Railroads of Central Virginia

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Railroads of the Civil War

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.


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