officer’s wartime diary decoded

Here’s a fascinating story by Chris Carola of the Associated Press about the decoding of a Confederate officer’s wartime diary.

Confederate wartime diary decoded

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) – A century and a half after Confederate officer James Malbone wrote his Civil War diary partly in code, a couple of Yankees have figured out why he took the precaution: He liked to gossip.

Sprinkled amid entries on camp recipes and casualties are encrypted passages in which Malbone dishes on such juicy topics as a fellow soldier who got caught in bed with another man’s wife.

Malbone also writes about meeting the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and describes her looks in an apparent echo of rumors at the time that she may have been of mixed race.

“That’s pretty shocking,” said Kent D. Boklan, the Queens College computer science professor and former National Security Agency cryptographer who deciphered Malbone’s code with little difficulty. “It’s a military diary and you expect military information, but you don’t expect the first lady of the Confederacy to make an appearance in this diary.”

According to Boklan, Malbone’s encrypted entry about Varina Howell Davis describes her as “dark complected” with “very very brown skin dark eyes” and “high cheek bones wide mouth.”

Davis’ wife was a well-educated woman for her time, and as a result, was the target of “all kind of gossipy innuendos from the ladies” in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, according to Sam Craghead of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

Malbone, a lieutenant with the 6th Virginia Infantry Regiment, was severely wounded in the arm at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. Assigned to light duty behind the lines, he used a leather-bound pocket diary to jot down his thoughts and even a poem.

Many of the entries were in a code he devised himself, consisting of a variety of symbols, including punctuation marks and a dollar sign, that corresponded to letters of the alphabet.

Other entries – names of deserters, costs of supplies – were written in plain text because the diary would have been submitted to his superiors so they could copy the information for their official records, according to Jim Gandy, librarian at the New York State Military Museum.

Gandy said the journal probably came into the possession of a New York soldier at the end of the war and wound up in the state’s vast collection. It is the only Confederate diary in the museum. There is no record there of Malbone’s ultimate fate.

It wasn’t until 2012 that a museum volunteer discovered the diary was written partly in code. The museum contacted Boklan, who had broken Union and Confederate codes used in other documents, and he completed the deciphering after working on it for a week in January.

“Technically, this is not very hard to break,” Boklan said. “There were some odd things. With a little bit of work and patience everything worked out.”


The Battles for the Weldon Railroad

Ulysses S. Grant understood the importance of railroad for both sides war efforts. By June of 1864 his forces were systematically cutting the rail lines that supplied Petersburg and Richmond of much-needed daily supplies. As the noose around the twin Confederate strongholds tightened the battles for the Weldon Railroad increased in importance.

The Weldon Railroad had originally been chartered in 1835 as the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad. By 1855 it had been renamed the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. At its completion in 1840 it was considered the longest railroad in the world at 161.5 miles of 4 ft. 8 inch gauge track.

At its terminus in Weldon, North Carolina, it connected with the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad (to Portsmouth, Virginia) and the Petersburg Railroad (to Petersburg, Virginia). It also connected with the North Carolina Railroad at its midpoint where the future city of Goldsboro soon sprang up.

Petersburg, railroad attacks, June 21-22

The first serious action to cut off the railroad is called the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road. This initial attack against the Weldon Railroad began on June 21st when units from the II Corps skirmished with Confederate cavalry as they moved toward the rail line. The two Federal corps assigned to the attack began to diverge from each other creating a gap.

Confederate Brig. Gen. William Mahone who was very familiar with the area (he had been a civil engineer before the war) realized that he could surprise the II Corps by hiding his men in a deep ravine. At 3:00 PM his force emerged in the rear of Francis Barlow’s Division and surprised them. Barlow’s unit was routed. So, too, was John Gibbon’s Division. However, both units able to rally around some earthworks that had been built the night before. The fighting ended with the coming of darkness.

