As 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.