The Civil War was the first war in which railroads played a central role. They brought about fundamental changes in the way war was waged. Troops could be moved in large numbers at greater speed than ever before. Generals could plan for battles in distant locations and move troops to those locations in hours instead of days. This meant that new strategies and tactics were employed. It also meant that maintaining control of the rails was an essential part of carrying out a successful battle plan. And the B&O was right in the middle of it all! William Stover describes a series of events which illustrate the important role that the B&O found itself in as the war began:
On April 19, six days after the surrender of Fort Sumter and four days after President Lincoln had made his call for 75,000 militia from the Northern states, the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry was enroute by rail to Washington in answer to the president’s call for troops. As the horse-drawn cars carried troops along Pratt Street from Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore depot toward the B&O Camden Station, they were met by a noisy Baltimore mob carrying not only Confederate flags but also stones and bricks. Violence came to Pratt Street when the soldiers finally answered a shower of brickbats with gunfire. Casualty figures included four dead soldiers, nine civilians, and dozens of wounded and injured. The Massachusetts regiment finally reached Washington, but Baltimore, for a time, ceased to provide a rail connection between Washington and the northern states. For several weeks, Lincoln and the War Department were forced to bypass Baltimore as Northern troops reached Washington using Chesapeake Bay steamers from the mouth of the Susquehanna down to a railhead at Annapolis....
This situation lasted only a few weeks, as union troops encamped at Relay moved into Baltimore and began to arrest those who expressed support for the Confederates. The rails between Baltimore and Washington were soon open and serving the needs of the Union cause. The B&O, though reluctant at first, became a vital part of the northern war effort, and a target of the confederate attacks. William Stover describes a series of events to illustrate this:
On May 23, 1861, Confederate forces at Point of Rocks , twelve miles east of Harpers Ferry, and at Cherry Run, thirty-two miles west of Harpers Ferry... closed down the line at the end of busy noontime traffic. The forty-four miles of double-track line was filled with dozens of wrathy, impatient locomotive engineers wondering what was causing the tie up. General (“Stonewall”) Jackson’s haul of railroad equipment that day included 56 locomotives and more than 300 freight cars, most of them coal cars. Four of the lighter weight B&O locomotives were run down the line of the Winchester and Potomac where they were taken off the track and dragged behind dozens of horses over the valley turnpike twenty miles south to Strasburg on the Manassas Gap Railway.... Most of the remaining captured rolling stock was soon concentrated in Martinsburg.
When federal forces from the North threatened Harpers Ferry in early June 1861, Jackson started to destroy the railroad itself. Early on the morning of June 14, the seven- span, 800-foot combined highway-railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry was blown up with gunpowder and totally destroyed. Earlier, other important bridges west of Harpers Ferry had been put to the torch. With this dramatic action, the main line of the B&O was to be effectively closed down for nearly ten months....
A few days later....400 cars and 42 engines were put to the torch; shops, depots, and machinery at Martinsburg were destroyed; and blazing coal cars were pushed onto wooden bridges which soon fell into the streams below.
This account is one of many that involved the tracks and equipment of the B&O at the center of the raging conflict that split our nation. Given the location of their lines, it could not have been otherwise. Throughout the war there were attacks, and interruptions in service were common. However, each act of destruction was followed by a determined effort to rebuild. The B&O Railroad played a major role in the movement of tens of thousands of troops that were essential to the ultimate victory won by union forces. It is not surprising that the B&O was widely known as “Mr. Lincoln’s railroad”!
Questions for Reading 1
1.In what ways did railroads change the way war was waged?
2.Why was the B&O right in the middle of so much of the action during the Civil War?
3.What kind of damage was suffered by the B&O during the events described above?
4.What do you think would have happened if the B&O had decided to support the Confederate cause during the Civil War?