In the morning the II Corps resumed their advance and retook the earthworks that they had lost the day before. One brigade of Vermont men reached the rail line and started tearing up the tracks. They were caught in a Confederate counterattack and many of them were captured. The general attack collapsed and Meade called off further operations.

The Federals lost almost 3,000 men to the Confederates 572. It wasn’t a total loss for the Federal side. Although the Confederates retained control of the Weldon Railroad, at least a half mile of track was destroyed and the siege lines continued to be pushed to the west straining the Confederate manpower resources.

The second attempt to cut the line was an all-cavalry raid, called the Wilson-Kautz Raid, whose main goal was to destroy as much of the track to the south and southwest of Petersburg. The overall commander wasWilson-Kautz Raid, June 22-July 1 Maj. Gen. James Wilson who was accompanied by Br. Gen. August Kautz. Interestingly, Wilson’s contribution was only 1,300 men while Kautz’s entire division numbered 2,000. The force also included two batteries of six guns each.

Their first objective was Reams Station, about 7 miles south of the city where they destroyed rail cars and track of the Weldon Railroad. Kautz’s force moved west to Ford’s Station where they destroyed rail cars and track of the South Side Railroad.

Wilson’s force moved toward Burkeville where the South Side Railroad intersected with the Richmond & Danville Railroad. At this point they encountered units of Rooney Lee’s Cavalry.  While his rear guard fended off the Confederates, Wilson’s main force destroyed about 30 miles of track. One June 24th he moved his force south to Meherrin Station on the Richmond & Danville RR where his force continued to tear up the track.

Staunton River BridgeThe combined force continued to move southwest on the Richmond & Danville RR tearing up track all of the way until they reached the Staunton River Bridge. The bridge was defended by about 1,000 men and boys of the Home Guard commanded by Captain Benjamin L. Farinholt. The Federal force was unable to dislodge the Home Guards and being pressed from the rear by Confederate cavalry, retreated east to Reams Station.

Wilson had been assured that this station would be under Federal control. With Confederate units closing in on all sides, they continued to move to the east. The Federal force fought a minor engagement at Sappony Station and was able to continue moving toward Reams Station. They continued to fight a running battle with enemy cavalry units from June 28th until the following day.

On the 29th they arrived back at Ream’s Station only to find it occupied by Confederate infantry. They managed to get a messenger through to Meade who dispatched infantry reinforcements south. Wilson couldn’t wait for them to arrive. He burned his wagons, destroyed his artillery and fled north to the safety of the Federal lines where they arrived on July 1, 1864.

The Wilson Kautz Raid was seen by some as successful but Grant described it as a “disaster”. The combined force had 1,445 casualties (killed, wounded, missing/captured). About 60 miles of track were destroyed, which took the Confederates several weeks to repair.

The Union Army made another effort against the all-important supply line on August 18, 1864 when a force of 20,000 Federals under Maj. Gen Gouverneur Warren headed south in an attempt to cut off the Confederate’s lifeline. Warren’s V Corps was supplemented by units from the IX Corps, the II Corps and August Kautz’s small cavalry division.

General A.P. Hill commanded a force of 14-15,000 Confederates under General P.G.T/ Beauregard who was the commander in Petersburg. Lee was off observing the Deep Bottom battle.

Warren’s force advanced south through the rain and over muddy roads. He pushed aside the Confederate pickets and a cavalry brigade. The reached Globe Tavern on the railroad line by about 9:00 AM and started to destroy the track. Warren detailed a brigade from Romeyn B. Ayres’ Division to protect his force from any attack from the north.

Ayers met the Confederates about 1:00 PM and Warren sent Samuel Crawford’s Division to strengthen his right. They tried to outflank the Confederate attackers. About 2:00 PM three Confederate brigades attacked the combined Federal force and began to push it back to within a mile of the Weldon Railroad and Globe Tavern. Warren counterattacked, regained the lost ground and entrenched for the night.

During the night both armies were reinforced. The Federal IX Corps arrived on the field and Rooney Lee’s cavalry division and three infantry brigades from William Mahone’s Division reinforced the Confederates.

