Northeast Virginia’s railroads showcased Civil War creativity that was both constructive and destructive, and originated with soldiers and civilians as well as with generals and other top officials. Prototype, customized, or infrequently seen structures, equipment, extensions, alternatives, and practices appeared along or were proposed for the region’s iron arteries. Those often offered previews, with technical or procedural novelty that had appeared along one line reappearing along another. What follows is a sampler of the lesser-known, novel developments during the first year of wartime operations along the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad (RF&P).
At the time of Fort Sumter’s bombardment, the RF&P’s uppermost segment extended 14 miles north of Fredericksburg and the Rappahannock River. The railroad then lacked a trackside telegraph-line, and its managers feared surprise by Federals coming ashore at Acquia Creek landing. That place marked the RF&P’s northern depot, at the mouth of the creek on the Potomac River. Acquia boasted a hotel; an engine house; fishery buildings; and a long, shed-roofed railroad wharf where in peacetime passengers and freight had transferred between trains and steamboats.
On April 18, 1861, three days after President Abraham Lincoln called for armed suppression of the lower South’s rebellion, the RF&P’s Superintendent of Road instructed his representative in Fredericksburg to implement an early-warning system in the event of threatening moves by Union forces:
If any of the citizens exhibit any alarm [emphasis original] you can tell them that we will keep the Engine at [Acquia] Creek fired up all the time so that in case…any vessel come[s] in sight that looks suspicious or anything else[,] we will run the train direct to Freds’burg to give the alarm to the citizens….
On May 14-15, 1861, either a train-borne alert or its horseback equivalent triggered the dispatch from Fredericksburg of a hastily organized, armed reconnaissance by railroad, as recalled by an officer in the Virginia State Forces:
[T]he enemy sent down an old passenger steamboat, the Mt . Vernon, which had formerly been used to carry the mail between Aquia and Washington City, no doubt to see what we were about. [A] messenger was dispatched with the news. Ample time was allowed, during a ride of sixteen miles, for him to imagine all kinds of wonderful things; and by the time he reached head-quarters [at Fredericksburg] it was asserted that a fabulous number of vessels of war of the largest class were landing untold hosts of Yankees at the Creek; that they had already captured the works, and were advancing rapidly by way of the railroad on Fredericksburg. [The town] was thrown into alarm and excitement. Trains were ordered to be fired up. All the troops…turned out under arms, while staff officers dashed about in a manner truly wonderful to behold. General Ruggles’s forces had by this time been increased to five or six companies of infantry.
At the RF&P depot and yard in Fredericksburg, the half dozen companies
embarked on the cars. A great crowd, apparently about half the people of Fredericksburg, assembled…. Mothers, sisters and wives were taking most affecting leave of their departing friends…. Whisky was abundant at that time, and its use to-night unrestricted. Heart-rending scenes of parting were witnessed on every side, while a military band, consisting of an old drum and some three or four brass horns, wailed forth ” Dixie”…. At nine o’clock P. M. we moved off, creeping along at a snail’s pace, and frequently stopping as if we feared a hidden foe behind every bush and fence-corner. Just before daylight we arrived at the Creek to find that the alarm was false, and that no enemy had been there at all.
The farcical aspect of this operation notwithstanding, it was one of the earliest instances of a reconnaissance-in-force via railroad in Civil War Virginia, being launched in sincere expectation of meeting the enemy en route to Acquia. It predated by a month a similarly-sized expedition launched by the Federals towards Vienna station on the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad, where a bloody denouement on June 17, 1861 brought far greater notoriety.
During ship-to-shore fighting on May 31 and June 1, 1861, Southern batteries situated at Acquia Landing dueled with Federal gunboats. By that date or soon thereafter, Virginia State Forces had made their defense of the railroad in-depth by creating the nucleus of a fallback position south of Acquia Landing, at the railroad’s Potomac Creek trestle. A list of the “Naval Batteries” prepared for “the defence of the State of Virginia” notes that an “8-inch Gun” had been emplaced at “Potomac Creek Bridge” by June 10, 1861, the crew overseen by Commander R. D. Thorburn.
