On February 25, 1834, less than five years after the first successful demonstration of a steam locomotive engine, the Virginia General Assembly incorporated the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. It was the sixth railroad to be chartered in Virginia and stretched north from Richmond through Fredericksburg to its terminus at Aquia Creek on the Potomac River, where patrons could board a steamboat for Washington. On April 19, 1861, two days after the Virginia Convention in Richmond voted to secede, the federal government acted on United States president Abraham Lincoln‘s inaugural pledge “to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government” by apprehending four steamers belonging to the Potomac Steamboat Company for use as “transports and armed war vessels.” Virginia in turn seized the RF&P’s property at Aquia Creek and established defenses around the vulnerable terminal, thus effectively severing its connections with the North.
As war began, the RF&P’s eleven steam locomotive engines were in good working order and pledged to Confederate service. The company president vowed in his 1861 annual report that wartime challenges and sacrifices would “be cheerfully borne as the price of independence.” In July 1861, the board of directors resolved to transport Confederate troops for two cents per mile per person and freight at half the regular rate. Perhaps not realizing how crucial a link the line would be in the Confederacy’s railroad supply chain, board members did not anticipate the almost crippling load of traffic that resulted. Nor did they consider the difficulty of obtaining additional machinery and supplies because of the Union blockade of the Confederacy’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
In April 1862, a Union advance led by Irvin McDowell forced Confederates to surrender a portion of the tracks and retreat fourteen miles to the Rappahannock River. In an attempt to delay McDowell, they destroyed the Aquia Creek wharf and warehouses, several bridges, and three miles of track. McDowell charged Colonel Herman Haupt, superintendent of the newly created Construction Corps of the United States Military Railroad, with repairing the damage. Haupt was an engineer and something of an engineering prodigy—at age fourteen, he had been the youngest cadet ever to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York,—and, under his management, Union troops lay three miles of track in three days. They then erected a 150-foot-long railroad bridge in sixteen hours and a towering 80-foot-high, 400-foot-long trestle, built from two million feet of timber, in just nine days. After riding across the unconventional-looking bridge, Lincoln commented that it appeared to be made of “beanpoles and cornstalks.”
In the autumn of 1862, the fighting moved north to Maryland, and Union general Ambrose E. Burnside ordered destroyed the northern section of the railroad, including Haupt’s now-famous bridge. When Burnside took over command of the Army of the Potomac in November, he planned an offensive in the direction of Fredericksburg and was forced to rebuild parts of the line in order to supply his troops. Among the improvements made by the Construction Corps were the replacement of the Potomac Creek bridge with a prefabricated truss structure and the construction of wharves and a branch railroad better to facilitate the army. Confederates, meanwhile, utilized their portion of the tracks to shuttle men and supplies to the high ground overlooking Fredericksburg, where they inflicted a stinging defeat on Burnside in December. If Lee won the battle, it was Haupt who seemed to be winning the war. By dramatically rebuilding sections of the RF&P twice in one year, he helped to demonstrate railroads’ potential to transform military transportation and communication.
When Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, he was transported behind the lines to a stop on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad called Guinea Station, with the thought that he might eventually take a car to a hospital in Richmond. The general died at a nearby plantation on May 10, however, and the railroad carried his body to Richmond; a canal boat transported it to Lexington for burial. When Lee launched a new offensive into Pennsylvania the following month, Union general Joseph Hooker used the line to move men and supplies quickly. Rather than unloading their equipment from boxcars, transporting it by river barges, and then reloading it onto boxcars, the men of the U.S. Military Railroad simply transported their loaded boxcars directly onto barges. They moved 12,000 soldiers, 126 railroad cars, and 6 locomotives in 60 hours. Confederate troops subsequently destroyed whatever the Union troops left behind, including wharves and tracks.
In 1864, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant‘s spring offensive against Lee once again necessitated rebuilding the RF&P, but after two weeks of use, the railroad was abandoned when Grant moved his headquarters to City Point on the James River. At the same time, Union general Philip H. Sheridan’s cavalry destroyed Confederate portions of the tracks and crippled the Confederacy’s railway transport for three crucial months. For much of the rest of the war, however, the railroad’s role was minor. It was now too far away from the fighting and its tracks were not fit for use. But two months following Lee’s surrender, service was restored between Richmond and Hamilton’s Crossing.