Trains/Award Program

Western Virginia [Now West Virginia] Trains in the Civil War

The Great Train Raid of 1861 was a Confederate military raid conducted in western Virginia in May 1861 during the early days of the American Civil War It was aimed at disrupting a critical railroad used by the opposing Union Army as a major supply route.

Following the creation and organization of the Confederate States government in the early months of 1861, on April 4, the Virginia Secession Convention met and voted against secession. However, after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for a 75,000-man army to put down the rebellion, the Virginia Secession Convention reconvened on April 15, and voted on April 17, provisionally, to secede, on the condition of ratification by a statewide referendum.

The Governor of Virginia immediately began mobilizing the Virginia State Militia to strategic points around the state, including the assignment of Maj. Gen. Kenton Harper to the “Forces In and About Harpers Ferry, Virginia” on April 18. The following day, Southern secessionists rioted  Baltimore as a Union force marched through the city due to a lack of any union stations at the time. Nine days later, on April 27, Col. Thomas J. (later “Stonewall”) Jackson, then of the Virginia State Militia, was ordered to relieve Harper. He began the task of organizing the defense of Virginia at that location. Harpers Ferry held not only important arms production factories, but was a choke-hold on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and key telegraph trunk lines connecting Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to the Ohio Valley and interior of the United States.

Martinsburgh West Virginia

During this point in the Civil War, the state of Marylands stance in the war was also not yet determined. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, then owned by the state of Maryland, ran through Maryland and along the Potomac River Valley in its pass through the Appalachian Mountains, but took a crucial turn at Harpers Ferry and passed south, through Virginia and Martinsburg while crossing the Shenandoah Valley. The railroad then continued on through much of present-day West Virginia, which then was still part of Virginia, meaning that the railroad continued for a major portion of its route through potentially “Confederate” territory. This exposed the railroad to raids and capture by Confederate forces if either Virginia or Maryland seceded from the Union.

 Planning of the raid

As the inevitable war approached, the president of the B&O Railroad, John Garrett, who was sympathetic to the Union, did all he could to placate both sides in order to protect the railroad operations. Col. Jackson, gathering intelligence on freight passing on the line, determined that coal was being shipped in large quantities from the Ohio Valley to Union naval bases in Baltimore that were fueling U.S. Navy warships attempting to blockade the more southern states. Jackson then devised a covert plan to destroy B&O Railroad operations while simultaneously benefiting Virginia and possibly the Confederacy.

Jackson complained to the B&O Railroad that the trains disturbed the rest of his troops, and notified John Garrett that trains would only be allowed to pass through Harpers Ferry between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in order to ensure their rest was not disturbed. This timetable bottleneck caused the B&O Railroad to pile up trains in yards on either side of Harpers Ferry in order to maximize their throughput during this new curfew.

 The Great Train Raid

By May 13 political instability began to mount, as martial law was declared in Baltimore, which was a very secession-sympathetic city. Upon notice that the popular-vote to ratify secession in Virginia had overwhelmingly endorsed that course, Jackson was now free and ready to execute his train raid.

On May 23, Col. Jackson executed a raid to cut the B&O Railroad lines at a bridge near Cherry Run on the Potomac River north and west of Martinsburg and the signal tower west of Point of Rocks, thereby trapping a large quantity of rolling stock in between, especially in the rail yard at Martinsburg. Jackson sent the 5th Virginia Infantry under Col. Kenton Harper to Cherry Run, west of Martinsburg, to sever the line in that location, and he sent Col. John D. Imboden’s cavalry to Point of Rocks, east of Harpers Ferry, to sever the line there. From Harpers Ferry, the Winchester and Potomac Railroad ran as a spur off the B&O Railroad mainline south to Winchester, Virginia, allowing Jackson to try and move his captured rail assets quickly to Winchester.Jackson’s forces captured a total of 56 locomotives with tenders and 386 railroad cars, mostly coal cars, of the B&O Railroad, removed them into Virginia State Militia hands, and staged them in the railyards at Martinsburg. Jackson’s plan was to move these assets down the Winchester and Potomac Railroad via Harpers Ferry to Winchester, disassemble them and mount them on special wagons, and move them overland to Strasburg, Virginia, where they were to be reassembled and moved south on the Manassas Gap Railroad. With the assistance of the Chief Engineer of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, Thomas R. Sharp, and Joseph Keeler and his son Charles Keeler wagoneers living near Stephenson’s Depot special carriages and dollies were constructed and used to transport the first four small locomotives, south from Winchester along the Valley Turnpike to Strasburg and then to Richmond via the Manassas Gap Railroad. In an incredible and historic feat of engineering, the Virginia militia soldiers pulled the first four locomotives with 40-horse teams, rigged artillery-style, through downtown Winchester south on the Valley Pike to the rail-head at Strasburg. Among the engines captured and moved through Manassas Junction was the thirty ton Engine No. 199.