Globe Tavern and the Weldon RailroadThe next day saw limited action due to the heavy rain. However in the late afternoon, Mahone found a hole in the Federal line and his men poured through it to the enemy’s rear area. General Crawford attempted to rally his panicked men and was nearly captured. However, almost two full brigades of his men were captured.

At the same Henry Heth launched a frontal assault against the Federal left and center that was easily repulsed by Ayers. The IX Corps counterattacked and the fighting was hand-to-hand until darkness ended it.

On August 20th heavy rains curtailed any activity. On the night of August 20-21 Warren pulled his units back about 2 miles to a new line of fortifications that were tied in to the main Federal line along Jerusalem Plank Road.

On the 21st the fair weather returned and the Confederates attacked at about 9:00 AM. Mahone struck the Federal left and Heth the Federal right. Both assaults were unsuccessful with heavy Confederate casualties. By 10:30 AM the Confederates withdraw leaving several miles of the Weldon Railroad in Federal hands.

Federal casualties were heavy with 251 killed, 1148 wounded and 2,897 missing/captured. The Confederates suffered 211 killed, 990 wounded and 419 missing/captured, including Brig. Gen. John C.C. Sanders of Mahone’s Division.

More importantly, the Confederates were forced to move their supplies 30 miles by wagon because of the break in the Weldon Railroad. The Federals extended their siege lines to Globe Tavern and achieved their first clear victory of the siege.

Grant wasn’t completely satisfied with Warren’s victory and he delegated Winfield Hancock and the II Corps to extend his control further south. Hancock’s objective was to destroy an additional 14 miles of track from Globe Tavern as far south as Rowanty Creek. This engagement is called the Second Battle of Ream’s Station.

Hancock had a force of 9,000 men which included David Gregg’s cavalry division. He faced A.P. Hill and Henry Heth with their force of between 8-10,000 men.

On August 22nd Gregg’s Cavalry and Barlow’s Division, under the command of Brig. General Nelson A. Miles while Barlow was on leave, drove off the Confederate pickets and destroyed the tracks to within 3 miles of Ream’s Station.

Hancock’s other infantry division under the command of John Gibbon moved forward the next day and occupied fortifications left from the Wilson-Kautz Raid in June. The positions were somewhat degraded but Gibbon’s men didn’t bother to improve them.

Meanwhile, Lee realized that if the Federal captured Dinwiddie Court House his possible retreat route out of the Richmond and Petersburg would be cut. He ordered A.P. Hill to drive the Federals from their positions. Hill, who was ill, delegated tactical command to Henry Heth with an order to carry the position. The Confederate force included Heth’s own division, Cadmus Wilcox’s Division, Wade Hampton’s Cavalry and part of Mahone’s Division.

By the 24th Hancock had arrived at Ream’s Station. The Federals had destroyed 3 miles of track south of Ream’s Station (images) but the following day Hancock recalled them when he received word that the Confederate cavalry was approaching.

Gregg’s cavalry was pushed back by Hampton’s cavalry with the Confederate column advancing down the Dinwiddie Stage Road. On the north side of the battle Wilcox’s three brigades assaulted Miles’ fortified position about 2:00 PM but were repulsed. Gibbon’s Division blocked Hampton’s cavalry in the south.

Confederate reinforcements arrived in the afternoon and Heth ordered an all-out assault against Miles’ position at about 5:30 PM. The six Confederate brigades were personally led by Heth. His men broke through the Federal fortifications and Miles’ men disintegrated under the assault. Neither Miles nor Hancock was able to rally the men.

In the south Gibbon’s Division began to give way under the pressure of a surprise dismounted attack from Hampton’s Cavalry. Many of Gibbon’s men either fled or surrendered. This allowed Hampton to flank Miles and complete the rout. However, Hancock ordered a counterattack which allowed the Federal force to beat an orderly retreat to the Petersburg lines.

