ENTRY

The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad during the Civil War

SUMMARY

The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was a 204-mile railroad line running from Lynchburg through Southwest Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee. Completed in 1856, it was the longest railroad in Virginia prior to the American Civil War (1861-1865). The Virginia and Tennessee played a vital role in moving troops and supplying the Confederacy during the Civil War and was the focus of numerous attacks by Union forces. It also was instrumental in creating the dividing line between present-day Virginia and West Virginia. The railroad was largely destroyed in 1864 and 1865 but rebuilt after the Civil War. In 1867, William Mahone became president of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, and in 1870 it was consolidated into Mahone’s Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad empire. The railroad went into receivership after the Panic of 1873. It was purchased by Northern interests in 1881, renamed the Norfolk and Western Railway, and eventually became part of Norfolk Southern Railway.

Background

There had been attempts to bring a railroad to Southwest Virginia since the 1830s. On March 24, 1848, the city of Lynchburg incorporated the Lynchburg and Tennessee Railroad Company, renamed the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad a year later, to promote “Agriculture & Commerce” in the region. Construction began in January 1850. The line ran west from Lynchburg through a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Big Lick (present-day Roanoke), where it continued along the Great Valley to Bristol, Tennessee. Construction was completed in 1856. The mountainous terrain and numerous waterways of Southwest Virginia provided significant engineering challenges to construction. The completed railroad was 204 miles long plus a nine and one-half mile long spur leading to the saltworks at Saltville. It had five tunnels and 233 bridges, including a 700-foot covered wooden bridge at the center of the line crossing the New River at the aptly named town of Central Depot (present-day Radford).

            The Virginia and Tennessee was an engineering marvel and one of the country’s best-built railroads. While many rail lines of the time were built by placing wooden ties and rails directly on the ground, the Virginia and Tennessee used gravel ballast to support and stabilize the track. At a cost of $84,000 per mile, it was one of the most expensive lines in America. It was built by Irish laborers and enslaved workers hired from their enslavers. In 1856, the railroad had a total of 435 enslaved laborers working on construction.

            The new railroad revolutionized transportation in Southwest Virginia and, as predicted, stimulated economic development. At Lynchburg, the line met with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the Southside Railroad, opening the markets of eastern and northern Virginia. At Bristol, it met the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, connecting Southwest Virginia to the deep South. With access to new markets, Southwest Virginia’s agricultural production greatly increased in the 1850s. Reduced transportation costs also made mining profitable, and the region’s saltworks and lead mines prospered. The percentage of non-agricultural jobs increased, new towns developed, and the area’s population increased. Economic development also increased the number of enslaved laborers in the region, cementing its ties to the institution of slavery.

The Railroad during the Civil War

At the start of the Civil War, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was a major link in a rail system stretching from northern Virginia to Alabama, allowing the movement of Confederate troops between Virginia and the rest of the South. In addition to facilitating troop movement, the railroad was critical to supplying the Army of Northern Virginia with food and other essential supplies. The saltworks at Saltville was the largest producer of salt in the South, producing two thirds of the Confederacy’s supply, which was an essential ingredient for preserving meat. The lead mines in Austinville produced one third of the South’s lead. Union tacticians soon realized the importance of the railroad. Future president and Union general Rutherford B. Hayes called it the “jugular vein” of the Confederacy. Federal troops attacked the rail line throughout the war in an attempt to cut service. In 1864, the Virginia and Tennessee reported that six raids had destroyed most depots and bridges and eighteen miles of track, but most of the track damage was repaired. The weak link in the system was the 700-foot bridge over the New River. The span was burned and destroyed in a May 1864 raid led by Union general George Crook after the defeat of Confederate forces at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, the largest Civil War battle in Southwest Virginia. Union forces could not destroy the stone piers supporting the bridge, however, and the span was rebuilt in five weeks.

            The following April, Union general George Stoneman led a cavalry raid from Knoxville, Tennessee, into Southwest Virginia with orders to destroy the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Stoneman’s raiders destroyed the tracks, bridges, railroad depot, and lead mines at Wytheville, burned the bridges over the Big Otter and Little Otter rivers, burned the railroad depot near Christiansburg, destroyed bridges at Big Lick, and attempted to destroy the New River Bridge once again, but the wood in the bridge was so green it wouldn’t burn. All told, more than 150 miles of Virginia and Tennessee Railroad track and key bridges were destroyed, cutting one of the Confederacy’s last remaining supply lines and links to Richmond.

The Creation of West Virginia

The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad also played a role in the creation of West Virginia in 1863. There had long been a political division between the eastern elite of Tidewater Virginia, with their large plantations worked by enslaved laborers, and the farmers of western Virginia, who tended small farms with few if any enslaved workers. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad linked Southwest Virginia to the economic fortunes and political priorities of Richmond and the eastern enslavers. When a group of disgruntled delegates from western Virginia began the process of forming their own state after the Virginia Secession Convention of 1861, the counties of Southwestern Virginia along the route of the Virginia and Tennessee sided with the eastern portion of the state, leaving the breakaway western counties to form West Virginia.

After the War

After the war, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was repaired. Former Confederate general William Mahone became its president in 1867 and in 1870 consolidated the line into his Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad empire. When that enterprise went bankrupt after the Panic of 1873, it was purchased by Northern interests and renamed the Norfolk and Western Railway. Mahone arranged for a portion of the proceeds to go toward the creation of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State College), the state’s first higher education institution for African Americans. In 1980, the Norfolk and Western Railway merged with the Southern Railway to create Norfolk Southern Railway.

MAP
TIMELINE
March 24, 1848

The Lynchburg and Tennessee Railroad Company, renamed the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad a year later, is incorporated by the city of Lynchburg to promote “Agriculture & Commerce” in the region.

January 1850

Construction begins on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in Lynchburg.

1856

Construction is completed on the 204-mile Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, making it the longest railroad line in Virginia.

April 12, 1861

The American Civil War begins.

1864

The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad reports that six Union raids have destroyed most depots and bridges and eighteen miles of track; most of the track damage is repaired.

May 10, 1864

The wooden span of the 700-foot Virginia and Tennessee Railroad bridge over the New River is destroyed following the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain.

April 3–5, 1865

Union general George Stoneman and his cavalry raiders enter Virginia at Fancy Gap and proceed through Southwest Virginia, destroying 150 miles of Virginia and Tennessee track and numerous depots and bridges, and attempt to destroy the New River Bridge again.

1867
William Mahone becomes president of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad.
1870

William Mahone consolidates the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad into his Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad line.

1873

The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad goes into receivership following the Panic of 1873.

1881

The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad is purchased by northern interests and renamed the Norfolk and Western Railway.

1980

The Norfolk and Western Railway merges with the Southern Railway to create Norfolk Southern Railway.

FURTHER READING
  • Noe, Kenneth W. Southwest Virginia’s Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
  • Johnston II, Angus James. Virginia Railroads in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961. 
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
McLean, George. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad during the Civil War. (2023, June 08). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/the-virginia-and-tennessee-railroad-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
McLean, George. "The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (08 Jun. 2023). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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