Records Relating to the U.S. Military Railroads
Summer 2011, Vol. 43, No. 2
Working Magic with Cornstalks and Beanpoles
Records Relating to the U.S. Military Railroads during the Civil War
By David A. Pfeiffer
Herman Haupt was not to be stopped.
He was an industrious man, a skilled organizer, and an experienced railroad engineer— an important figure for the Union in his job of overseeing the operation and maintenance of the North's military railroads during the Civil War.
As the man in charge of the operation of the railroads in the field, he seemed to work magic in getting troops and supplies to the battlefields and rapidly reconstructing bridges and tracks.
But he was hard to get along with. His uncompromising approach to his job enabled him to get work done quickly and efficiently. When Lincoln's generals tried to prevent or delay him from doing his work, he reminded them he had orders, from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Henry W. Halleck, that they were not to interfere with him.
Haupt was called to service in early 1862 and put in charge of the operations of military railroads in the Virginia theater of operations. He could also get railroads and bridges repaired in short order.
One of his most famous feats was the speedy reconstruction of a railroad bridge a few miles north of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a job that greatly impressed the commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, even though the bridge looked flimsy.
Learn more about:
- How Lincoln fought a future adversary to get a railroad bridge built across the Mississippi River.
- The National Archives' exhibit, "Discovering the Civil War".
- The Civil War through selected records in the National Archives.
In a visit on May 28, Lincoln observed, "That man Haupt has built a bridge four hundred feet long and eighty feet high, across Potomac Creek, on which loaded trains are passing every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but cornstalks and beanpoles." Haupt and the Construction Corps mastered the art of bridge reconstruction during the war.
The documentation of how Haupt kept the trains running during the Civil War is part of the records of the Office of the Quartermaster General at the National Archives. With reports, correspondence, and detailed histories, these records tell the story of the daily operations of the railroads and how they played a role in transporting troops and supplies during the war.
The Union clearly understood that controlling railroad logistics could provide the key to winning the war. One of the most significant railroad events of the Civil War was the act of Congress of January 31, 1862, authorizing the President to take possession of the railroads when the welfare and safety of the country required it.
The Civil War was one of the first wars in which large-scale railroad transportation was used to move and supply armies rapidly over long distances. The United States Military Railroads, an agency operated by the War Department, ran the railroads captured in the areas of combat, using them as supply lines for Union troops.
By the end of the war, the agency operated 2,105 miles of railroad, with a combined rolling stock of 419 engines and 6,330 cars, 642 miles of track, and 26 miles of bridges built or rebuilt, at a cost of nearly 30 million dollars.
Finding the Right Man to Administer the Railroads
Historians generally agree that the most important role of the wartime railroads was in the active supply of the Union armies in the field. The success of coordinating the government-run railroads and the military was a major factor in the Union victory.
The story of the U.S. Military Railroads during the Civil War is a colorful one, filled alternatively with conflict and cooperation between Union generals and officials of the railroad as they came to understand the uses, capability, and value of railroads.
On February 11, 1862, Secretary Stanton appointed Daniel C. McCallum as director and superintendent of U.S. Military Railroads. McCallum had authority to "enter upon, take possession of, hold and use all railroads, engines, cars, locomotives, and equipment that may be required for the transport of troops, arms, ammunition, and military supplies of the United States, and to do and perform all acts . . . that may be necessary and proper . . . for the safe and speedy transport aforesaid," he wrote in his 1866 report.
McCallum's view was that his organization "was a great construction and transportation machine, for carrying out the objects of the commanding generals."
McCallum's prewar experience in railroading came from his years of acting as superintendent of the New York and Erie Railroad, beginning in 1854. He developed a reputation as an autocratic leader, running his railroad with "strict precision and stern discipline." But to his credit, he combined his engineering and administrative talents with his pleasant personality to make a success of his tenure.
At the time that McCallum assumed his duties, the seven-mile road from Washington to Alexandria, Virginia, was the only railroad in federal government control. By May 1862 the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, which ran from Alexandria southwest toward Orange, Virginia, was an important supply line, as was the Manassas Gap Railroad, which covered the territory between Manassas Junction and Front Royal and Strasburg.
