ENTRY

Virginia Railroads during the Civil War

SUMMARY

By the start of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the American rail system was the largest in the world, with 30,000 miles of track. Virginia had the most extensive rail system in the South in 1861, with seventeen rail lines. As in the rest of the South, most of the lines were relatively short, having been designed originally to move market goods such as cotton to ports. Railroads transformed the way wars were fought and would play a major role in Virginia during the Civil War. They made large and rapid troop movements possible. More important, railroads provided the vast logistical support necessary to maintain large armies in the field, which allowed the combatants to fight massive battles and inflict unprecedented slaughter. Most of the major campaigning in Virginia occurred between Washington and Richmond, and it was the location of strategic railroad lines, junctions, and depots that determined where many battles were fought. By 1864, the Southern railroads, including those in Virginia, were in a state of collapse, hastening the defeat of the Confederacy.

 

Background

View from Gambles Hill

Railroads became commercially viable in the United States in the 1840s. The building of railroads greatly accelerated during the next decade as they provided the large-scale movement of goods necessary for the Industrial Revolution. By the start of the American Civil War, the American rail system was the largest in the world, with 30,000 miles of track. At the beginning of the war, there were 9,000 miles of track in the South as compared to the 21,000 miles in the North. The South had one-third of the freight cars, one-fifth of the locomotives, one-tenth of the telegraph stations, and one-twenty-fourth of locomotive production of the North. Judging the relative strength of the Northern and Southern rail systems by these numbers alone, however, can be misleading. The Confederacy’s white population of 5.5 million was only 22 percent of the Union’s 18.5 million. The South also compared favorably in the number of people living within fifteen miles, or a day’s journey, of a railroad. In addition, most of the railroads in the Northeastern states were built in the 1840s, while those in the South were built in the 1850s, making the Southern railroad system newer.

Engine "Government" [Commodore?] down the "banks" near Brandy

Compared to railroads of today, railroads in both the North and South were primitive and dangerous in 1861. Rails were made of iron, not steel, which became brittle and had to be replaced frequently. Some older tracks were made of wood topped with a thin layer of iron. Most tracks were laid out on the ground without gravel ballast, making the tracks unstable and trains subject to frequent derailments. Trains were slow, with freight trains averaging fifteen miles per hour and passenger trains twenty miles per hour. Rail journeys were further slowed by the need to stop frequently for wood and water for the locomotives. The concept of a coordinated rail system did not exist. Each railroad company was a separate entity and different companies used different track gauges—the width between the rails. Tracks of different gauges could not be connected, and each required different size locomotives and cars. Even where tracks were of the same gauge, fierce competition and rivalry between railroads meant that they often did not connect their lines. For instance, at the start of the Civil War, five different rail lines served the city of Richmond, one of the South’s major railroad hubs, and none were connected. Passengers and freight going from one line to another had to be unloaded, moved across the city, and then reloaded.

Virginia Railroads in 1861

Virginia had the most extensive rail system in the South in 1861, with seventeen rail lines. As in the rest of the South, most of the lines were relatively short, having been designed primarily to move market goods such as cotton to ports. The longest, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, was only 204 miles long; most lines were less than one hundred miles long. They were also of varying gauges and rarely connected to one another. These problems were not unique to Virginia. In 1861, rail lines in the North had tracks of thirteen different gauges, but the North had the industrial capacity to deal with the problem. The South’s laissez-faire ideology toward business and the resulting reluctance to take control of the numerous railroad companies would be a major handicap to the Confederate war effort.

Railroads transformed the way wars were fought and played a significant role in the Civil War. They made large and rapid troop movements possible. More important, they provided the vast logistical support necessary to maintain large armies in the field, which allowed the combatants to fight massive battles and inflict unprecedented slaughter. Most of the major campaigning in Virginia would occur between Washington and Richmond, and it was the location of strategic railroad lines, junctions, and depots that determined where many battles were fought.

Virginia Railroads during the War

Orange and Alexandria Railroad

The scramble for control of Virginia’s railroads began almost immediately with the commencement of hostilities. The day after Virginia ratified its secession from the Union, on May 24, 1861, Union troops moved into the city of Alexandria, a strategic railroad hub located just south of Washington, D.C., that housed the terminus of two rail lines. One, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, ran south to Gordonsville, about twenty miles northeast of Charlottesville, and connected to Richmond by way of the Virginia Central Railroad. It, along with the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad that ran from Washington to Richmond, were critical links to the Confederate capital. Each became the object of numerous campaigns, and sections of each were destroyed and rebuilt throughout the war. Another smaller railroad, the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire, ran west from Alexandria to Leesburg. 

