Railways in the American Civil War
Part Two

Now for some illustrative incidents of what went on in the War. In August 1862, whilst running the war-torn Orange and Alexandria Railroad, Train No. 6 was fired on by Confederates alongside the track a mile west of Burke's Station. As the train approached the station, the driver ('engineer') noted a pile of sleepers ('ties') on the track. He instantly realised he was into a Rebel ambush. He flung the throttle wide and hit the obstruction hard, scattering it. The Confederates peppered the fleeing train with a hail of bullets but the crew had flung themselves flat on the cab deck and escaped injury.

About the same time a train took a construction crew out to mend a burnt bridge at that time in no-mans land. The crew quickly repaired the bridge and then went forward cautiously into an area swarming with Rebel forces and succeeded in bringing back a full train load of Union wounded, survivors of the action at Fairfax courthouse. This is typical of the bravery and courageous initiative shown by Rail men on both sides of the Civil War. It wasn't always the enemy that caused problems. For example, Union troops stationed along the Louden and Hampshire line were using the wood and water allocated to the railway. Far worse, as the locomotive engineers and firemen profanely testified, the troops bathed in and washed their clothes in the engines water supply, thus causing the water when boiled up in the engine to froth up so they couldn't see where they were going or maintain a proper level of water cover in the boilers (very dangerous!). The Seaboard and Roanoke RR extended 80 miles from Portsmouth Virginia to Weldon NC and began to feel the effects of the Northern blockade when its Supt. John Robinson, reported he could no longer get New Bedford Whale oil (used extensively as a lubricant). Also shipments of Cincinnati cured bacon used to feed the Negro slaves on the line had stopped. As a remedy for these war-imposed shortages, the RR erected a large smoke house and began to kill and cure their own pork. From the waste from the butchering process, they rendered down lots of lard oil which was used successfully as a lubricant. Both this bacon and the oil were obtained at a lower cost than the supplies bought in previously from the north!

In May 1862 an 80ft high trestle bridge had to be rebuilt over the Potomac Creek Virginia so that the Army of McDowell, later Burnside, could be supplied at Fredericksburg from the port of Aquia Creek. It was put up under Haupt's supervision and direction in 9 days, it had 4 storey's of trestles and crib work, made from raw timber cut down locally. It carried from 10 to 20 heavy trains daily in each direction and was perfectly sound. After a visit to Army HQ President Lincoln remarked "That man Haupt has built a bridge across Potomac Creek, about 400ft long, and upon my word gentlemen, there is nothing in it but beanpoles and corn stalks!"

An early recorded use of a Hospital Train was in autumn 1862 when the Sanitary Commission created one for use on the Louisville and Nashville RR after the battle of Perryville. Built with better springing, these carriages had upright interior posts from which 24 stretchers could be suspended. The wounded could thus be loaded using field stretchers. When the train got to the main hospital, the stretchers could easily be moved with their occupants, and the hospital train turned round quickly. They also had a small kitchen area, water tank, boiler and facilities for surgeons. Better lighting and ventilation and heating made them a quantum leap better than just putting wounded on straw in an ordinary box-car. Hospital trains ran in all the theatres of war and enabled Union Wounded to be quickly and easily taken to New England or wherever. A typical train formation was a wood burning locomotive, 5 ward cars, a surgeon's car, a cook car, a dispensary car, a passenger coach and a caboose. The coach was for wounded who could sit up, but could be converted to beds if needed. These trains were distinctively marked and the Confederates respected their neutrality.

Contemporary sources say that locomotives on Federal hospital trains had their chimneys (stacks) and boilers painted bright red and that 3 red lanterns were hung beneath the headlight, to identify them at night. On one occasion a scout of Nathan Bedford Forrest flagged down a Yankee Hospital Train and got it put in a siding whilst the Rebel raiding party tore up tracks and destroyed other trains in the area!

The Civil War also brought forth a radical departure when rail-borne guns were used. During the 1862 Peninsular Campaign the Confederates used some railway artillery with good results. Gen. R E Lee advocated such kit, and they started with a 32 pdr weighing 5,700lbs the mounting and arrangements being designed and supervised by 2 Naval Officers. This was used near Savage's Station on the Richmond and York River RR and proved very effective. The Confederates used the same idea in March 1863 when Union troops occupied Jacksonville Florida. An 8" rifled cannon that had come from England was mounted on a flat car: it fired 1½ miles into Jacksonville before Federal Gunboats on the St Johns River found the range and forced the train to withdraw. During the advance on Richmond the Union Armies used at least 2 rail batteries. They had also used a huge rail mounted mortar at Petersburg, where the static nature of the battle made it worthwhile creating the spur tracks for it to come into action. Both sides went in for massively constructed wooden and iron plate armoured structures built around the rail mounted, flat car positioned gun, to protect it. Real solid Victorian - period stuff!