By the end of the war, the U.S. Military Railroads had, at different times during the war, used parts of 17 railroads as military lines in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and 23 in Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and North Carolina. In addition, the small Construction Corps grew from about 300 men in 1863 to nearly 10,000 men by the end of the war.
During his stint as superintendent of the U.S. Military Railroads, McCallum fulfilled the function of liaison officer between the government and the many railroads on the one hand, and manufacturers of railroad equipment on the other. His greatest success was supporting the western operations from Nashville and Chattanooga under Gen. William T. Sherman in 1864.
"The successful supply of Sherman's army in its campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta was the most outstanding achievement of the military railroads," wrote Thomas Weber in The Northern Railroads in the Civil War, 1861–1865.
However, many of the principles and methods of operation used in that campaign were perfected by Herman Haupt with the Army of the Potomac in northern Virginia in 1862.
The Man Who Kept the Trains Running, and Running on Time
While McCallum was the administrative head of the U.S. Military Railroads, Herman Haupt was in charge of the operations of the railroad in the field.
On April 27, 1862, Haupt, former chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was given the rank of colonel and appointed aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, then in command of the defenses of Washington, D.C. He repaired and fortified war-damaged railroad lines in the vicinity of Washington, armed and trained railroad staff, and improved telegraph communications along the railroad lines.
He deserves much credit for the successful supply of the Army of Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, in addition to his expertise at the construction and destruction of railroads.
McCallum and Haupt need to build, repair and operate railroads even under the worst conditions. So they organized career railroaders, soldiers, laborers, and even former slaves to do the job.
Among Haupt's most challenging assignments was restoring the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad mainline from Alexandria to Aquia Creek and Fredricksburg.
One of his most famous accomplishments, the one that caught Lincoln's eye, was the reconstruction of the Potomac Creek Bridge, which he repaired in nine days with (along with cornstalks and beanpoles) an inadequate supply of tools, inexperienced help, and in rainy weather. After completion, the bridge carried 10 to 20 trains a day.
In addition to the Potomac Creek Bridge, Haupt supervised the reconstruction of other bridges as well as 1,000 feet of wharf at Aquia Creek. The reconstruction of this line meant that by May 19, trains were running the 15 miles to Fredricksburg from Aquia Creek, at least temporarily. Haupt had showed what his Construction Corps could do. The intensity of destruction and reconstruction activity in this area meant that some railroad lines were destroyed and rebuilt as many as five times during the war.
Haupt Called in to Prepare for Battle of Second Manassas
Later, in August, during the run-up to the Battle of Second Manassas in August 1862, Gen. John Pope, having taken over the command of the Army of Virginia from McDowell, expressed the opinion that railroads were not important in a military campaign, and consequently the operation of railroads supplying his army broke down.
Haupt was called in by Assistant Secretary of War Peter Watson to work his magic. He was put in charge of all railroads in the campaign area and asked to issue whatever orders were necessary to clean up the situation. He was needed to bring order out of the chaos.
Haupt quickly went to work.
Haupt set up his headquarters in Alexandria and, while working nonstop for six days and nights, issued orders to unjam the mass of supply and troop trains on the Orange and Alexandria and, during the battle, to bring the wounded back from Manassas.
By loading infantry troops in Washington, Haupt freed up the Alexandria yard to load supply trains of food, subsistence, and ammunition. And cavalry and artillery were not to use the trains, thereby freeing up more space.
Perhaps the best example of the conflict between Haupt and the military commanders in the field occurred on August 23, as he was waiting in Alexandria for the arrival of four overdue trains from the south.
Haupt was informed that the trains had been stopped four miles from town by Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis, who had refused to allow them to proceed to Alexandria. Sturgis was demanding transportation for his soldiers.
Haupt immediately set out for Sturgis's headquarters. When he arrived, Sturgis placed him under arrest. Haupt then showed Sturgis a dispatch from Halleck, the Army's Chief of Staff, saying that no military officer had authority to interfere with Haupt's control of the railroads. Sturgis then replied: "Well, then, take your damned railroad."
The incident held up the trains for a while and, according to Haupt, kept at least 10,000 men out of the battle. Pope's defeat at Second Manassas was due to his military ineptness on the field of battle.