Hancock lost 117 killed, 439 wounded and 2,046 missing/captured with the cavalry suffering an additional 145 casualties. Confederate casualties were 814 (Hampton’s cavalry lost 16 killed, 75 wounded, 3 missing; Hill’s infantry 720 total).

However, it was only a partial Confederate victory. They may have saved Dinwiddie Court House but they lost the use of the Weldon Railroad and continued to bring in their supplies by wagon. The noose around Petersburg was tightening.


The Great Locomotive Chase

The GeneralPerhaps, the most daring raid involving railroads was Andrews’ Raid, better known as the Great Locomotive Chase. Union Army volunteers led by civilian scout (read spy) James J. Andrews captured a locomotive named the General with one car. There intention was to do as much damage as they could to the rail line between Big Shanty, Georgia and Chattanooga, Tennessee in order to hamper the Confederate’s use of the vital Western and Atlantic Railroad (W&A) line.

But first let’s look at the background of the raid. Union forces led by Major General Ormsby M. Mitchel, who commanded Union troops in Middle Tennessee, planned to move south with his army and seize Huntsville, Alabama, before turning east in hopes of capturing Chattanooga. Mitchel recognized the strategic value of seizing the rail and water transportation center of Chattanooga.

Chattanooga because of its natural defenses could not be successfully surrounded by Union besiegers so another means of siege was necessary. Mitchel realized that his only means of capturing Chattanooga was to cut of reinforcements by the Confederates in Atlanta. Once he captured the city he would have control of the rail net that connected it with the Union base at Nashville.

James J. Andrews who was a scout and a part-time spy for Mitchel proposed a daring plan to Mitchel. He and 23 volunteers would size a train in Georgia and head north destroying bridges and track along the way. He recruited civilian William Hunter Campbell and 22 volunteer Union soldiers from three Ohio regiments: the 2nd, 21st, and 33rd Ohio Infantry. Mitchel approved the plan and Andrews and his raiders headed south to Marietta, Georgia where they planned to rendezvous.

On April 11, 1862 the majority of men met up at Marietta after being delayed one full day by heavy rains. Andrews plan called for two men to join a Confederate artillery unit if they missed the rendezvous.

Andrews plan called for Mitchel’s forces to attack Chattanooga simultaneously with Andrews’ hijacking of the train. Meanwhile, the raiders would deprive the Confederates of a means of reinforcing Chattanooga from their main base of Atlanta.

This being the era before railroad dining cars trains would stop along their routes in order for the passengers to eat and refresh themselves on their routes. On the morning of April 12th The General  stopped at Big Shanty, Georgia on its regular run from Atlanta to Chattanooga.

When the passengers debarked, Andrews and his raiders seized the locomotive and one car. They set off north for Chattanooga planning to damage or destroy track, bridges, telegraph wires, and track switches behind them, so as to prevent the Confederate Army from being able to move troops and suppliesWestern and Atlantic Railroad from Atlanta to Chattanooga from Atlanta to Chattanooga. They had hijacked the train at Big Shanty because it had no telegraph office that could alert authorities up the line.

They steamed out of Big Shanty, leaving behind startled passengers, crew members, and onlookers, which included a number of Confederate soldiers from Camp McDonald, directly opposite the Lacy Hotel. The train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, and two other men, chased the stolen train, first on foot, then by handcar.

Click to enlarge

Locomotives of the time could average about 15 miles an hour with short bursts on the downhill grades of about 20 miles per hour. The rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga was fairly steep in many places. A determined pursuer could conceivably catch up with train since Andrews planned stops along the way in order to sabotage the line.

In his footrace north, Fuller spotted the locomotive Yonah at Etowah and commandeered it, chasing the raiders north all the way to Kingston. There, Fuller switched to the locomotive William R. Smith and continued north towards Adairsville. Two miles south of Adairsville, however, the raiders had destroyed the tracks, and Fuller was forced to continue the pursuit on foot. Beyond the damaged section, he took command of the southbound locomotive Texas at Adairsville, running it backwards, tender-first, northward.