For example, the above mentioned rail mounted mortar at Petersburg (called "The Dictator") weighed 17,000lbs, had a 13" bore and was 36" long - or deep! The projectiles or mortar bombs were 200lb exploding shells normally propelled by a 20lb powder charge (but up to 75lb maximum was possible!) with about a two mile range. This mortar wrought havoc on the Confederate lines, particularly destroying their artillery on the Chesterfield Heights. However the defending troops soon learnt to dodge the descending shells which, at night, could be seen descending by the light of their burning fuse. When it fired, the recoil pushed the truck it was on back 12 feet. The train assigned to move this mortar, its attendant crew and ammunition about was nicknamed 'The Petersburg Express'. Wow! The ultimate re-enactors fantasy: firing artillery from a truck on a steam railway!

Facts and figures are astounding in the Civil War as are the feats of endurance achieved. None more so than on the railways. When the Virginia Central RR was moving Gen. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia west to the 1862 Cedar Mountain campaign, a shuttle service was put in place between Richmond and Gordonsville. Trains of about 15 box cars were assembled at the 17th St Depot in Richmond, filled up, run out to Gordonsville, unloaded and sent back to Richmond. The crews kept this up for 10 days and nights continuously without relief. They only slept, in their clothes, briefly whilst delayed at various points. We know of at least 16 Engines and train crews who did this. Another typical thing that happened was abuse "of the system" by Officers giving free passes to friends to ride on the US MRR. Haupt clamped down on this - he was NOT having HIS Railway operations disrupted at all. Shortly before the battle of Fredericksburg, the Rev. Alexander Reed, General Agent of the Christian Commission, asked Haupt for a pass to get to the front (where he was to supervise the distribution of hospital supplied). The only way he got one was by agreeing to be a brakeman in the service of the US MRR, but Haupt allowed him to resign as soon as he got to his destination!

During the Gettysburg campaign, Herman Haupt and his US MRR teams played a vital role. Using the tracks of the Northern Central RR, the Western Maryland RR, the Hanover Branch RR and other lines, vast amounts of supplies were moved to the front and the empty trains re-loaded with wounded, hurried to the rear. To expedite repairs on the lines torn up by the Confederate Army during the Gettysburg Campaign, Haupt had his Construction Corps crews rushed up from Alexandria. They came with power (off the engines) split wood for fuel and track laying, fresh rails and 25 yoke of oxen for moving kit and equipment as required.

In June 1864 Gen Grant began his campaign to invest Petersburg and thus capture the Confederate Capital, Richmond, from the South. City Point Virginia (a landing on the James River) was to be used as the base depot. The US MRR set about the rehabilitation of the City Point facilities and building a line to the front. By June the railway was 8 miles to Pitkin Station. Wharves erected, a round house built, Army supplies, engines and rolling stock all shipped in on Railway barges and run straight off onto lines run down the Wharves. By September the "Army Line" ran all the way to Yellow House, the Fifth Corps HQ on the Weldon River, with further branches being built to support the Petersburg siege. A huge undertaking energetically pursued.

The Army would not supply medical support or hospital facilities to the US MRR and Construction Corps staff, because they were all civilians. So the employees formed the US Military Railroad Hospital and donated 1% of their wages to support it and hire a surgeon and other medical staff. This worked well and the rate of sickness and loss of staff through injury dropped dramatically.

The Railways in the Civil War were involved in orgies of destruction and heroic re building, by both sides The skills learnt were vital in the next great railway building boom - the lines across the country to the Pacific. For example the US MRR began operations in North Carolina in February 1865. 95 miles of track of the Atlanta and North Carolina RR were repaired and the services from Morehead City to Goldsboro reopened by 25 March. Also they took over a further 410 miles of line and used 38 locomotives + 422 box cars with 2387 men employed to run maintain and repair the lines for military use, relaying 30 miles of track and 3,263 feet lengths of bridges in total.

A bridge over Cedar Creek having been burnt, for example, on the Raleigh and Gaston RR, the Construction Corps replaced it in 72 hours with a trestle structure 530 ft long and 88 feet high. All this to keep supplies to Sherman's Army moving.

Yet when Federal forces took Weldon NC they found a fine wooden railway bridge with masonry piers crossing the Roanoke River, a key bridge for 3 railway lines. So they put on the line on the bridge 5 locomotives and all the freight cars they could find and set light to it, and the lot fell into the river. The last locomotive was only salvaged in 1868!

The Civil War also brought about novel uses for locomotives. At Port Hudson Louisiana the Confederates used an engine to power a grist mill to make cornmeal. During Federal operations on the James River, an engine was put on a flat boat and used to power a pile driver.

Although trained railway men were in short supply and were exempt from the draft, there is evidence of a "Railroad Regiment", the 89th Illinois Vol. Inf. Recruited from the railways around Chicago. The Railroad Regt, some 900 men, left training camp and went to war in September 1862 and fought at Murfreesboro (Stone River) the Tullahoma campaign, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, the battles around Atlanta and against Hood at Franklin and Nashville. During the War the 89th recruited in total 1,400 men and lost 700, including one Lt. Col, seven Captains and four Lts. Engineer George Sinclair was shot through the left lung at Liberty Gap, but the ball passed straight through his body (lucky man) and he lived to return to railroading and run his engine for many years after the war!

