Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“A quick connection between trains was by accident, not intent.”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 1, 2013
An 1864 stock certificate for shares in the Richmond & York River Railroad Co., one of the five roads that converged at Richmond. From Dave Bright’s incomparable Confederate Railroads website.


The first chapters of Carl Park’s Ironclad Down: USS Merrimack-CSS Virginia from Design to Destruction set the historical context for the design, construction and deployment of that most famous Confederate ironclad, C.S.S. Virginia. Park summarizes the evolving technology of shell-firing naval artillery, screw propulsion, U.S. naval policy, and the early careers of men like Stephen Mallory,  John Luke Porter, and John Mercer Brooke, before getting into the real heart of the book, which is the fine, granular detail of the ironclad’s construction. I may talk more about that later, but for now I want to highlight something that caught me a little by surprise.

In Chapter 10, “The Long Road to Portsmouth,” Park discusses the logistical challenges present in moving the iron plate armor for C.S.S. Virginia from the Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, where it was rolled, to the (formerly U.S., now Confederate) navy yard at Gosport, where Virginia was being fitted out. In the process, he mentions an aspect of Richmond’s position as a railroad hub that had substantial implications for the large-scale movement of men and materiel through the city and the region that would see almost non-stop campaigning and fighting between two major armies for four long years:


In 1861, five railroads came into Richmond — almost. To protect their interests, the city drayage companies in Virginia lobbied the state legislature to pass a protective tariff. In the Old Dominion, it was against the law for a railroad to have tracks on any city streets without the elected city authorities’ permission, and permission was never given if it meant that two lines could meet. All of the railroad tracks of one line came to an abrupt stop a mile or so from any connecting line. Without liverymen, there could be no cross-town traffic for passengers or freight. The Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroad came in from the north down Broad Street to Fifth Street, which was within about half a mile of the Virginia Central, which also came in from the north as it followed Shockoe Creek to Broad and Seventeenth streets. The Richmond & York River came in from the east and terminated on the east side of town between Rocketts and Chimorazo Hill. The Richmond & Danville came from the west, followed the south bank of the James, and then crossed the river to the depot at Mayo’s Bridge and Fifteenth Street. The Richmond & Petersburg came from the south and crossed the James to the depot at Eighth and Bird Streets. The Tredegar Iron Works was within a quarter of a mile of the Iron Richmond & Petersburg tracks.
A Virginia Central train coming into Richmond with a passenger bound for Norfolk would off-load at the Seventeenth and Broad Streets Depot. From there, the passenger would take a carriage to the Richmond & Petersburg Depot, if a train was leaving that day or, if not, to a hotel to stay overnight and catch a train out the next day. This process would be repeated at every major rail juncture. For freight headed for Norfolk, the process was agonizingly slow. A freight train unloaded its cargo north of the station in Richmond onto a platform or onto the ground. There, sometime during that or the next day, a work gang of slaves loaded the shipment into a wagon or wagons that took it across town to the Richmond & Petersburg freight area, where more slaves would unload it and put it by the tracks. On that day or the next, more slaves loaded it onto a train, where it would travel to Petersburg. At Petersburg this agonizing process of off-loading, loading, off-loading, and loading again was repeated because trains were not allowed to pass through Petersburg either. Railroads were independent fiefdoms that had no interest in any other line’s schedules; a quick connection between trains was by accident, not intent. . . .
The next monument to poor planning was rail design and track gauges. Three different gauges (distance between rails) were in use in the Confederacy: 4 feet, 8½ inches, which eventually became the national standard, 5 feet, and 5 feet, 6 inches. The railroads coming into Richmond were 4 feet, 8½ inches, with the exception of the Richmond and Danville, which was 5 feet. This variance in gauges didn’t cause as much confusion as you might suppose. In states where the lines of different companies using the same gauge actually connected, the management of one company would not allow its passenger or freight cars to run on the tracks of another line. So although cars of one line could run on the tracks of other lines, the practice of loading and unloading cars at railheads remained a standard, labor-intensive, and time-consuming procedure. In peacetime this lidiculous process was tolerable, but in time of war it became another nail in the Confederate coffin. [1]