Haupt Wants to Quit, But Stanton Prevails
Haupt kept the railroads running as best he could, despite Confederate raiders destroying bridges on the Orange and Alexandria and problems evacuating the wounded from the battlefield because of civilians using the trains.
Haupt's efforts to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles during the battle and his hard work in keeping Washington informed of the progress of the battle after telegraph communications with Pope had been cut off were recognized by Secretary Stanton.
As a reward for his success, Haupt was promoted to brigadier general on September 5, 1862. He took the appointment with some reservations. He said he wanted to go back to private business as he was unhappy at the protocols and discipline of Army service. However, he agreed to serve for another year and stayed in the service until September 14, 1863.
In the meantime, in late 1862, in addition to using supply trains from Alexandria and the troop trains from Washington, D.C., Haupt had railroad cars filled with supplies destined for the Union army near Fredericksburg loaded directly onto barges at Alexandria. Two barges could accommodate an entire 16-car train. Steam tugs pushed the barges down the Potomac River to the Aquia Creek landing, where the cars were coupled to a locomotive and sent south to the battlefield.
A Union quartermaster could order a carload of needed supplies by telegraph to Alexandria and have it at Falmouth depot, just north of Fredericksburg, within 12 hours. Many historians have agreed with John P. Hankey that "That was the kind of logistical support the Confederacy never had and, by any standard, was remarkable for 1862." During the Maryland campaign in September 1862, Haupt, for the first time, used loyal railroads in the North in the direct supply of the Union army in the field. He also set up rules that included not sending supplies forward until they were needed, made sure that cars were promptly unloaded and returned, and established a schedule.
Later that fall, as the Construction Corps was repairing and constructing bridges in Virginia, he perfected new methods of destroying Confederate bridges, such as pressing an eight-inch torpedo, packed with gunpowder, into holes in the bridge and lighting a fuse. His favorite method of disabling locomotives was simply firing a cannonball through the boiler.
Getting the Trains Ready for Battle of Gettysburg
During his year as a general, Haupt made an enormous impact on the Union war effort. After Second Manassas he assisted the Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac in the Maryland campaign and was particularly effective in supporting the Gettysburg campaign, conducted in an area he knew well from his youth. His hastily arranged trains kept the Union Army well supplied, and he efficiently organized the returning trains to carry thousands of Union wounded to hospitals.
Nowhere was the story of the railroads more colorful than in the northern Virginia theater of operations up to and after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Haupt's contribution was the conversion of the single-track, 29-mile-long Western Maryland Railroad between Baltimore and Westminster from a railroad in poor condition into the successful supply line of Gen. George G. Meade's army during the campaign.
The Western Maryland was necessary because the B&O and the Northern Central did not provide adequate access to Gettysburg before the battle. Having lived in Gettysburg before the war, he was familiar with the railroads in the area. He devised a plan using train convoys, five trains at a time, instead of schedules, to bring in supplies and provisions. He also brought in his Construction Corps to bring the railroad up to speed. Following Haupt's instructions, the Construction Corps opened up the Northern Central to Hanover Junction and allowed that railroad to be used during the battle.
During the battle from July 1 to July 3, 1863, he was able to bring in supplies and bring out the wounded to Baltimore hospitals in a timely manner. By the end of the battle, rail supply lines to the Union army were delivering supplies beyond the daily requirements.
George Edgar Turner summed up the verdict of most historians when he wrote, "Considering all the circumstances in which it was accomplished, this feat rarely, if ever, has been surpassed." Haupt's work was especially noteworthy since he had not been able to start appraising the situation and set the work in motion until July 1.
Expanding the Railroad's Reach Deeper Into the Confederacy
One of the outstanding achievements of the U.S. Military Railroad was the movement of the Union Army of the Potomac's 11th and 12th Corps, under Generals O. O. Howard and Henry Slocum, from northern Virginia to near Chattanooga, Tennessee.
On September 24, 1863, Secretary Stanton decided to initiate the troop movement to reinforce Chattanooga by rail and put Gen. Joseph Hooker in command of the two corps. He invoked the 1862 law that allowed the President to take control of the railroads in the event of a military emergency.