The fortification at Potomac Creek bridge likely never fired a shot in anger. In the wake of a Confederate withdrawal in the spring of 1862—generally bloodless, with a few exceptions—Union managers inherited control of the railroad’s Acquia-Fredericksburg segment and made Fredericksburg their southernmost operational depot. As described below, they probably extended that operational zone to Guiney’s Station for a day or two. (My spelling of station names follows the antebellum usage of the railroad company in most of its official reports, and avoids variants such as “Guinea” and “Aquia.”)
Federal military traffic along the RF&P south of the Rappahannock and through Fredericksburg began around May 7, 1862, with muscle-traction temporarily substituting for steam-traction in whole or in part. In a diary entry for that day, Union General Marsena Patrick recorded supervising the dispatch of at least one truck—a set of four railroad wheels—across the river to serve as a vehicle to convey timber from woodlots just south of the town to the site of the Rappahannock railroad bridge, then undergoing reconstruction in the wake of its burning by the departing Confederates. (Patrick merely lent occasional assistance; civil engineer Daniel Stone was in overall charge of the bridge reconstruction.) Other trucks were dispatched to the work area at the span’s other abutment, opposite the town. Evidently, a derelict locomotive was found in Fredericksburg and returned to service with a blue-clad crew, also to bring timber from the southern woodlots.
With the bridge nearing completion and actual trains ready to cross into town, the Federals learned that retreating Southerners or their civilian sympathizers had placed artillery shells “under the tracks about the depot grounds.” Soldiers removed a number and hoped they had not missed any. None had been detonated by the passage of the truck or resurrected locomotive.
Herman Haupt, who was then an aide-de-camp in charge of Department of the Rappahannock railroad construction and transportation, took no chances and deployed what was perhaps America’s earliest vehicular land-mine detonator. The Federals’ first southbound train to cross the bridge and traverse the Fredericksburg railyard, on May 19 or May 20, 1862, was composed of a locomotive pushing “a car very heavily laden with scrap iron in front, so as to explode any torpedoes before the engine reached them,” Haupt would later write. None were exploded by the mine-detonator.
On May 20, a saboteur attempted unsuccessfully (by means not specified in the ensuing report) to derail a train moving between the reopened Rappahannock bridge and the Fredericksburg station buildings, then “eluded apprehension by running into the crowd.” The town’s military governor quickly warned its civilian mayor, Montgomery Slaughter, to discourage his constituents from assembling near the tracks “if they would avoid the chances of suffering [the consequences] from any recurrence.”
The would-be saboteur may have been a member of a Home Guard raised the previous year. They had not been lacking in ardor. According to guardsman Bradford Ripley Alden Scott, their ranks consisted of “older men and boys under my father’s command for scout and guard duty.” Scott was then all of nine years old, and had from time to time been “posted as sentry at our [northern] end” of the Rappahannock railroad bridge, adjacent to his home, in 1861. In the spring of 1862, when Federal troops first arrived at that north abutment—the Confederates having by then burned the bridge–and prior to crossing into Fredericksburg, a still-bellicose Scott selected one Northerner as a target and “started for my gun to try a shot” from the town side of the river. “But old man Layton, former bridge watchman, reproved and forbade me.”
With the replacement bridge erected and the railyard secured for Northern arms, a Union work train and crew proceeded six miles further south, beyond Fredericksburg. In half a day, on May 26 or 27, 1862, they erected a prefabricated span over Massaponax Creek. This was evidently the first fully prefabricated, military bridge installed on the RF&P.
The unique structure at Massaponax supported what was destined to become one of the area’s least-known Civil War operations. Today, we often understand the Peninsula Campaign’s grand tactics around Fredericksburg as culminating in President Abraham Lincoln’s abrupt cancellation, via a May 24, 1862 telegram, of a plan to dispatch Gen. Irvin McDowell’s 40,000 Federals there to reinforce Gen. George B. McClellan’s forces near Richmond. Yet on May 25, 1862, McDowell actually launched a scaled-back but still sizeable movement south from Fredericksburg, sending Gen. John Gibbon’s brigade across the Rappahannock and beyond the town, along the Richmond Stage Road. A group of three other brigades, meanwhile, moved south on a generally parallel course, along the Telegraph Road and nearby thoroughfares. Billed initially as a reconnaissance-in-force, this operation had carried the Federals on the Telegraph Road some eight miles beyond Fredericksburg by May 27. By May 26, the troops on the Stage Road had marched about the same distance south of the town to a bivouac point that one of Gibbon’s regiments, the Second Wisconsin, dubbed “Camp Ginnie’s Station,” situated about four miles from the RF&P depot of that name. On the afternoon of May 28, Lincoln asked McDowell to consider expanding this limited advance into a linkup with McClellan’s northernmost troops near Hanover Court House.