To illustrate this problem, Park includes a well-known map of Richmond, dated 1864 and published as part of the atlas accompanying the Official Records, but actually drawing on antebellum, civilian maps as its source material. I’d looked at this map many, many times, and even made note of the different rail lines and depots, but never thought about its significance in terms of military logistics. Here’s the map from the OR, showing the location of the terminals for four of the five railroads reaching Richmond:




A fifth rail line, the Richmond & York River Railroad, came to an end southeast of town, between the base Chimborazo Hill and Rocketts. All the space in between the depots had to covered on foot, by carriage, or (in the case of cargo) by drays, all of which added time, inconvenience and expense — especially when you remember that everything in Richmond is uphill from everything else.

To be sure, situations like this were hardly limited to Richmond or the South. Railroads construction across the United States was a free-for-all in the decades before the war, with little standardization, and few incentives for railroad builders to find ways to interlock their roads. The primary only rail hub in Texas, Houston, was the terminus of five roads, all with their own depots and freight yards, running on at least two different gauges. It was a bigger problem for the Confederacy, of course, because the South lacked the industrial resources to expand its railroads quickly. Tredegar had enough trouble supplying armor and guns for ships like Virginia, let alone rolling out miles and miles of new, iron rail.

It’s also to the credit of Richmonders that they recognized this rail transfer problem early on, and took some measures to correct it. Just days after the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston, the Richmond City Council voted to authorize the state to construct rail connections through the city streets to link different roads, “to be used only for the purposes of the State, or of the Confederate States, during the war, and to he removed when no longer required for these purposes.” Good progress was reported almost immediately, but at some point work stalled, to be picked up again in fits and starts through the remainder of the war. Most of the terminals remained isolated, leading to bizarre spectacles like this one from March 1862, with a steam locomotive being hauled through the streets by both mules and curious bystanders:


Moving Under Difficulties. – A locomotive, of large size, brought to Richmond from Mr. Allan’s plantation (Claremont) on James river, was moved yesterday to the depot of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. It was mounted upon stout wheels, and in the absence of steam, some thirty mules and horses were attached; but even with this power, it was found no easy matter to haul the iron monster to its destination. Near the corner of Main and 13th streets, the traces parted, and a dozen mules shot gaily forward, relieved of their burden, while the majority, with the locomotive, stuck fast to the pavement. An immense crowd assembled, and the incident afforded considerable excitement for an hour or two. At length the team was properly hitched up again, but the combined horse and mule power, with the whips and “hi hi’s” of the drivers, availed nothing. It was an uphill business. Finally a strong rope was procured, and made fast to the ponderous vehicle, and some two hundred of the bystanders took their places in the line to aid the quadrupeds in their labor. The experiment succeeded. With a long pull and a strong pull, and amid vociferous shouting, the work was successfully accomplished and the locomotive to the depot on Broad street. [2]


Allen’s locomotive ended up being dragged through the heart of Richmond’s commercial district, close by the Capitol; I wonder if the sight caused any Commonwealth or Confederate legislators to push harder for completion of the rail connections.

It seems that, for all their recognition of the problem and intentions on fixing it early on, Richmond’s success in linking its rail depots was limited. A map of Richmond (available here) dated 1867 but almost probably surveyed in mid- to late 1865, shows that only two railroads — the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac, coming into town from the northwest, and the Richmond & Petersburg, coming up from the south — were eventually connected via 8th Street. A second line from the R.F. & P. depot ran east a short distance along Broad Street toward the Central Railroad depot on the east side of town, but never made it past the Capitol.


Richmond city plan, drawn by U.S. military engineers shortly after the war, showing (red) additional lines of track laid to connect the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad depot (upper left), and the Richmond & Petersburg depot, lower left. Map from Civil War Richmond. The total length of new street rail laid appears to be only about two-thirds of a mile.


