Virginia Central Railroad during the Civil War, The


The Virginia General Assembly chartered the Louisa Railroad, the predecessor of the Virginia Central Railroad, in 1836. The line’s eastern terminus was at Hanover Junction (present-day Doswell), about twenty miles north of Richmond, where it joined the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad (RF&P), and Charlottesville was the western terminus. Construction proceeded slowly, and in 1850, after the line had been extended westward of Louisa County, the name was changed to the Virginia Central Railroad. At first, the railroad had shared track to Richmond with the RF&P, but in 1851 it began constructing its own line to the city. Eventually the western terminus was extended to Covington in the Allegheny Mountains, linking the line with the Covington and Ohio Railroad. By the time of the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Virginia Central Railroad was about two hundred miles long, from Richmond to Covington, and traversed the heart of the state.

During the war, the Virginia Central was a key element in Virginia’s vast rail network, the most extensive in the South. The line remained largely in Confederate hands throughout the war and was essential to the rapid movement of troops and supplies, especially between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley. Union cavalry raided the line regularly, burning bridges and tearing up track, in a generally futile effort to disrupt the Confederate supply line. In 1862, for example, during the Peninsula Campaign, Union cavalry destroyed the bridge over the South Anna River and ripped up track between Hanover and Atlee stations, but the damage was soon repaired. In May 1863, Union raiders attacked Louisa Court House and burned Hanover depot. During the Overland Campaign of 1864 and thereafter, numerous raids resulted in the burning of Beaverdam Station, the destruction of the bridge over the Chickahominy River, and the tearing up of miles of track. Because Union cavalry forces could not hold territory, however, the Confederates quickly repaired the damage.

Union raids and temporary destruction did not dissuade the Confederates from utilizing the line effectively. During the Battle of Cold Harbor north of Richmond, on June 7, 1864, Union general Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General Philip H. Sheridan to lead about six thousand cavalrymen on the largest raid against the line to that date. Grant’s goal was not only to destroy this important railroad, but also to draw Confederate troops west, away from Richmond. General Robert E. Lee responded by sending Major General Wade Hampton’s five-thousand-man cavalry division in pursuit. Hampton caught up with Sheridan at Trevilian Station in Louisa County, where the two forces clashed in a bloody fight on June 11–12. Hampton prevailed, and Sheridan led his force back to Union lines east of Richmond. The track sustained little damage, and that was soon repaired.

By the close of the war, the Virginia Central Railroad, like many other Southern railroads, was unable to offer continuous service all along its line. The raids, the heavy use it received during the war, the loss of rolling stock, and the depletion of the company’s capital as Confederate currency and bonds became worthless, all contributed to the poor condition of the railroad. Remarkably, however, the line was once more quickly repaired and reopened for continuous service on July 23, 1865.

In 1868, the Virginia Central Railroad merged with the Covington and Ohio Railroad to form the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Over the next two decades, to help open the great Pocahontas–Flat Top Coal Field in West Virginia, two new lines were added to the railway: the James River Line along the former towpath of the James River and Kanawha Canal, and the Peninsula Subdivision from Richmond through Williamsburg to Newport News. Coal was transported east from the fields along the relatively flat James River Line to Newport News, while empty coal trains rolled west to the fields on the more steeply graded former Virginia Central Railroad line. As part of the new entity, then, the Virginia Central Railroad contributed to the development of West Virginia as well as Newport News, continuing its long history as one of the state’s most important railroads.

  • Majewski, John. A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Noe, Kenneth. Southwest Virginia’s Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis. Urbana: The University of Illinois, 1994.
  • Turner, Charles W. “The Louisa Railroad Company: Genesis of Chessie’s System [Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad].” Virginia Cavalcade 29 (Winter 1980): 130–135.
  • Turner, Charles W. “The Virginia Central Railroad at War, 1861–1865.” Journal of Southern History 12 (November 1946): 510–533.
APA Citation:
Bocian, Meredith. Virginia Central Railroad during the Civil War, The. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginia-central-railroad-during-the-civil-war-the.
MLA Citation:
Bocian, Meredith. "Virginia Central Railroad during the Civil War, The" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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