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World’s First Military Railroad

By Arthur Candenquist
12/27/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

To feed its hungry soldiers, the Confederacy constructed a railway with materiel captured by “Stonewall” Jackson.

“Stonewall” Jackson was never one to overlook a military opportunity, so he jumped at the chance to seize railroad equipment near Harpers Ferry in 1861. The Confederacy made innovative use of the captured materiel, using it to build the world’s first railroad designed solely for military purposes: the Centreville Military Railroad. The rail line did not exist very long, but it played a critical role in helping the newly formed Confederate Army of the Potomac survive its first Virginia winter.

In late October 1861, that Confederate army, later renamed the Army of Northern Virginia, was commanded by Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston, settling into winter quarters in entrenchments around Centreville in Fairfax County, Va. Six miles to the southwest was Manassas Junction, a vital railroad facility on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad in Prince William County, where the Manassas Gap Railroad coming from the Shenandoah Valley intersected the O&A Railroad.

From Centreville, the 40,000 Confederates could observe Federal advances from Washington but still remain fairly close to the supply railhead at Manassas Junction. Still, all supplies bound for Centreville had to be hauled from the railroad station by wagon over the Manassas-Centreville Road. That wasn’t much of a problem in good weather, but the fall and winter of 1861-62 were apparently some of the wettest Virginians had experienced in years.

By late fall, the red clay road had been churned into muck by heavy supply wagons. Soldiers corduroyed the thoroughfare by placing logs transversely across it, but that did not prevent the road from becoming a quagmire, with mud 2 feet deep in some places. By November 1861, Major Alfred Barbour, quartermaster of the Confederacy’s Potomac District, realized that the exhausted six-horse and mule teams bringing supplies from the railroad were consuming as much or more in forage as they were delivering. Something would have to be done quickly; the men and animals at Centreville faced a choice: Retreat or starve.

Johnston and Barbour decided to construct a railroad spur line connecting Manassas Junction and Centreville to ease the problems of supply. Labor for surveying and constructing the new railway was obtained by advertising for skilled workers in the Richmond newspapers and by using slaves from nearby plantations or those actually owned by existing railroads.

On November 30, the Daily Richmond Examiner reported: “We are informed that labourers are being hired, through the Quartermaster’s Office, for the immediate construction of a railroad from Manassas to Centreville. As it is estimated that the work will require some two months for its completion, a strong indication is afforded of the intention of our forces to winter in the region of the Potomac.”

Because Johnston and Barbour had no experience in railroad construction, they turned to Captain Thomas Robinson Sharp, assistant quartermaster. Born in Schuylkill County, Pa., Sharp had been raised in a railroad family. His father, Thomas P., was general superintendent of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad from 1840-1853, and had served as general superintendent of several other railroads. Trained as a civil engineer, young Thomas entered railroad service in April 1853, when he was appointed assistant to the general superintendent of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, beginning a run of service in managing or assisting in the management of five Southern railroads during the eight years preceding the Civil War.

After the conflict began, Sharp had helped Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson haul captured B&O locomotives, cars, switches, rails, telegraph wire, tools and other equipment over Virginia’s Valley Pike from Martinsburg to Strasburg, and later to Staunton, for use on Confederate railroads. For his dedicated service, Sharp received a commission to captain on October 15, 1861, and he served for a time in early 1862 as Jackson’s chief quartermaster. It seems likely that Jackson recommended Sharp to Johnston and Barbour to help with the railroad construction from Manassas to Centreville.

On December 14, 1861, the Richmond Daily Dispatch published a report dated December 11 from its special correspondent, “Bohemian,” that concluded: “Contracts have just been entered into for building a railroad from Manassas to this point [Centreville]. The line has been surveyed through, and is now being leveled. The grade will be heavy. Manassas is one hundred and sixty-three feet above the level of Bull Run, and is considerably higher than the hills of Centreville. The distance is six miles. It is four miles from the Station [Manassas] to Bull Run, and two miles from there to this point. The work will be one of great accommodation, as a large portion of the army will remain in this immediate vicinity.”

Construction of the military railroad began before the end of December. Anecdotal evidence of the success of Major Barbour’s efforts to secure slave labor to help with the work can be found in a dispatch to the New Orleans Crescent dated December 24, 1861. That same report would also appear in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on January 10, 1862. The papers noted that while P.G.T. Beauregard was on his way through northern Virginia on his way to Baltimore, “Some negroes at work on the roads and fortifications took it into their heads, one night, to serenade General Beauregard.”

On January 6, 1862, Colonel A.P. Hill of the 13th Virginia Infantry wrote from Manassas to an old family friend, Dr. S.H. Stout, of Nashville, and enclosed a sketch of the Manassas-Centreville area. The drawing shows Manassas and Centreville, and the location of troops under Kirby Smith, James Longstreet and Earl Van Dorn. Bull Run appears prominently in the drawing, as does the stone bridge carrying the Warrenton Turnpike across the creek, and both the Orange & Alexandria (O&A) and the “R.R. (new)” between Manassas and Centreville. That letter, with its brief mention of a “new” line, represents the earliest confirmed reference to construction of the Centreville Military Railroad.

The directors of the O&A had disapproved the use of their rails for the spur line, so Captain Sharp arranged to send rails from a warehouse in Winchester appropriated from the B&O via the Manassas Gap R.R. On December 22, Jackson issued an order that read, in part, “Capt. T.R. Sharp, A.Q.M., will deliver at Strasburg, subject to the order of Genl. J.E. Johnson, Four miles of Rail Road Iron from Balto. & Ohio R.R.”