You can’t read much about the conflict of 1861-65 without getting a heavy dose of life in wartime Richmond, and one quickly comes to understand how it’s been rightfully called “one of the most heavily networked cities in the Confederacy.” [3] Nonetheless, its easy to forget how the little things in peacetime — like, say, an accommodation to the protectionist lobbying of draymen and carriage hacks, looking to maintain a demand for their trade — can complicate life tremendously during the stress of war.

And what I wouldn’t give tohave seen that big steam locomotive dragged through the streets of the Confederate capital by men and mules, for want of a mile or so of decent track.


[1] Carl D. Park, Ironclad Down: USS Merrimack – CSS Virginia, from Construction to Destruction (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 2007), 127-30.

[2] Richmond Dispatch, March 8, 1862, 2.

[3] William G. Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (New Haven: Yale, 2011), 93.



10 Responses

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  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on August 2, 2013 at 7:31 am

    Plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les mêmes.

    I, too, would give just about anything to see a big old steam locomotive being moved through a city, uphill, by men and mules.

    Obviously, the Confederacy didn’t have very adept lobbyists, otherwise one representing an interest that would have benefited from the rail lines being connected no doubt would have taken that opportunity to have arranged a stroll for a handful of powerful officials that just happened to pass southeast of the capitol, thereby enabling the officials to witness the spectacle.

  2. Bob Huddleston said, on August 2, 2013 at 10:47 am

    This was quite common in mid-century. “Union Stations” were developed later as a response. Remember the attack on the 6th Massachusetts in Baltimore was caused by the lack of connecting lines across the city.

  3. Marcello said, on August 2, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    “Obviously, the Confederacy didn’t have very adept lobbyists, otherwise one representing an interest that would have benefited from the rail lines being connected no doubt would have taken that opportunity to have arranged a stroll for a handful of powerful officials that just happened to pass southeast of the capitol, thereby enabling the officials to witness the spectacle.”

    Railroads were not particulalry gung-ho about linking up with each other, among the others things they feared they would lose control of the rolling stock.

  4. Foxessa said, on August 2, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    This state of southern railroads contributed significantly as well to the failure of the Produce Loan Agency — one of the several increasingly desperate attempts to finance the CSA and the war — supervised by J D. B. De Bow (who managed very well financially throughout the war and after, even increasing his personal wealth, partly by not participating in the CSA financing programs himself). He was to purchase on behalf of the government from plantation owners in the west the staples, which would float loans from Europe. It didn’t work for many reasons — including the successful Union blockade, but it particularly couldn’t work because there was little or no rail connection between these different parts.

    Most of all it is notable that De Bow, who was so much an architect of secession and the war, soon was privately convinced there was no opportunity the confederacy could win the war. It was even more under-capitalized than the War of 1812, conducted by Madison’s administration against Britain. De Bow saw this, but wouldn’t say so publicly. He was the spirit of Boosterism!

    • Andy Hall said, on August 2, 2013 at 3:14 pm

      If any of the architects of secession and war would figure out a way to come out ahead, if would be De Bow.

  5. Bob Nelson said, on August 2, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    Great piece, Andy. Thanks for posting. IMO, one of the best things the Union did, which helped win the war, was to federalize the railroads and put Herman Haupt in charge of them.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 3, 2013 at 3:25 pm

      Of course, that gives me an excuse to repost this gem:

  6. Craig Swain said, on August 3, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Andy, great piece. As I wade through the CS Citizens Files, I often find transactions where Richmond businesses (mostly Tredegar) were contracted to handle the transfers between railroads in Richmond. Particularly the heavy guns.

    One additional transportation link I wold add is the James River Canal. Bellona foundry upstream of Richmond often floated their heavy guns down on the canal, where Tredegar offloaded them. The guns were then moved to the appropriate railroad depot and forwarded to the appropriate military post. All of that handling was “billable” and Tredegar did bill!

  7. David Bright said, on August 17, 2013 at 7:28 am

    I’d love to know the name of the Allen locomotive and where it served after its famous trip.

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