The new sesquicentennial exhibition at Baltimore’s B&O Railroad Museum recalls how ‘The War Came by Train’
AT 7:05 A.M. ON OCTOBER 17, 1859, a frenzy of clacking Morse code hummed down the line from Monocacy Junction, Md., to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s Camden Station headquarters, relaying an urgent message from a conductor named A.J. Phelps:
Express train bound east under my charge was stopped this morning at Harpers Ferry by armed Abolitionists. They have possession of the bridge and of the arms and armory of the United States. Myself and baggagemaster have been fired at…and Hayward, the colored porter, is wounded very severely….They say they have come to free the slaves, and intend to do it at all hazards.
Phelps was alerting railroad officials to the start of John Brown’s Raid, one of the final trigger points of the Civil War. Officials reacted skeptically to Phelps’ warning, but soon sent a group of Frederick, Md., militiamen by train to the bucolic town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers—the first known use of a U.S. railway to transport troops in response to a crisis. Another train arrived that evening carrying future Confederate icons Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, leading a unit of U.S. Marines that would crush the raid the following morning. A gallery showcase about Harpers Ferry, featuring several intriguing artifacts, is one of the highlights of “The War Came by Train,” a new exhibition at Baltimore’s B&O Railroad Museum that runs until May 2015.
Operating 513 miles of track that looked like stitches along the divided nation’s borders, the B&O was the country’s first commercial long-distance railroad, providing a major transportation and communications connection between Washington, D.C., and the rest of the North. In the coming conflict, the B&O’s 236 locomotives, 3,579 rail cars and 4,000 employees would prove both a valuable asset and vulnerable target. From the Baltimore riots of April 1861 to the passing of Lincoln’s funeral train in April 1865, the B&O found itself a witness to and participant in many of the war’s major events—including 143 raids and battles. “We’re fortunate to have the largest assemblage of Civil War–era railroad equipment in the world to help relate this period of the B&O’s history,” notes Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of the museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. “Our collection includes eight locomotives and some rolling stock that actually served during the war.”
Those iron horses—such as the 67,800-pound No. 147 “Thatcher Perkins” built at the B&O’s Mount Clare shop in 1863— sit on display in the facility’s mammoth National Landmark Roundhouse. The 22-sided, fully enclosed brick-and-iron structure covering more than an acre and rising 125 feet into the sky manages to dwarf the dozens of steam-age behemoths housed under its cathedral-like roof. The rolling stock on view includes B&O innovations such as a fireproof, fortified iron boxcar built for the war effort. Although visitors aren’t invited “all aboard,” they can examine the exhibits up close in life-sized dioramas depicting wartime railroading, from passenger car service to freight delivery companies. Interpretive presentations introduce diverse figures such as former slave John Boston, who worked on rail construction and repair as a member of a contraband labor force, and Captain Thomas R. Sharp, CSA, whose feat of dragging locomotives and stock captured in 1861 by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson down the Valley Turnpike to the railhead at Strasburg, Va., so impressed B&O President John W. Garrett that he hired the former Rebel officer as master of transportation after the war.
The roundhouse exhibits will remain on display for the duration of “The War Came by Train,” with new items and themes “layered on each year.” Artifacts in the gallery space will rotate annually to reflect the corresponding war year. In addition, there are Civil War–related scale models, videos, interactive kid-friendly exhibits and a room dedicated to another 19th-century technology closely linked to railroads and the war—the telegraph. Guests can also enjoy a narrated 1.5-mile train ride to Mount Clare Mansion, an 18th-century estate that became the site of Camp Carroll, the largest Union encampment in Baltimore.
The gallery’s initial exhibits focus on Baltimore and the B&O as the war’s “first front” in 1861. A variety of significant historical objects are on view from the museum’s own vast collection as well as from the Smithsonian, other institutions and private collectors, many rarely seen or on public display for the first time. For example, next to General Joseph Johnston’s spurs and bridle bit rests Jackson’s Lefaucheux Brevete revolver, on loan from the Museum of the Confederacy. Wilson estimates the famous firearm “hasn’t been displayed for 20 years.”
Perched above the pistol is an even mightier weapon—a 10k gold mechanical pencil the B&O president used in issuing orders that so influenced the struggle that Lincoln called him “the right arm of the Federal Government in the aid he rendered” to the Union.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.