Jackson’s Railroad Caper

Julia Chase

Julia Chase

Julia Chase witnessed and chronicled Civil War history as it transpired in her home town. She was one of the so called “devil diarists” of Winchester. On September 2nd, 1861, Julia noted an event which occurred virtually in her front yard. On that day “one of the Engines that was thrown in the river at Martinsburg, when the Confederate Army was at Harper’s Ferry, has been brought into town today by 32 horses, to be taken on to Richmond. It was quite a sight as it passed by — looking very much like an iron monster.”

According to General John D. Imboden, Colonel Thomas Jackson was responsible for this incident, having stemmed from a raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road. The event occurred on May 23, 1861; the very day Virginia voted for secession. According to Imboden, Jackson convinced railroad administrators that trains would only be allowed to pass through Harper’s Ferry during daylight hours as the “noisy night railroad traffic was keeping his soldiers awake.” Later he would demand an additional change to the rules, restricting traffic to a two-hour period between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

On the night of May 22nd, Jackson reportedly sent cavalry to both ends of the of the forty-four mile stretch of railroad track which lay in Virginia territory. “At the end of the busy noontime traffic, just as all these trains had filled up the east and westbound lanes, practically coupler to coupler, Imboden and Harper suddenly halted traffic at midday.” This was affected “by emerging forth and not allowing the trains now coming toward each of their positions to pass and get out of this double-track stretch.” Consequently, Colonel Jackson “bagged” the “largest single haul of rolling stock taken intact during the war.”

According to Imboden’s account, Jackson “caught all the trains that were going east or west between those points, and these he ran up to Winchester, thirty-two miles on the branch road, where they were safe, and whence they were removed by horse-power to the railway at Strasburg. I do not remember the number of trains captured, but the loss crippled the Baltimore and Ohio road seriously for some time, and the gain to our scantily stocked Virginia roads of the same gauge was invaluable.”

Train Raid

Strasburg Historical Society Museum

Many historians have concluded that the raid described by Imboden, in all probability, never actually transpired. Civil War author James I. Robertson “denies that the raid occurred and questions whether the communication between Jackson and railroad officials ever happened. Robertson claims that historians who promote the accuracy of the raid place too much reliance on an 1885 account of the events written by General John D. Imboden, a source that Robertson considers to be unreliable.” “To have severed the B & O would have been a large and direct act of war against civilian commerce.” I tend to concur with Mr. Robertson’s reasoning.

Still, continued reports of engines passing through Winchester indicate that a comparable event undoubtedly happened. Once again, on September 16th, Julia Chase indicated “another of the Engines was brought from Martinsburg today, besides other things on Saturday. It is said that the reason the U. S. Government does not interfere in this case is because the leading Managers of the Balto & Ohio Railroad are Secessionists and they let them do as they please.”

The foundation of the story involving the capture of Baltimore and Ohio engines and rolling stock are actually grounded in an event that occurred on June 19th and 20th of the same year. General Joseph E. Johnston had ordered Colonel Jeb Stuart into Martinsburg on the 19th. Johnston, concerned that Union forces would soon occupy the area, also ordered General Thomas Jackson and his men to join Stuart and destroy the B & O Railroad facility before it could be captured by Union forces.

Jackson arrived in Martinsburg on the afternoon of June 20, and quickly set about tearing up the track and burning the round houses and machine shops. “Some fifty-six locomotives and tenders, as well as at least 305 coal cars, were either set afire, heaved into the Opequon river, or dismantled to the point of uselessness.”

Roundhouse

Round House at Martinsburg, West Virginia.

Jackson was conflicted over supervising the destruction of material badly needed by the Confederacy. At Martinsburg, as Jackson proceeded with this “wreckage”, he started to have reservations as he knew the South had a severe shortage of locomotives. He noted that “some of these Baltimore and Ohio engines had not been so very badly burned; after all, there is very little about a locomotive that can ever be destroyed by fire.”