Stanton put McCallum in charge of planning, and with help from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad's transportation departments, within five days, 25,000 men and their equipment departed for the 12-day, 1,200-mile railroad and steamboat trip. The troops traveled light, but with full ammunition loads.
Union soldiers and railroad workers worked well together to get the job done. The Union forces arrived in time to break the Confederate siege of Gen. William S. Rosecran's troops at Chattanooga and turn the tide of the battle. Hankey and other noted historians have concluded that "in railroad terms, that was the tipping point of the war."
The theme for the rest of the war in the east was expansion of operations into southern Virginia. During the Petersburg campaign, the U.S. Military Railroads extended their activities to two new railroads, the Richmond & York River and the City Point and Petersburg.
These roads occupied the track from Richmond east toward City Point. They were reconstructed by the Construction Corps, as were the wharves at City Point. There was a tremendous build-up of supplies at City Point in support of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's siege of Petersburg, beginning in late 1864.
Weber concluded in his seminal work, "The chief significance of the work done by the Military Railroads of Virginia lay not only in the active supply of armies in the field, but the working out of principles of operation and standards of efficiency" that were applied in other theaters of the war.
A Wealth of History Resides in Railroad Records at NARA
The saga of the U.S. Military Railroads is well known. What is not so well known is one of the most significant original sources of information concerning the history and operation of this railroad.
After the war, the records of the U.S. Military Railroads, dating from 1860 to 1867, were transferred to the Quartermaster General's Office. The records, totaling more than 100 cubic feet in 273 records series, give fairly complete documentation of Federal control of railroads during the Civil War. The records are important for the history of railroad companies used as military lines, particularly in the South. These records are now part of the records of the Office of the Quartermaster General (Record Group 92). The textual records are in the custody of the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Military Railroads records consist of the records of the Headquarters, Office of Military Railroads, Washington, D.C.; U.S. Military Railroads of Virginia, Alexandria, Virginia; U.S. Military Railroads, Division of the Mississippi, Nashville, Tennessee; and the U.S. Military Railroads, Division of the Missouri.
There are books of letters sent from headquarters, incoming correspondence, and the volumes of compilations of reports received from the field; all have their registers and indexes. Records of the field organizations and those of the headquarters office are arranged in general by location of railroads and include daily work reports, freight books, engine ledgers, labor and material accounts, and much miscellaneous material.
One of the most important documents in the records is the "Report of Brig. Gen. D. C. McCallum, Director and General Manager, Military Railroads, United States, from 1862 to 1866." This lengthy report detailed the history and operations of the U.S. Military Railroads for the duration of the war.
Another extremely important report was the "Report of Operations" by General Haupt for the time that he was connected with the U.S. Military Railroads. This report colorfully and eloquently gives Haupt's version of operations in northern Virginia up to Gettysburg. Both of these reports are included in the Reports, 1863–1867 (Entry 1528) in the headquarters records. Other significant reports in this series include the Final Report by J. J. Moore, Department of Virginia, February 1866; miscellaneous reports of operations of military railroads received by General McCallum, 1862–1863; and General McCallum's special report of the House Resolution of June 1866, July 1866.
The correspondence between Haupt, Sturgis, and other military commanders during Second Manassas is included in the Letters Received by Col. H. Haupt, Chief of Construction and Transportation, 1862 (Entry 1509). Among the telegrams is the Halleck dispatch of August 23 reiterating Haupt's authority to run the railroads as he saw fit, as well as a telegram to President Lincoln outlining the situation immediately after the battle.
The Telegrams Sent by Gen. D. C. McCallum, March–May 1862 (Entry 1511) includes several telegrams to Gen. N. P. Banks in March describing the acquisition, as quickly as possible, of timber for the purpose of reconstructing trestles on the Manassas Gap Railroad. Also explained was the difficulty in obtaining water for the locomotives, which delayed trains in both directions.
Another series of telegrams is the Telegrams Sent, 1862–1864 (Entry 1512). This series includes telegrams sent by McCallum and Haupt to military commanders asking for men and supplies for the Construction Corps, particularly in the reconstruction of the Aquia Creek bridge.