For a variety of reasons the raiders were never able to get too far ahead of their pursuers. Destroying bridges and track was slow and tedious work, particularly since they were not properly equipped with the tools and explosives necessary to do the job efficiently. In the time the raiders had, they could not either permanently disable or destroy any section of the installed railway equipment of the W&A. The railway was simply too well built for their efforts to yield anything more than temporary and superficial damage.

The raid was also stymied by the fact that the W&A was a single track line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. They needed to shunt over to sidings along the way to allow south-bound trains to pass. Andrews had concocted a cover story that this was a special train under secret orders from General P.G.T. Beauregard. Unfortunately, he had no written order to move the train north and was forced to move on its normal timetable.

While all of this was taking place Mitchel’s forces had advanced against Chattanooga on the original schedule. Andrews had assumed that Mitchel would be delayed but he was not. The Confederates in Chattanooga responded with alacrity to the attack.

Confederate Military Railway officials in Chattanooga had sufficient time to order, organize, and implement the emergency evacuation of all engines and rolling stock in Chattanooga. Special freight trains with superior right of passage (over the single track line between Chattanooga and Atlanta) were made up in Chattanooga and ordered southbound, hauling critical railroad supplies away from the Union threat, so as to prevent their either being captured by General Mitchel or trapped uselessly inside Chattanooga during a Union siege of the city.

James AndrewsThe General got as far as Kingston, Georgia when they were forced to wait as two of the special trains from Chattanooga passed them. This delayed Andrews’ movement north; and gave Fuller all the time he needed to close the distance to the raiders.

The raiders bypassed the Yonah, at Etowah rather than capture her because of the size of the work crew operating the locomotive. They also passed the Texas by bluffing them into taking the siding with his story about being a special ammunition train. When Fuller encountered the Texas he took control of it, recruited eleven Confederate soldiers and continued his dogged pursuit.

With the Texas still chasing the General tender-first, the two trains steamed through Dalton and Tunnel Hill. The raiders continued to sever the telegraph wires, but they were unable to burn bridges or damage Tunnel Hill. The wood they had hoped to burn was soaked by rain.

Finally, at milepost 116.3, north of Ringgold, Georgia, just 18 miles from Chattanooga, with the locomotive out of fuel, Andrews’ men abandoned the General and scattered. Andrews and all of his men were caught within two weeks, including the two who had missed the hijacking.

All the raiders were charged with “acts of unlawful belligerency”; the civilians were charged as unlawful combatants and spies. All the prisoners were tried in military courts. Tried in Chattanooga, Andrews was found guilty. He was executed by hanging on June 7 in Atlanta. On June 18, seven others who had been transported to Knoxville and convicted as spies were returned to Atlanta and also hanged; their bodies were buried unceremoniously in an unmarked grave but were later reburied in Chattanooga National Cemetery.

Writing about the exploit, Corporal William Pittenger said that the remaining raiders worried about also being executed. They attempted to escape and eight succeeded. Traveling for hundreds of miles in pairs, they all made it back safely to Union lines, including two who were aided by slaves and Union sympathizers and two who floated down the Chattahoochee River until they were rescued by the Union blockade vessel USS Somerset. The remaining six were held as prisoners of war and exchanged for Confederate prisoners on March 17, 1863.

Nineteen of the raiders were awarded Medals of Honor. James J. Andrews and William Hunter Campbell who were civilians were not eligible.

On the morning of April 11, 1862, Union troops seized Huntsville to sever the Confederacy’s rail communications. The Union troops were forced to retreat some months later, but returned to Huntsville in the fall of 1863 and thereafter used the city as a base of operations for the remainder of the war. Chattanooga fell to Union troops on September 9, 1863 and was the Union base under Ulysses S. Grant during the Battles for Chattanooga in late November 1863.