Herman Haupt

  • General Herman Haupt on a Pontoon Boat

    Union general Herman Haupt, a skilled engineer who oversaw the construction, repair, and operation of Union railroads during the Civil War, uses a pontoon boat to navigate a waterway. A caption on the reverse side of the image bears the title "Expedients for Crossing Streams." It goes on to describe how floatable pontoons such as this one were "designed to facilitate scouting operations." Though the elongated floats look rather large in the photograph, the caption writer insists that "they can be carried by a strap around the waist, and concealed by an overcoat. A boat can be made of these by running poles through the loops, and then placing sticks across."

  • Excavating for "Y" at Devereux Station
    Excavating for "Y" at Devereux Station

    In 1863 Black and white workers use pickaxes and shovels to excavate a new track for the Orange and Alexandria Railroad at Devereux Station (now the town of Clifton) near Bull Run, the tributary that served as the boundary between Fairfax and Prince William counties. The men are constructing a "Y" (also called a wye), a triangular junction that would allow trains to turn around. The Orange and Alexandria Railroad was so frequently attacked by Confederate forces that in 1863 the Union Army abandoned the rail line south of Bull Run; thus, this wye could redirect trains north.

    The steam-powered locomotive used in this work detail is named "General Haupt," after Herman Haupt, the general overseeing Union railroad operations in the field. Haupt watches the construction workers from the hill at far right, standing in the center between two men. The bearded man standing on the bank close to the workers is John Henry Devereux, the superintendent of military railroads in Virginia; the railroad siding here was named after him.

  • Bridge on Orange and Alexandria Railroad

    An unidentified man in a top hat views a newly repaired wooden bridge on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. The bridge had been rebuilt by army engineers under the direction of Herman Haupt.

  • Locomotive Named for General Haupt

    "Gen. Haupt," a wood-burning steam locomotive named after the Union officer credited with revolutionizing military transport during the Civil War, is photographed in front of the roundhouse at the Alexandria station. Haupt skillfully oversaw the maintenance, construction, and rebuilding of Union railroad lines during his service in the war. The well-dressed man standing next to the train is John Henry Devereux, the superintendent of military railroads in Virginia.

In early 1862, the United States Military Railroad (USMR) was created by the U.S. War Department to seize and run railroads in occupied areas to move troops and supplies for the war effort. The USMR was headquartered at the Orange and Alexandria Railroad depot in Alexandria. Herman Haupt, a civil engineer who had been the chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was appointed by Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war, to construct and operate military railroads, beginning with the critical lines in Virginia. Haupt quickly became known for rebuilding bridges and track almost as fast as Confederate troops could destroy them. In the spring of 1862, he rebuilt a Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad bridge over Potomac Creek in Stafford County, the destruction of which by Confederate troops had stranded 40,000 Union troops, in nine days, working with a largely untrained crew. President Abraham Lincoln reported with amazement that Haupt had “built a bridge four hundred feet long and eight feet high, across Potomac Creek, on which loaded trains are passing every hour” out of nothing but “cornstalks and beanpoles.” Haupt would be credited with revolutionizing military transport during the war, giving the North an incalculable edge.

Transporting Confederate Troops

Any doubt about the value of railroads in war ended with the first battle of the Civil War. The First Battle of Manassas was fought over Manassas Junction, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad met the Manassas Gap Railroad, which ran west from Manassas over the Blue Ridge to Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, providing a critical link between the Valley and northern Virginia. On July 16, 1861, Union general Irvin McDowell marched from Washington, D.C., with 35,000 troops, expecting an easy victory over Confederate general G. T. Beauregard and his Army of the Potomac with 21,000 men. But Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston was able to move the 11,000-man Army of the Shenandoah to Manassas via the Manassas Gap Railroad, arriving just in time to unite his troops with Beauregard’s and rout the Union forces. It marked the first time in history that troops had been moved to a battlefield by train.  

Other Virginia railroads played important roles in the Civil War. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ran across the northern boundary of Virginia. It was the main line for bringing troops and supplies to Washington from the Midwest. It was also vital to the North to keep control of the disaffected western counties of Virginia that would become West Virginia. Located on this line was the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, an early target of the Confederacy.

Saltville

The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad ran through Southwest Virginia from Bristol to Lynchburg, where it connected with lines to Richmond. Southwest Virginia produced two-thirds of the Confederacy’s salt and one-third of its lead, critical supplies that were transported over the Virginia and Tennessee.