To expedite construction, workers hewed crossties from the wooded areas through which the railroad passed, installing them at intervals roughly twice that seen on a standard roadbed. Ballast, the gravel normally used for stability and drainage, was not placed in and around the ties on the military railroad.

Quartermaster Department engineers from Richmond supervised the construction of the railroad trestle built across Bull Run between Cub Run and Mitchell’s Ford. The trestle was a low wooden structure vulnerable to any sudden rise in the level of the stream due to heavy rains or rapid melting of snow and ice. Captain Sharp was well aware that such freshets had been known to wash away railway bridges, but time was of the essence.

These construction anomalies and the absence of permanent terminals on the railway point to the fact that Sharp never intended the Centreville Military Railroad to be anything but a temporary measure. He must have assumed the line would be abandoned after the spring thaw, when the highways once again became passable. It was also highly unlikely the army would remain at Centreville when active military operations resumed in the spring.

On January 27, Allan Pinkerton, the chief of Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s secret service, interviewed an unnamed deserter from the 6th Louisiana Infantry. Pinkerton, who reported the interview under the pseudonym Major E.J. Allen, wrote that the deserter had informed him: “No troops known to have lately left for other parts of the country. Mostly in winter quarters. Troops well armed. Roads bad. Railroad from Manassas to Centreville progressing; 300 miners’ at work on it. Provisions plenty.” The report of this interview, published in the Official Records, reveals that the Federals were aware of the railroad’s existence before construction was completed.

The Centreville Military Railroad left the O&A main line just north of the junction with the Manassas Gap R.R. and ran northward for five miles. It paralleled the Manassas-Centreville Road for a short distance north of Manassas before crossing Liberia Plantation, in Prince William County. Then it sloped down ward toward Bull Run, which it crossed on a wooden trestle a little more than 300 yards downstream from where Cub Run empties into Bull Run. The line then ascended higher ground north of Bull Run through rocky cuts that had to be blasted with black powder. It terminated in a field on the farm of James Murtaugh, about a mile south of the angle formed by the junction of the Manassas-Centreville Road with the Warrenton Turnpike at Centreville.

The railroad began operating with cars and locomotives “borrowed” from the O&A and the Manassas Gap railroads in the first week of February 1862. But finding sufficient cars and engines remained an issue even as operations commenced. On March 1, Major Barbour wrote Sharp, advising him of his duties:

Captain: You have this day been placed on duty at Manassas in charge of the Rail Road transportation of this Department. You are expected to require and command all the Engines & Cars necessary to carry the persons & stores of this department when needed. You will confer at once with the various Rail Roads & bring here all the cars to be had. You will have conveyed at once and without any sort of delay from this place, all Qr Masters, Hospital, Ordnance Stores and Commissary Supplies, in the order named. You will then send off all the extra baggage of the army. The passenger train of every morning going off towards Gordonsville will be retained for the Sick & wounded Soldiers, with the exception of one car for Ladies, to be retained, until the train reaches the Moore Hospital. In case no ladies go on board the cars before they reach Moore’s Hospital, the reserved car will then be filled with sick. You will please have full and free interviews with Maj. Cole, Chf. Com’y, and find out his wants. Do not fail to send daily carloads of grain & supplies, to Centreville & Union Mills. Keep the [Rail] Road to Centreville in good condition. Report to me daily, what you have sent off, and to what places. I will see you daily and give further instructions.

But just eight days later, on March 9, the lifespan of the world’s first military railroad came to an inglorious end. Spring was approaching, and with it a new Federal offensive to Richmond. General Johnston issued orders that day to evacuate the entrenchments around Centreville and withdraw to more defensible positions south of the Rappahannock River. The Centreville Military Railroad performed its final function evacuating men, animals and supplies from Centreville to Manassas Junction. On March 11, the retreating Confederates burned or destroyed anything of use at Centreville and Manassas, including the railway bridge across Bull Run, some of the rolling stock and the terminus of the railroad at the Murtaugh farm. By the end of July, all the rails had been taken up and returned to the B&O.

Today there are few indications that the Centreville Military Railroad ever existed. In the 1930s the National Park Service placed a sign on the former Murtaugh Farm: “TERMINUS OF MILITARY RAILROAD—Here was the end of the track of the Confederate Military Railroad. From Manassas Junction trains were run to this point, where supplies were unloaded for the troops in cantonments around Centreville. In the vicinity of the railroad terminus, on December 9, 1861, two soldiers of Wheat’s 1st Louisiana “Louisiana Tigers” suffered military execution. Their bodies are buried near the base of this old elm.” The sign rotted away in the early 1980s.

In 1996 the Centreville Historical Society placed a bronze plaque at the terminus site. Nearby, on the extension of the Old Centreville Road, there is a silver-and-black Virginia Historical Marker commemorating the end of the rail line, although it has the date wrong by a year. In Manassas a marker across from the downtown post office gives a brief history of the railroad, accompanied by a map showing the 1861 fortifications and landmarks overlaid on a modern map of the Manassas area. There are also some segments of the old railroad bed near Centreville. Efforts are currently underway to protect and preserve these remnants.

 

Arthur Candenquist, who writes from Amissville, Va., has spent long hours tramping the ground once traversed by the Centreville Military Railroad.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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