Railroads – The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad: Confederate Target, Crucial Union Lifeline

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (“B&O”) was chartered in 1828 as one of the first commercial railroads in the world. Construction began that year, connecting Annapolis, Maryland to Wheeling in the far northwestern corner of antebellum Virginia. The B&O eventually expanded into thirteen different states. By 1861, the B&O maintained 188 miles of track in Virginia and offered a direct connection to both eastern and western Virginia. It followed the course of the Potomac River for most of its route, passing through the important logistics center of Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. At the outset of the Civil War in 1861, the B&O owned 236 locomotives, 128 passenger coaches, 3,451 rail cars, and 513 miles of railroad, all in states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

John W. Garrett

In 1858, John W. Garrett became president of the B&O. The colorful Garrett played an important role in the internecine drama that was about to play out. Although many Marylanders had Southern sympathies, Garrett was a strong Union supporter, and he was determined that his railroad would play an important part of the war to preserve the Union.

Radical abolitionist John Brown’s October 1859 raid on the important logistics center of Harpers Ferry was the first hostile action against the B&O. Brown and about 150 of his men stopped an express train of the B&O manned by A. J. Phelps at Harpers Ferry. Brown and his followers seized possession and control of the Harpers Ferry railroad bridge and the U.S. Army arsenal there. Ironically, an African-American train porter was mortally wounded during Brown’s seizure of the train. This proved to be the first of many hostile events involving the B&O over the next six years.

Because of the significance of Garrett’s railroad, 143 raids, skirmishes, and battles involved the B&O, many resulting in substantial loss. On April 18, 1861, Union troops severed the B&O at Harpers Ferry once again. They burned the surrounding buildings and the rifle factory before abandoning the site. Later that evening, Virginia militia took control of the area and salvaged the ruins. Those troops soon became the nucleus of the Army of Northern Virginia. During the spring of 1861, Confederate Col. (later Lt. Gen.) Thomas J. Jackson attacked that portion of the B&O that crossed the Shenandoah Valley, devastating the line, sequestering locomotives, burning freight cars, and tearing up rails.

The destroyed railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry

By the end of 1861, 23 B&O railroad bridges had been burned, 102 miles of telegraph wire had been cut down, 36.5 miles of track was torn up or destroyed, 42 locomotives were burned, 14 locomotives were captured, and 386 rail cars stolen or destroyed, shutting down the B&O or ten months. Service was not restored until end of March 1862, and even then, train movements were sporadic and subject to frequent stoppages, derailments, captures, and attacks. Prominent raids on the B&O during this period were:

  • The Great Train Raid of May 22-June 23, 1861
  • The Romney Expedition, January 1-24, 1862.
  • Operations during the 1862 Maryland Campaign, September 8, 1862
  • Various raids of Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins in western Virginia, Fall 1862.

All of this meant that the Union had to garrison the railroad in order to ensure that this vital supply link remained open, consuming significant amounts of vital resources. There were garrisons all up and down the B&O line, including artillery blockhouses. The 14th New Jersey Infantry was garrisoned at Monocacy Junction, and was known as the Monocacy Regiment, providing just one example of the many Union units assigned to keep the B&O in business.

In 1863-64 and into 1865, the B&O was not only a target for Lt. Col. John S. Mosby’s 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, it was the target of numerous Confederate cavalry actions:

  • The Jones-Imboden Raid, April 24-May 22, 1863
  • The Catoctin Station Raid, June 17, 1863
  • The First Calico Road, June 19, 1863
  • The B&O Raid on Duffield Station, January 1864
  • The McNeill Raid, May 5, 1864
  • The Second Calico Raid, July 3, 1864
  • The Battle of Monocacy, July 9, 1864
  • The Johnson-Gilmor Raid, July 11, 1864
  • The Greenback Raid by Mosby’s command, October 14, 1864
  • The B&O Raid on Duffield Station II, January 1865
  • Gilmor’s B&OP Raid, February 1865,
  • The B&O Derailment Raid, March 1865

The western end of the B&O was shut down in 1864 when Confederate authorities tried to end the use of the B&O to transport Union soldiers to Washington, DC. The mayor of Charlestown, West Virginia, a Confederate sympathizer, threatened the B&O, declaring that if Union soldiers continued to use it, the railroad would be destroyed. While John Garrett refused to halt the use of the B&O for the transportation of Union soldiers, Virginia State Militia troops destroyed the Harpers Ferry railroad bridge, effectively cutting the B&O there until the bridge could be re-built.

The destroyed railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry

John Garrett’s finest moment came during the summer of 1864. As Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s Confederate army advanced toward the Potomac River on its way to the defenses of Washington, DC, Garrett began providing extremely detailed and accurate intelligence reports to Washington about the dispositions and whereabouts of Early’s army. Agents of the railroad began reporting Confederate troops movements eleven days prior to what became the July 9, 1864 Battle of Monocacy, and Garrett made certain that their intelligence was passed on to authorities at the War Department and to Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, the commander of the 8th Corps, headquartered in Baltimore, who had responsibility for defending the area. As preparations progressed, the B&O also transported Brig. Gen. James Ricketts’ Sixth Corps division from Washington to Monocacy Junction, arriving just in time to help Wallace delay Early’s advance for an entire day. On two occasions, President Abraham Lincoln contacted Garrett directly, asking for further information. Lincoln later called Garrett the “The right arm of the Federal Government in the aid he rendered the authorities in preventing the Confederates from seizing Washington and securing its retention as the Capital of the Loyal States.”

Garrett’s Baltimore & Ohio Railroad proved to be a critical lifeline and logistical linchpin for the Union armies during the Civil War. Despite passing through hostile areas for most of its route, and despite its being the constant focus of Confederate attention, it nevertheless played an essential role in the ultimate Union victory during the Civil War. Despite the losses and damage, Garrett and his railroad continued to be “the right arm of the Federal Government” throughout the entire duration of the war.

About Eric J. Wittenberg

Award-winning Civil War historian Eric J. Wittenberg focuses on cavalry operations in the Civil War.
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6 Responses to Railroads – The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad: Confederate Target, Crucial Union Lifeline

  1. Jeffrey Ross says:

    As always Mr. Wittenberg you have written a great piece packed full of detail that I for the most part have never even heard of. Your writings are always extremely educational yet always entertaining which is why you’re able to put out the highest quantity of books while maintaining the highest of quality. Thank you for that piece sir it was quite excellent

  2. Larry De Maar says:

    John Work Garrett was a Virginian by birth with southern sympathies, but Mr. Wittenberg is right, he remained loyal to the Union and worked well with the Lincoln administration. HIs crowning achievement was probably the movement of reinforcements to Chattanooga. He had a very competent master of transportation named, William Prescott Smith. Garrett, Indiana is named after Mr. Garrett.

  3. gary melvin says:

    Another great article providing insite into not just the railroad but those who ran it them. Thank you

  4. scott s. says:

    B&O was also important due to the Washington Branch providing service to DC from the north, and linking with the W&A to eventually connect with the RF&P. Another railroad (Baltimore & Potomac) had been chartered by Maryland to provide service to a point on the Potomac via Upper Marlboro. Not much had been accomplished by the Civil War, but immediately afterwards the Pennsy Railroad realized the charter allowed for spur lines within a certain distance of the main line (IIRC 20 or 25 miles) and by creatively siting the main line, a “spur” into Washington was feasible without having to get additional political approvals. This “spur” eventually became the AMTRAK NEC route, though with the creation of Union Station the route in the District was modified.

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