Printed annual reports on the operations of the railroad by McCallum, dated September 30, 1863, and September 30, 1865, and by E. L. Wentz, Chief Engineer and General Superintendent, dated June 30, 1864, are in the Annual Reports of Gen. D.C. McCallum, 1863–1865 (Entry 1526).
Also of interest in this series is a printed report titled "In the Matter of Southern Railroads: Brief of the Questions and Matters at Issue Between the Railroad Companies and the United States." This report tells of the restoration of the southern railroads to their owners after the cessation of hostilities without charge for the large expenditure in repairing them and protecting them from destruction at the hands of the Confederates. Also listed in the report are the sales of rolling stock and other equipment to the original railroad companies and the various objections to the same railroad companies to having to pay out that money.
"A Sketch of the Origin and Organization of the United States Military Railroad Service," compiled from official records, is in the History of U.S. Military Railroads, 1862 (Entry 1525). This short report gives a good rendition of the beginning of the railroad and the reasons for its existence, such as the protection of troops traveling through Baltimore to Washington in 1861.
Some records that are more routine in nature are the Conductor's Reports, 1863–1864 (Entry 1581). These trifolded reports give the train number, point of embarkation and debarkation, the date of the movement, and the times of departure and arrival. It also gives the name of the engineer and brakeman and the types of cars on the train and their contents. These voluminous records total 60 cubic feet. Also included in these records are the U.S. Military Railroad Timetables, 1862–1864 (Entry 1580).
One timetable, in particular, that has been well preserved is the Irregular Time Table No. 1 of the Orange and Alexandria Line between Alexandria and Union Mills, Virginia. The times are listed coming east and going west on the line.
The Miscellaneous Reports, 1863–1865 (Entry 1582) is another good example of the mountain of routine material in these records. This series includes 49 cubic feet of reports such as the machine shops' accounts of material, reports of work done, reports of passenger receipts, wharf master's reports, telegraph train reports, daily reports of freight sent and received, weekly reports of men employed, reports of the location of engines, reports of cars and trains sent and forwarded by and sent to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and reports of labor and work done.
Finally, the National Archives has custody of many photographs and maps of the U.S. Military Railroads, and these are located at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
These records are a gold mine for the researcher interested in Civil War railroads. Historically significant letters and telegrams, annual reports by Generals McCallum and Haupt, and maps and photographs of the railroads are mixed in with the routine and more mundane records such as conductor's reports, lists of employees, daily journals of events, and ledgers of accounts. In these records—some dusty, some faded, and all spilling over with history—is the story of the U.S. Military Railroads during the Civil War.
David A. Pfeiffer is an archivist with the Civilian Records Staff, Textual Archives Services Division, of the National Archives at College Park. He specializes in transportation records and has published articles and given numerous presentations concerning railroad records in the National Archives. He is the author of Records Relating to North American Railroads (Reference Information Paper 91) and is a frequent contributor to Prologue.
Note on Sources
There are many excellent secondary sources on the history of the U.S. Military Railroads. The two main sources used in the first part of this article are Thomas Weber, The Northern Railroads in the Civil War, 1861–1865 (New York: King's Crown Press, 1952) and George Edgar Turner, Victory Rode the Rails: the Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953). These works are among the most important sources of information on Civil War railroads.
Other useful sources are John E. Clark, Jr., Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), particularly on the movement of the 11th and 12th Corps to Chattanooga. A very good overview on railroads during the Civil War is John P. Hankey, "The Railroad War: How the Iron Road Changed the American Civil War," Trains, 71 (March 2011). Also, Michael Leavy's new book, Railroads in the Civil War: An Illustrated History (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2010), and a volume by Roy and Arthur Meredith, Mr. Lincoln's Military Railroads: A Pictorial History of the United States Civil War Railroads, 1861–1865 (New York: Norton, 1979), are good sources of images of Civil War railroads. Two other sources on Civil War railroads that provided background information are Jeffrey N. Lash, Destroyer of the Iron Horse: General Joseph E. Johnston and Confederate Rail Transport, 1861–1865 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1991), and Robert C. Black, The Railroads of the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952).
Kenneth W. Munden and Henry Putney Beers, The Union: A Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1986) provides a summary of the U.S. Military Railroad records at the National Archives.