“The value of this communication destroyed can not be expressed in words or money”
UPDATE, August 21: A reader identifies both the location and elements of this image.
A discussion came up elsewhere of this image, of a burned-out bridge and locomotive in Virginia. The Library of Congress caption is “Petersburg, Virginia (vicinity). Ruins of locomotive and railroad bridge across the Appomattox River.” It would be nice to identify the exact location, though. The LoC’s caption identifying it as being in the Petersburg “vicinity” is of limited use.
Looking at period maps, I can only tell of one railroad bridge across the Appomattox, that of the Weldon & Petersburg Railroad, and that was actually at Petersburg:
Although a few maps, like this one from the OR Atlas, suggest there might have been two, connected:
There are several references to the Navy Department being anxious to destroy this bridge in the ORN, such as this June 1862 letter from Assistant Secretery of the Navy Gustavus Fox to Flag Officer Goldsborough:
NEAR HAMPTON ROADS, June 20,  –11 a.m. My DEAR FLAG-OFFICER: I received your note with a long growl just as I was leaving Washington, and I sent it to Sedgwick and Grimes. There is every disposition in the country and Congress to do full justice to the Navy, and if the present admiral bill fails in the Senate it will be because Navy officers are at work doctoring it. They could never pull together is the reason; the Army (a unit) go ahead in general legislation. The President sent me down to enquire about the possibility of destroying the Petersburg railroad bridge. I endeavored to avoid this journey, as all the navy bills are before the Senate and House, and I feel the deepest interest in them; however, I had to go, so I took the Yankee and went directly to City Point, arriving last night at 11:30 p.m. I returned this morning and proceed directly to Washington without going on shore at the fort, unless we are detained to coal. I should have called up to Norfolk to see you but for the bills, so you must excuse the irregularity for the public good. I stayed three hours with Gillis and :Rodgers, and left at 3:30 a.m. this day.(*) Of course I said nothing except to get their opinion about the possibility of destroying the bridge. Neither seemed to know much about the Appomattox, but Rodgers promises to make all possible enquiries. I told them the Government would pay $25,000 or even $50,000 to have the bridge destroyed. The President considers it of vital importance, and wishes every exertion made to accomplish it immediately. My own opinion is that the chances are better with Rodgers than anyone else. Jenkins will take Gillis’s place, but though a most accomplished officer, he is but one above Rodgers, who has already borne the “burden and heat of the day,” and should hardly have anyone to step in over him at the last moment. I think you had better write a confidential letter to the Department, stating that every exertion will be made to destroy this bridge and that a competent force for any emergency is placed under Commander Rodgers, which will obviate any mention of the matter first in letters from the Department. There is another bridge at Swift Creek, 3 miles north of Petersburg, which may answer the same purpose, unless it is a short one and can be easily replaced. The value of this communication destroyed (to our cause) can not be expressed in words or money, provided it is done before McClellan fights. Are you all ready to dash at Caswell? I ask it because Farragut is calling for these gunboats and hesitates to attack Fort Morgan without more force. Regretting that I am not able to see you, Truly, yours,
G.V. FOX Flag-Officer GOLDSBOROUGH.
Gotta love that line, “provided it is done before McClellan fights.” Heh. No rush, dood.
Hindsight about McClellan’s aggressiveness notwithstanding, Fox’s letter is really interesting, because in it he not only urges destruction of the bridge, but commits the government to up to $50,000 in extra expenditures in order to accomplish it — I think that’s pretty rare.