The Railroads of Eastern Virginia

Richmond Area railroadsAs the fighting in Virginia gradually moved to the east and Richmond the railroads of eastern Virginia began to assume a greater importance. Once Richmond and the rail junction of Petersburg were brought under siege by the Union Army the battles took on a new dimension.

General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union General-in-Chief, tasked his mobile units with an all-important job: cut off supplies coming into the Richmond-Petersburg area. The Union cavalry was now the preeminent mobile force in the war. Led by daring leaders like Phillip Sheridan, Judson Kilpatrick, George Armstrong Custer and Wesley Merritt, among others, they led their vast legions in search-and-destroy raids south and west of the besieged Confederate capital.

While the Union infantry and artillery bombarded the Confederate defensive positions mercilessly, day after day. Of course, the Confederates did not huddle in their trenches and their own cavalry, although undermanned, gave the Union troopers a good fight.

Let’s look at the railroad lines that they were fighting to destroy or preserve, depending on your point of view.

The Virginia Central Railroad ran from Richmond west to beyond Lynchburg for over 200 miles. It was used to bring supplies and troops from the Shenandoah Valley. As such, it was a prime target for Union raids.

As the war progressed, the railroad continually fell into a state of disrepair due to its constant use and the limited availability of supplies for upkeep. Union raids also destroyed many sections of the line, including the majority of the railroad’s depots, with notable exceptions for those at Gordonsville and Charlottesville, two key points of trade.

The defeat of Jubal Early’s forces at Waynesboro led to the destruction of much of the bridges and line between Staunton and Keswick, and as Union armies converged on Richmond, further damage was done to the eastern section of the railroad. By the end of the war, the railroad operated less than 20 miles of track and held only $40 ($616.26 today) in gold.

The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was a regional railroad serving east-central Virginia. It was strategically important to the Confederacy during the war, when it provided a vital supply and transportation route in late 1864 and early 1865 for Robert E. Lee’s entrenched Army of Northern Virginia, which was protecting the Confederate capital of Richmond and Petersburg. The single track railroad initially extended 22.15 miles.

The Southside Railroad was 5 ft gauge railroad connected City Point, a port on the James River with the farm country south and west of Petersburg, Virginia, to Lynchburg, Virginia, a distance of about 132 miles. The principal damage it suffered was the financial weakness caused by Confederate compensation policies and currency. During the last year of the war, considerable damage was inflicted by both sides until the conflict finally ended near Appomattox Station, of the Southside Railroad, at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

Ironically, the City Point Railroad portion of the Southside Railroad was of great value to the Union forces during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864-65. General Ulysses S. Grant used and extended it to move supplies and troops from the port at City Point to the area south and east of Petersburg, operating it as the U.S. Military Railroad. The giant mortar, The Dictator, used by the Union forces was shuttled north and south on this line.

The Richmond and Danville Railroad was an essential transportation link for the Confederacy throughout the war. It provided the production of south-central Virginia to Richmond. When the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was cut in 1864, the R&D’s connection with the Piedmont Railroad was the only remaining connection from Richmond to the rest of the South.

The Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was built between Norfolk and Petersburg, Virginia and was completed by 1858. The line was 85 miles (137 km) of 5 ft track gauge. Early in the War, the N&P was valuable to the Confederacy and transported ordnance to the Norfolk area where it was used in during the Confederate occupation. Once Norfolk fell in the spring of 1862, most of his railroad was in enemy hands.

The Petersburg and Weldon Railroad ran directly south from Petersburg and as the Union Army gradually destroyed the Confederacy’s other rail connections it assumed greater importance. It was the Confederate capital’s last link to the only remaining port at Wilmington, North Carolina. A number of battles were fought for possession of this rail line.

The Siege of Petersburg can be studied in greater detail here. The Siege of Petersburg was a long grueling campaign but by its end the Army of Northern Virginia was shattered and surrender was inevitable. It’s well worth your time to study.