Crozet Tunnel

The Virginia Central ran from Richmond, through Staunton to Jackson River (now Clifton Forge). The line passed through the mountains at Rockfish Gap by way of the Crozet Tunnel, a 4,273-foot engineering marvel built by Claudius Crozet. The railroad was critical to the movement of Confederate troops and supplies between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley and remained largely under Confederate control throughout the war. There was, however, no railroad running the length of the Shenandoah Valley. During his Valley Campaign, Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson would move troops by rail only once.

The South Side Railroad cut across Virginia’s Piedmont region, running from Petersburg to Lynchburg. It crossed the Appomattox River over an engineering marvel known as High Bridge that was 2,400 feet long and 160 feet high. It was a vital supply route in southern Virginia during the war.

The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad connected the two cities in its name and was critical to Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s ability to shift troops between the cities to parry Union advances. The Richmond and Danville Railroad ran between those cities and ended near the North Carolina border. It was an essential supply line for the Confederacy and also used by Confederate president Jefferson Davis as his escape route when he fled Richmond near the end of the war.

The Decline of Virginia’s Railroads and the Final Campaign

Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Ticket

By 1864, the Southern railroads, including those in Virginia, were in a state of collapse. Although tracks and trains had been destroyed by advancing Union forces, the main cause of the decline of Southern railroads was the lack of resources necessary to maintain rail lines and equipment coming under heavy and continual use. At the beginning of the war, the Confederate War Department estimated that it would take 49,500 tons of new rails each year to maintain the South’s railroad system. But no rails were produced in the South during the war, and the Northern blockade made it impossible to import materials from overseas. Instead, replacement rails were cannibalized from lesser-used lines. Similarly, locomotives on the Southern lines couldn’t be repaired due to a lack of materials and skilled mechanics. By the end of 1863, nearly half of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad’s forty locomotives were out of commission.

In late 1864, when Confederate general Robert Hoke was ordered to move his men forty-eight miles by the Piedmont Railroad, which connected Danville to Greensborough, North Carolina, his soldiers soon discovered they could march the distance quicker than traveling by the dilapidated rail line.

Confederate Rail Lines

In Virginia, the central campaign of 1864 was the contest between Union general Ulysses S. Grant and Lee. Grant realized that the key to taking Richmond was through Petersburg, twenty miles to the south, because Lee’s army was dependent on railroads coming into Petersburg for supplies. All rail lines to Richmond from the south came through Petersburg except for the Richmond and Danville Railroad (which connected Danville to Greensborough over the Piedmont Railroad). In June, Grant began a siege of Petersburg, with both sides building extensive trenches and fortifications. In August 1864, Union forces were victorious in the Battle of the Weldon Railroad. With this victory, the Union was able to take control of the Petersburg Railroad, which ran south to Weldon, North Carolina, and gave the Confederates access to Wilmington, North Carolina, the last unblockaded southern port. This left the South Side Railroad as the only line left to supply Petersburg.

The stalemate was broken in late March 1865, when Union general Philip H. Sheridan and his forces moved west to cut the South Side Railroad. They defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Five Forks and took the railroad. The next day, Grant ordered massive attacks that broke the Confederate line. Without railroads to supply his army, Lee could not keep his soldiers in their trenches defending Petersburg and had to retreat.

High Bridge and the Civil War

  • Railroad Tracks on High Bridge

    This April 1865 photograph by Timothy H. O'Sullivan shows the South Side Railroad tracks on High Bridge near Farmville. The bridge, which was the site of the last Confederate victory in Virginia, crosses the Appomattox River.

  • South Side Railroad in Farmville
    South Side Railroad's High Bridge

    This 1865 photograph shows South Side Railroad's High Bridge, an impressive structure over 2,400 feet long that was the site of the last Confederate victory in Virginia. On April 6, 1865, Confederate forces fended off a Union attempt to take over the bridge near Farmville; within days, however, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House. The South Side Railroad, completed in 1854, was one of the most important supply routes in southern Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865). With tracks laid east to west across the state, the railroad began at City Point in Hopewell on the James River and extended westward through Petersburg, Burkeville, Farmville, Appomattox Station, and finally Lynchburg, covering roughly 130 miles. The photograph itself is from the right half of a stereographic pair.