The RF&P Railroad lay between the Federal prongs dispatched by McDowell. The Ninth Virginia Cavalry had evacuated Guiney’s Station on May 25. The Union Harris Light Cavalry occupied it almost immediately afterwards—briefly on the morning of May 26. Other Federals evidently followed the Harris Light to secure Guiney’s for Union railroading. From at or near Camp Ginnie’s Station on May 28, another member of the Second Wisconsin reported, “The railroad bridge at this point was completed last evening and the cars have reached the station with army supplies”—presumably a reference to the brand-new span at Massaponax Creek, and Guiney’s, the next depot and water-station beyond the bridge. He also reported that his regiment had received orders to be ready to resume the southward march “at a moments notice.” (Further evidence for Guiney’s being the new railroading terminus is found in Herman Haupt’s description of the rebuilt Massaponax bridge as important for giving McDowell’s forces “25 miles of continuous railroad over which supplies could be thrown”: almost precisely the length of the track between Acquia Landing and Guiney’s Station.)
Yet the probable, short-lived Federal terminus at Guiney’s—operational a year before Gen. T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s death in the office of a trackside plantation there—proved the high water-mark for southbound Union railroading on the RF&P during the Peninsula Campaign (and, for that matter, during the war). On May 29, 1862, McDowell withdrew his troops to Fredericksburg and directed his primary attentions towards renewed threats in the Shenandoah Valley. The date of the removal or burning of the Masssaponax bridge is unknown.
In the long run, too, the Federals would be the principal enemy of their own handiwork along the RF&P, destroying bridges, warehouses, wharfage, and rolling stock during three withdrawals from the region: August-September 1862, June 1863, and May 1864.
Noel G. Harrison
Special thanks to Eric Mink for research assistance, and Mike O’Donnell of O’Donnell Publications for encouraging a previous incarnation of this post. For information on early war operations on the RF&P south of Fredericksburg and Guiney’s Station, see Confederate Railroads, an outstanding website and database, here (be sure to select “VA” from the ”Railroads” dropdown-menu at upper left).
Sources in order of use above–early warning system: William N. Bragg to E.H. Chandler, 18 April 1861. Copy in collection of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP; May 1861 reconnaissance: [Bushrod Washington Frobel,] “Field and Camp…” Scott’s Monthly Magazine (Sept. 1866), p. 710; fallback battery at Potomac Creek bridge: H.W. Flournoy, ed., Calendar of Virginia State Papers… 11: 168; trucks and derelict locomotive: Alan D. Gaff, On Many a Bloody Field: Four Years in the Iron Brigade, p. 123; David S. Sparks, ed., Inside Lincoln’s Army: The Diary of Marsena Rudolph Patrick, pp. 75-76; mine detonator and dates of Rappahannock bridge: Herman Haupt, Reminiscences of General Herman Haupt, pp. 47, 49; Official Records 51: 1st part: 74-75; sabotage attempt: Official Records 12: 3rd part: 211; home guard and Bradford Scott’s ardor: Bradford Ripley Alden Scott, Memoirs of the Civil War, “Boyhood Escapades,” “The Advance on Fredericksburg,” at http://mck9web.com/brascott/index.html dates and description of Massaponax bridge: Haupt, Reminiscences, pp. 50, 53; Official Records 12: 1st part: 78; McDowell’s advance on May 25-28: “From the Second Wis. Regiment,” May 26, 1862, “May 28, 1862,” both at http://www.secondwi.com/fromthefront/2d%20wis/1862/may.htm ; Official Records 51: 1st part: 75-76; Edmund J. Raus, Banners South: A Union Community at War, pp. 129-30, 132-33; occupation of and probable railroading to Guiney’s: Richard Armstrong, ed., The Journal of Charles R. Chewning Company E 9 Virginia Cavalry C.S.A., p. 3; John McDowell (Harris Light Cavalry), diary, May 26, 1862, copy in collection of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP; “May 28, 1862,” at http://www.secondwi.com/fromthefront/2d%20wis/1862/may.htm ; Official Records 12: 1st part: 78.