Railroads of Central Virginia

Map of Central Virginia railroads

I happen to live in the Virginia Piedmont. More particularly, I live in the Charlottesville-area. The area where I live is criss-crossed by a number of railroads, many of which existed from the 1850’s on. From the Potomac River in the north to Danville in the south, across the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah and all the way to Richmond in the east, railroads in central Virginia were a key part of the Confederate war effort.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides fought through four years of bloody war across the rolling farmlands of central Virginia. Some of the most consequential battles of the American Civil War were fought on this ground. From the First Battle of Manassas where the legend of Stonewall Jackson was born to the final confrontations around Appomattox central Virginia was the cockpit of war.

The locations of the railroads in 1861 determined the location of many of the battles in the Civil War. The Confederates and the Yankees did not fight at Manassas because the worn-out corn and wheat fields on the banks of a small stream called “Bull Run” were so valuable. The railroad junction was the target, not the territory.

And the railroads that criss-crossed the region enabled both sides to transport and supply their troops. Eventually they were used to evacuate their wounded for care and healing. Those who died of their wounds were often buried in the immediate area because their homes were too distant. In Charlottesville there are separate cemeteries for Confederate and Union soldiers. In Scottsville, about 20 miles south of Charlottesville, there is a small Confederate cemetery near the middle of town.

At the center of it all was Thomas Jefferson’s hometown Charlottesville. The town was in a unique position with rail lines running in all directions. The Virginia Central Railroad ran over 200 miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond to Covington in Alleghany County.Along its route it connected to a number of north-south lines that fed into it.

Chartered in 1836 as the Louisa Railroad by the Virginia General Assembly, the railroad began near the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad‘s line and expanded westward to Orange County, reaching Gordonsville by 1840. In 1849, the Blue Ridge Railroad was chartered to construct a line over the Blue Ridge Mountains for the Louisa Railroad which reached the base of the Blue Ridge in 1852. After a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Louisa Railroad was allowed to expand eastward from a point near Doswell to Richmond.

The railroad was renamed the Virginia Central in 1850. By the time of the Civil War it was the main line through central Virginia carrying supplies from the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond. The Confederates used this railroad and several others to shift their smaller armies around when the need arose. The Blue Ridge tunnels and the Virginia Central were key tools in the fast mobilization of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s famous “foot cavalry”.

Soon after the beginning of the war, the Virginia Central contracted with the Confederate States Postal Service, as it had done with the U.S. Postal Service before the war, to carry mail over its line. This service, along with passenger and general goods transport, became less reliable as the transport of military goods and troops took precedence.

The Virginia Central was the target of Union cavalry raids who tore up the tracks and destroyed the majority of the line’s depots. The only exceptions were the key depots at Gordonsville and Charlottesville, which remained under Confederate control almost to the war’s end.

The defeat of Jubal Early’s forces at Waynesboro led to the destruction of much of the bridges and line between Staunton and Keswick, and as Union armies converged on Richmond, further damage was done to the eastern section of the railroad. By the end of the war, the railroad operated less than 20 miles of track and held only $40 ($616.26 today) in gold.

The Manassas Gap Railroad was a historic intrastate railroad in the Southern United States which ran from Mount Jackson, Virginia to the Orange and Alexandria Railroad at a junction called “Manassas Junction”, which later became the city of Manassas, Virginia. It was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly in 1850, and played a key role in early train raids of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Confederate troop movements during the early years of the American Civil War.

The Manassas Gap Railroad was a 4 ft 8 in narrow gauge line with 38 miles of 60 pounds-per-yard T-rail and 52 miles of 52 pounds-per-yard T-rail, comprising 90 total miles of track. A total of nine locomotives and 232 cars were operated on the line, serving 20 stations. When then-Colonel Thomas J. Jackson raided the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at the start of the war he captured 19 locomotives and at least 80 railroad.

During the summer of 1861, the Manassas Gap Railroad became the first railroad in history to move troops as part of a battle related military movement, as Brigadier General Stonewall Jackson’s brigade marched from Winchester, Virginia through Ashby Gap and boarded trains at the Piedmont Station at Delaplane, Virginia. From there they were transported to the Manassas Junction with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and debarked to join the fight at the First Battle of Manassas.