  • Image Found at the Battle of High Bridge
    Image Found at the Battle of High Bridge

    This ambrotype of an unidentified young girl is an artifact associated with the Battle of High Bridge, which took place near Farmville, Virginia, on April 6–7, 1865, just days before the surrender at Appomattox. According to the donor who later gave this cased image to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond (now The American Civil War Museum), Confederate private Heartwell Kincaid Adams of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry found this ambrotype, along with some food, in the haversack of a dead Union soldier. At the time, Adams was guarding a hungry Union prisoner who offered two dollars to share the dead man's food. Upon catching sight of the young girl's image, the Union prisoner realized that it was his own niece. Obviously distraught over the loss of his brother, he refused to take the image, or even reveal the name of the child.

With all rail lines to Petersburg severed, Richmond was cut off from the rest of the South and had to be abandoned. Lee planned to retreat to North Carolina, where he could join forces with General Joseph Johnston, by following the Richmond and Danville Railroad to North Carolina. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was widely spread out and was to rendezvous at Amelia Courthouse, where they hoped to find rations delivered by train. There were no rations at Amelia Courthouse, and the Confederates spent a day trying to scavenge for food. The delay gave Union troops under Sheridan time to block the Richmond and Danville Railroad. The Confederates were forced to turn west, generally following the South Side Railroad. The last Confederate victory in Virginia occurred at High Bridge, located near Farmville, where Confederate forces temporarily stopped a Union attempt to take the bridge.

General Robert E. Lee's Surrender

The exhausted Confederates were nearly starved from a lack of rations. On the last day of the war, Lee’s men were near the village of Appomattox Court House, attempting to reach supplies delivered from Lynchburg to a nearby depot. The Confederates found themselves blocked and trapped by an overwhelming Union force. General Lee had no choice but to surrender.

MAP
TIMELINE
1850s

Most of the railroads in the South are being built.

April 1858
The Crozet Tunnel, located at Rockfish Gap, in Nelson County, opens.
1861

Virginia has the most extensive rail system in the South with seventeen rail lines, which are primitive and dangerous.

May 24, 1861
Union forces enter and occupy Alexandria.
July 16, 1861
Union general Irvin McDowell begins his advance against Confederates guarding Manassas Junction.
July 20, 1861
Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston arrives at P. G. T. Beauregard's headquarters near Manassas Junction.
July 21, 1861
The First Battle of Manassas is fought near Manassas Junction in northern Virginia, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad met the Manassas Gap Railroad. Confederate troops under Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard decisively defeat Union forces commanded by Irvin McDowell.
Early 1862

The United States Military Railroad (USMR) is created by the U.S. War Department to seize and run railroads in occupied areas to move troops and supplies for the war effort.

Spring 1862

Herman Haupt rebuilds a Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad bridge over Potomac Creek in Stafford County, the destruction of which by Confederate troops had stranded 40,000 Union troops, in nine days, working with a largely untrained crew.

End of 1863

Nearly half of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad’s forty locomotives are out of commission.

1864

The Southern railroads, including those in Virginia, are in a state of collapse.

Late 1864

Confederate general Robert Hoke is ordered to move his men forty-eight miles by the Piedmont Railroad. His soldiers soon discover they could march the distance quicker than traveling by the dilapidated rail line.

June 15, 1864—April 2, 1865
Union general Ulysses S. Grant lays siege to Petersburg, south of Richmond, for ten months, finally breaking through Robert E. Lee's lines at the Battle of Five Forks. Petersburg and Richmond immediately fall and Lee retreats to the west.
August 18—21, 1864
The Battle of the Weldon Railroad captures Robert E. Lee's primary supply line to North Carolina.
February 27, 1865
Philip H. Sheridan leads two divisions of Union cavalry south from Winchester with orders to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and James River Canal and, if possible, to capture Lynchburg.
March 29—April 2, 1865
Union general Ulysses S. Grant's final offensive at Petersburg captures the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad and breaks Lee's defenses southwest of the city, compelling Lee to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg.
April 1, 1865, nightfall
Union forces under Philip H. Sheridan complete their stunning victory over Confederate infantry and cavalry under George E. Pickett. Confederate lines before Petersburg have been flanked and the city, along with the capital at Richmond, will fall the next day.
April 10, 1865
Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant departs from Appomattox Court House, where he accepted the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, for Washington, D.C.
FURTHER READING

Johnston II, Angus James. Virginia Railroads in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

 

Noe, Kenneth W. Southwest Virginia’s Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

 

Thomas, William G. The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

 

Turner, George Edgar. Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953.

CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
McLean, George. Virginia Railroads during the Civil War. (2021, May 13). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginia-railroads-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
McLean, George. "Virginia Railroads during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (13 May. 2021). Web. 06 Dec. 2021
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