B&O Railroad’s Tracks Led to Civil War’s Front Line

Modern-day Wheeling area residents have a nostaglic view of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad as a carrier of passengers and freight, but for citizens in the Civil War era, the rail line played a strategic role in the war effort.

Dan Toomey, author of “The War Came by Train, The B&O Railroad During the Civil War,” appeared at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling Tuesday, July 29, to expound upon the concept that the “first front” of the war was the main line of the B&O. Sean Duffy, Lunch With Books coordinator, said 112 people attended the program.

During the initial 100 days of the war, the B&O Railroad “was the first military and political objective of the war,” said Toomey, who is the guest curator at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore for a five-year exhibit, “The War Came By Train,” commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

By 1860, the B&O had 514 miles of track, with its main line running from Baltimore to Wheeling, he said. The Washington branch, a 30-mile line, provided the only rail connection to the nation’s capital.

The B&O operated 4,000 cars and locomotives and employed about 6,500 people at that time, he said. By contrast, the state of Virginia was served by 12 railroads which had 1,000 fewer rail cars than the B&O .

Baltimore, with a population of 212,000, was the third largest city in the United States and the largest industrial city in the South in 1860, he said. In comparison, Richmond, Va., was home to only 38,000 people.

Toomey, a seventh-generation Marylander, regards the Civil War as ” the first modern war” and “the last romantic war.”

Railroads (with 31,000 miles of track) and telegraph companies (with 50,000 miles of lines) were in use when the war started, Toomey noted. “Combined, the telegraph and the railroad conquered time and distance on the battlefield and changed civilization,” he commented.

The railroad’s vital role came into play in Baltimore from the war’s inception. On April 18, 1861 – six days after rebels fired on Fort Sumter, S.C. – five companies of Pennsylvania volunteers traveled by train to Baltimore. A small pro-Southern mob gathered, and a free black man was hit on the head, becoming the first casualty of the Civil War on the streets of Baltimore, Toomey said.

On April 17, the First Massachusetts, formed in Boston, became the first full regiment to answer President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Toomey said 800 men traveled 450 miles on seven railroads and arrived in Washington, D.C., in 48 hours.

Baltimore, which was serviced by four railroads, had a law that no locomotive could go through the city. As a result, each rail car had to be hooked up to a team of horses and pulled through the city, he explained. Baltimore also was a “mob town,” with a mixture of people including pro-Union sympathizers, pro-Southerners and gangs. As Maryland teetered on secession, city officials tried to maintain a period of armed neutrality.

On April 19, 1861, as rail cars were moving, one at a time, through Pratt Street, 220 men were cut off at the station. Fights broke out and four soldiers were killed in what Toomey argued was the first land battle of the Civil War.

Benjamin Butler, a political general from Massachusetts, became the Union’s first hero of the war, Toomey related. When the Eighth Massachusetts troops arrived in Philadelphia, they were told they could not get to Baltimore by train. Butler captured a boat on the Susquehanna River and sailed to Annapolis, Md., where his troops landed. Butler took over the U.S. Naval Academy and the state capitol.

At Annapolis Junction, Butler created the first war train, armed with howitzers and troops, to rebuild tracks and bridges. That action allowed the Seventh New York troops to travel to Washington. “Ben Butler is the hero of the day,” Toomey said.

In mid-May 1861, Butler uncoupled half of a B&O train and rolled into Baltimore City, where he occupied Federal Hill with artillery. His actions saved the city, the state and the eastern end of the B&O for the Union, Toomey said.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Panhandle, Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson stopped all trains and seized 56 locomotives and 300 train cars. His action constituted “the largest train robbery in the hisotry of the world,” Toomey remarked.

The Confederacy didn’t have the Union’s rail power and built no railroads during the war. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Confederate Capt. Thomas Sharp, “a brilliant railroad guy,” jacked up a locomotive, put rollers under its front, attached the train to 40-horse teams and pulled it along the turnpike from Winchester, Va., to Richmond. In that operation, 14 locomotives and 45 rail cars were moved to Richmond, Toomey said. After the war, 12 1/2 locomotives were returned to the B&O, he added.

In western Virginia, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee sent troops to Grafton, Union Gen. Benjamin F. Kelley, a pre-war employee of the B&O, and his men defended the town. The Confederates headed to Philippi, but Kelley led a two-pronged attack and drove the rebels off. The confrontation at Philippi marked “the first land battle according to all my friends in West Virginia,” Toomey said. Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s troops hit the Confederates and pushed them back to Rich Mountain, toward the Shenandoah Valley, and “the railroad was saved,” he added.