Both the western portion of the Manassas Gap Railroad and the Winchester and Potomac Railroad were effectively under Union control by the spring of 1862, and were going to be used as part of a plan developed by Major General George B. McClellan to support Union operations in that area. McClellan’s plan was to connect the Manassas Gap Railroad and the W&P Railroad with a line between Winchester, Virginia and Strasburg, Virginia, creating a “complete circle of rails” from the Union capital at Washington, D.C. to the Shenandoah Valley by either the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad or the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.

The Orange and Alexandria Railroad ran from Alexandria to Gordonsville where it connected to the Virginia Central main line. The O&A was strategically important during the Civil War (1861–1865) and was perhaps the most fought-over railroad in Virginia. In connection with the Virginia Central, it was the only rail link between the capitals at Washington, D.C., and Richmond.

In 1854 the railroad had been allowed to continue their southwestern route by leasing Virginia Central track rights from Gordonsville to Charlottesville. The line continued to Lynchburg where it connected with the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad and the South Side Railroad. In the north it connected with the Manassas Gap Railroad at Manassas Junction.

The Union Army’s attempt to gain control of Manassas Junction led to the First Battle of Bull Run, and the junction traded hands numerous time during the war. Confederate Maj. Gen.Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson attacked it in the Battle of Manassas Station Operations to draw the Union into the 1862 Second Battle of Bull Run. The 1863 Battle of Brandy Station and Second Battle of Rappahannock Station were also fought near the railroad line.



Railroads of the Civil War

Nashville Railroad YardBy the beginning of the American Civil War railroads interlaced most of the United States east of the Mississippi. By 1850 over 9,000 miles of rail had been laid and railroads had become a significant factor in American transportation. They had begun to replace canals and wagons for the movement of goods and travelers around the nation.

There were more than two hundred railroads in existence at the start of the war. The majority of rail lines were found in those states which remained loyal to the Union government. Most of these rails were four feet eight and one-half inches apart. By contrast, the South had only about one-third the mileage in the North and the gauges of the rails varied widely. This meant that the North could transport more troops and material to more places with less transfers due to gauge differences than the South.

The South immediately realized the potential of railroads and used the rails it had to transport troops from one part not under attack to support fellow troops in a threatened area. The North was not so quick to learn this lesson.

War changed the American view of railroads. The swift movement of troops from the Shenandoah Valley to Manassas allowed the Confederate Army to concentrate their forces and inflict a huge defeat on the Union Army in August 1861. The Union government began to realize the important of railroads when Maryland secessionists cut off Washington from the northern cities by blowing up the rail bridge between their state and Pennsylvania.

Once the high commands on both sides understood the importance of railroads to their respective war efforts they began to plan and execute many of their battle plans with rail in mind. General Robert E. Lee was able to shuttle troops around Virginia in an effort to overcome the Union’s manpower advantage. The Union high command likewise used railroads to move troops and material around the country in order to make the most efficient use of their manpower and material advantage.

Throughout the war the South was able to use railroads to move troops around the interior lines of defense in order to overcome their manpower advantage. In the Western Theater General Ulysses S. Grant understood the use of railroads and their importance to the ultimate Union victory. When he was appointed General-in-Chief his plan to attack on all fronts in coordination was the death knell of the Confederate’s shell game.

At the same time Grant ordered the organized destruction of Southern railroads in an attempt to choke the Southern economy to death and bring about the end of the war. General William T. Sherman became famous for his troops destruction of railroads. His men would heat the ripped-up rails and wrap them around trees and poles. These became known as ‘Sherman’s bowties’.

Entire Union Army divisions were employed in the destruction of rail lines throughout the South with as much as four miles of track being destroyed a day. The Confederates became just as adept at repairing the destruction and getting lines back in working order.

Over the next several posts we will look at the use and importance of railroads to both sides in the war.