Within a few days Jackson devised a plan with the assistance of two railroad employees, Hugh Longust and Thomas R. Sharp. These men were to select several of the “least damaged locomotives, dismantle the engines, and transport overland by forty-horse teams the thirty-eight miles to Strasburg.” Here they could be placed on the Manassas Gap Railroad and sent safely south. “In this way, fourteen Baltimore and Ohio engines, of every sort and variety, ‘made the Gap’ that summer of ’61.”

Strasburg sign

Sign at Strasburg, Virginia Commemorating Jackson’s Great Train Caper

During early July, Jackson arranged to take the first of the engines out over the turnpike. “A picked group of about thirty-five men, including six machinists, ten teamsters and about a dozen laborers, had been told of the task. They were placed under the immediate charge of Hugh Longust, an experienced and veteran railroader from Richmond. Longust reported in turn to Colonel Thomas R. Sharp, at that time ranked as captain and also as acting quartermaster-general in the Confederate Army.”

The task of moving the trains over the macadam turnpike required crews to first examine “all bridges, strengthened them where it was needed, and fill in holes in the road. Where the road climbed, the army came to the horses’ aid, and two hundred men “added their muscles, shouts, curses and their wild singing to the racket. They could not prevent the engine from occasionally breaking the crust and sinking to its axles, but they could pull it out again.”

Martinsburg

“Locomotives Dismantled by the Rebels at Martinsburg in August 1861

Captain Sharps “railroad corps” moved all but one of the locomotives by way of the Manassas Gap Railroad. The last of the captured locomotives, however, was stranded at Strasburg by General Johnston’s evacuation of Manassas Junction. “The B&O camelback Engine number 199 was put on the Manassas Gap Railroad tracks at Strasburg and moved south 25 miles up the Shenandoah Valley to the very end of the line at Mount Jackson, Virginia. From there it was remounted onto the teamster’s heavy-duty wagon trucks and hauled overland on the Valley Turnpike again another 70 miles to Staunton. The trip took four days, and when Engine 199 reached Staunton early in the morning, a majority of the town’s population turned out to witness the incredible sight.” “There, it broke loose on a hill and careened wildly through the town until it came to rest in a bog.” Fortunately, nobody was injured.

Due to the threat caused by General McClellan’s advance on Richmond in the spring of 1862 all of the captured locomotives were sent on to a location in North Carolina, about fifty miles west of Raleigh. Here, at the shop buildings of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad, the locomotives were refitted. The “Confederate States locomotive shops” were officially established here and all of the captured engines were put back into operation by mid-1863. This equipment would do much to fortify the Confederate rail system.

Following the war, all but one of the captured locomotives were returned to service on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. One of the locomotives was not restored, however. Engine No. 34, had been badly damaged during a Union cavalry raid and put out of service. The boiler from that engine was installed in the Confederate ironclad, CSS Neuse. The Neuse never saw active service and was later destroyed in March of 1865. Burned to the waterline, the remains of the Neuse and thousands of artifacts were eventually salvaged and put on display at the museum at Kinston, North Carolina.

neuse

The Neuse was Constructed from the Plans of Her Sister Ship the Albemarle.

Much of the written history of Jackson’s great train caper was penned based on a questionable account authored by General John Imboden. Jed Hotchkiss, in a letter written in April 1895 to historian G. F. R. Henderson, spoke of his friend. “I do not like to say that my friend is unreliable; and yet the truth of the matter is that his statements will not bear the tests of criticism. … He writes from a confused memory and never takes the trouble of verifying his statements by a reference to documents.”

Though the details may be contested, the facts remain. General Jackson was responsible for making a huge contribution to Southern rail transportation system which undoubtedly extended the war making capability of the Confederacy. As always, it is our responsibility to sort truth from fiction. Hopefully this narrative has done that.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSS_Neuse

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackson%27s_operations_against_the_B%26O_Railroad_(1861)

Imboden, John DBattles & Leaders of the Civil War.

Mahon, Michael. Winchester Divided. The Civil War Diaries of Julia Chase and Laura Lee. Stackpole Books. Mechanicsburg, Va. 2002.

Robertson, James I. Stonewall Jackson. The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Macmillan Publishing. New York, N.Y. 1997.

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