As an example of the key role of the railways, I cite the Nashville and Chattanooga, used to supply Sherman's forces during the Atlanta Campaign. Traffic was very heavy. As many as 160 x 10 ton freight cars poured into the terminal each day. The Government spent over $4 million (in 1860's money) on the line. It was subject to frequent Rebel raids and many bridges were destroyed, to be rebuilt again as quickly as possible, four or five times on occasion! The US MRR replaced most of the old 'U' shaped rails with the new 'T' shape. Sidings were extended and 45 extra water tanks built to keep the locomotives well supplied. About 130 of the 151 mile line were rebuilt during this period.

Not all the traffic was bound for the front. The returning trains were full of sick and wounded soldiers, discharged veterans, Confederate Prisoners, freed Negro slaves etc. etc. Much of the credit for keeping the line open must go to E.C. Smeed who was in charge during the Atlanta campaign - General McCallum and Superintendent Wright were away in New York recruiting replacement railway men for the western theatre, for the whole of which they had responsibility.

Front line Construction Corps and US MRR staff were fed the sort of rations issued to the soldiers - salt beef (called 'junk') and salt port with hard bread, crackers, coffee and sugar. If they had to work at night they were entitled to an additional half ration. One freight train crew had to live on boiled mule and potatoes for a 3 week period. The men would have supplemented this meagre fare in the time-honoured Army way by "scrounging" and foraging.

The demand for skilled locomotive engineers was great and experienced men were recruited from all over the North to drive engines on the US MRR. According to Gen McCallum's reports a total of 419 locomotives were in service on US MRR over the course of the war. The drivers ('engineers') were the best paid, getting an average $3 a day. Firemen were on $1.75, conductors (train guards) on $1.66 and brakemen about $1.33. Compare this with the $13 a MONTH a private soldier was paid! Nevertheless the first Railway Union was formed in 1863 which became The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, because some lines were NOT very enlightened in the way they handled staff matters and disputes!

After the Civil War ended, all the US MRR engines stock and equipment was auctioned off. Quite a bit of it was purchased by Southern lines to replace lost stock. Ironic in a way! All sort of mad things happened on the railways - like raiders letting a locomotive run on its own and crash into the back of another train, and the stretch of line near New Orleans operated at one end by the Confederacy and at the other end by Butlers Yankees. But two events do impress on most minds about the Civil War and Railways. The first was the stealing by the Federal agent Andrews and companions of the Confederate engine The General and some box cars in April 1862 at Big Shanty Georgia whilst the crew were having breakfast, and the subsequent chase north towards Chattanooga across the red hills of Northern Georgia. William Allen Fuller was the Conductor of the train that was stolen and he set off in pursuit first on foot, then with a hand propelled workmen's trolley and then engines and crew he picked up on the way. It was a truly daft tale of daring-do on both sides, but the stolen engine ran out of fuel and had to be abandoned and the raiders ran off, most to be captured.

The second most known about was the funeral train of the assassinated President Lincoln. A special "funeral parlour" coach was converted from the Presidents State carriage. Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theatre by James Wilkes Booth on the night of 14 April 1865. His special funeral train had on board of honour guard and a large group of mourners including many high-ranking Officers of the Government and the Armed services. The train passed slowly across most of the north, with the coffin being displayed in State Capitol buildings for a day or so, and huge crowds came to pay their respects everywhere. Lots of polished engines draped in black crepe cloth and flags took the train, stage by stage, across various lines until it reached its destination (his home town) of Springfield Illinois, getting there on May 3. Since Abraham Lincoln had long been an ardent supporter of the railways and a moving force in efforts to span the continent with rails, it was only fitting that his last journey home was behind the Iron Horse. It was Lincoln who signed the Act which created the powers for the first transcontinental railway and designated its start and finish points.

The men who ran the US MRR merited the highest praise for their bravery and devotion to duty. I quote below from the final report of Gen. McCallum to Secretary of War Stanton, BUT I would say these words applied to ALL railway men of both sides in any of the War Zones:- "The difference between civil and military service is marked and decided. Not only were the men continually exposed to great danger from the regular forces of the enemy, guerrillas, scouting and raiding parties etc. etc. but, owing to the circumstances under which military railroads must be constructed and operated, what are considered the ordinary risks upon civil railroads are vastly increased on military lines.

The hardships, exposure and perils to which trainmen especially were subjected during the movements incident to an active campaign were made greater than that endured by any other class of civil employee of the Government equalled only by that of a soldier whilst engaged in a raid into the enemy's country. It was by no means unusual for men to be out with their trains from 5 to 10 days, without sleep, except what could be snatched upon their engines and guards vans while the same were standing to be loaded or unloaded, with but scanty food or perhaps no food at all, for days together, while continually occupied in a manner to keep every faculty strained to its utmost".

That pretty much sums up what it was like running railways in fighting areas during the Civil War.

Philip Clark, Secretary ACWS


  • Various Bruce Catton publications
  • Time Life History of the Civil War
  • Civil War Railroads by Abdill

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2009