Fox wanted John Rodgers to do the job, but Rodgers though it was simply not plausible as a naval exercise, and suggested instead it might be better to recruit saboteurs to do the job:
Off City Point, June 22, 1862. SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 21st instant in regard to burning the railroad bridge at Petersburg, Va. The subject had already engaged my attention, and I met the following difficulties: The gunboats can not send a boat on shore without danger of an ambush. Every movement is carefully watched by armed men. We are not able to communicate with the inhabitants except with danger to them and to us. I have concluded that in Norfolk or at Fortress Monroe, where free intercourse can be had with Union men, citizens of Virginia, must be sought the agents for this work. The Appomattox, scarcely wider than a canal, has its channel obstructed by vessels and lighters sunk in the bottom of the river. It runs through banks which absolutely command any rowboats upon its waters. We can not approach by steamers, and rowboats would be destroyed. When I last heard from Petersburg, about a month ago, by two deserters, there were some 6,000 or 7,000 troops there under General Huger. If I see any opportunity of carrying out the subject of your letter, I shall zealously do so. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, JOHN RODGERS,
Commander. Flag-Officer LOUIS GOLDSBOROUGH,
Commanding North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
Goldsborough, caught between a Navy Department that wanted it done, like, yesterday, and a respected and capable subordinate who said, in effect, “this is a terrible idea,” cast about for an alternative:
JUNE 24, 1862. I beg to forward this copy of a communication just received from Commander Rodgers. I appreciate the difficulties of which he speaks. It is a very delicate matter to broach the subject in view to anyone in Norfolk or at Old Point. Still, I shall use every prudent exertion in the matter and be diligent about it. A mere naval force I am, and have been for some time, satisfied can avail but little, if, indeed, anything, really substantive in the affair. Dollars alone, in my judgment, can do the work. The submarine propeller, when just awash, draws 6 feet water, and in order to get the men out of her bottom it ought to go no nearer the ground than 18 inches or 2 feet. Hence, operating even in as much as 8 feet water, her upper surface will be in sight and exposed. Night work would obviate this exposure to at least a partial degree, it is true, if during darkness light enough will be afforded. The Appomattox, after ascending it some 5 miles, becomes very narrow and shoal, and the tide is frequently rapid. We will do our best. This is all I can at present promise. Most respectfully, L.M. GOLDSBOROUGH,
The “submarine propeller” he refers to is the submersible Alligator (above), which has an interesting history of its own, but was unsuccessful in an attempt to destroy the bridge at Petersburg. Goldsborough subsequently followed Rodgers’ advice and recruited saboteurs to do the job:
U.S. FLAGSHIP MINNESOTA,
Norfolk, Va., June 29, 1862. SIR: As the expedition up the Appomattox has not resulted favorably to the object it had in view, I have this day engaged two reliable persons, whose names I will give you hereafter, to proceed from this to the proper place and do the work. The men, I have every assurance, are entirely and thoroughly reliable. In the event of complete success each is to receive $25,000, and in case one of them should be taken and put to death for the destruction committed his brother in California is to receive $12,500, his sister in Richmond $6,250, and his stepsister, also in Richmond, $6,250. I have made confidential notes of the names, etc., of the parties, all of which will be duly forwarded when necessary. Commander Rodgers, as you will perceive by copies of communications from him which I forward by the mail of to-day, has, on finding the submarine propeller of no use to him, and for other reasons, sent it to Fort Monroe. Had I not better send it to Washington for safe keeping? At best it can only operate successfully in clear and tolerably deep water. All the experiments required by the Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks can be much better conducted at Washington than here, particularly at this very critical conjuncture of our affairs hereabouts. Very respectfully, your most obedient servant, L.M. GOLDSBOROUGH,
Flag-Officer. Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington City.
I’m not sure what, if anything, became of this mission, or how the bridge in the photograph came to be destroyed.
The other thing that’s interesting is that in his memo of June 20, Fox mentions a second bridge, on the same north-south route, over Swift Creek, north of Petersburg, on the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad:
Given that LoC captions — usually based on notations that come with the image when they’re transferred to them — are oftentimes imprecise, I believe this image of the burned bridge and locomotive may not be on the Appomattox River at all, but may be of the remains of the bridge at Swift Creek. (The LoC has a bunch of images of Federal gunboats captioned as being on the Appomattox, while I feel sure they’re actually on the James.)
Rodgers complained about the hazards of navigating the Appomattox River to Petersburg, but the waterway shown here, even given the seasonal rise and fall of creeks and rivers, isn’t enough to run an aluminum john boat. The course of the river shown in the image — turning sharply left in the background — seems to be a better fit for the Swift Creek crossing than for Petersburg. Note also that the banks are low here, contra Rodgers’ description of the Appomattox River around Petersburg.