Winans 0-8-0 camel locomotive Engine No. 199 captured by Jackson’s forces

On June 2, 1861, due to a combination of miscommunications and over-zealousness, Confederate forces continued destroying B&O Railroad assets, including the B&O Railroad bridge over Opequon Creek two miles east of Martinsburg. Here they lit 50 coal cars on fire and ran them off the destroyed trestle, “where they burned for two months, the intense heat melting axles and wheels.”[2] The 52 remaining locomotives and various rail cars left in Martinsburg were thus left stranded by this uncoordinated action, and this ended the Great Train Raid.

Jackson was later ordered to destroy the 800 foot B&O railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry over the Potomac River on June 14, 1861, rip up and take many miles of B&O Railroad track, and then burn the remaining stranded rolling stock and locomotives at Martinsburg in the Martinsburg Train Raid on June 23, 1861 before finally evacuating and abandoning the Harpers Ferry area.

In the weeks following this, Jackson decided to salvage 10 of the burnt locomotives at Martinsburg and move them into the Confederate rail system. The evacuation of any more locomotives or rail cars by the Manassas Gap Railroad became too risky for potential re-capture by Union forces, and so the those 10 locomotives and additional rail cars were moved by the same carriage and dolly method 125 miles overland south from Martinsburg through Winchester and on to the Virginia Central Railroad in Staunton, Virginia.

Many of the rail cars that had been captured were hidden in barns and farms throughout the Winchester area, and Confederate forces along with citizens continued to move move these up the valley through the summer months of 1861, and for a period of the next two years. As late as 1863 many of the railroad cars were still being hauled away up the Shenandoah Valley to Staunton for service on Confederate rail lines all throughout the South.Virginia secedes

On 23 May the Commonwealth of Virginia conducted its popular vote, and secession was formally ratified. Immediately Maj. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, then of the Virginia State Militia, relieved Colonel Jackson and took command at Harpers Ferry on 24 May. Shortly afterward, on 8 June, all Virginia State troops were transferred to the authority of the Confederate States.

 B&O Railroad eventually Reopens

In his Annual Report of the B&O Railroad for 1861, President Garrett wrote:

On May 28, 1861, general posession was taken by the Confederate forces of more than one hundred miles of the Main Stem, embroiling chiefly the region between Point of Rocks and Cumberland. Occasional movements were also made, accompanied by considerable destruction upon the roads between Cumberland and Wheeling, and Grafton and Parkersburg, during the fiscal year. The Protection of the Government was not restored throughout the line until March, 1862, when the reconstruction was pressed with great energy, and the line reopened on the 29th of that month.

The B&O Railroad reopened for service on March 3o, 1861. Later, historian Thomas Weber summarized the damage:

“Caught in the trap and destroyed were 42 locomotives and 386 cars; 23 bridges were burned, 102 miles of telegraph line torn down, and two water stations destroyed. Because of his own transportation difficulties, Jackson could carry with him only 14 locomotives, and undetermined number of cars, and 36 1/2 miles of rail which his men had torn up. Wreaking damage on the machine shops and engine houses at Martinsburg, and blowing up the bridge at Harper’s Ferry, Jackson disappeared south. His work had been well done. From June 14, 1861, until March 18, 1862, no trains ran between Baltimore and Wheeling.”


 Following the war

Following the war, all but one of the 14 locomotives taken were returned to full service in the B&O Railroad. The one locomotive not returned, Engine No. 34, had been damaged by a Union cavalry raid, and so the boiler from that engine was installed in a Confederate gunboat, which was later sunk by the U.S. Navy. This railroad heist holds the record for being the largest train robbery and railroad theft in history.

Garrett always remembered Stonewall Jackson’s destruction of the B&O properties at Martinsburg, Virginia in June 1861, and he admired how Confederate colonel Thomas R. Sharpe, with just thirty-five men comprising six machinists, ten teamsters, and twelve laborers had moved fourteen of his big locomotives – including a Hayes Camel 198, a Mason locomotive, and a “dutch wagon” – over forty miles of dirt roads from Martinsburg to Strasburg, Virginia. When the indispensable William Prescott Smith [B&O RR Chief of Transportation] died prematurely at age forty-seven in 1872, Garrett hired Sharpe to replace him as master of transportation”

Gary L. Browne