Railroads: Lyon’s Life Line

ECW welcomes back guest author Kristen M. Pawlak

On July 7, 1861, Captain Chester Harding wrote to Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas in Washington, DC, laying out the movements of the Federal Army of the West en route to destroy Confederate General Sterling Price and Governor Claiborne Jackson’s pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard. “There are about 1,000 of the Home Guard and Rifle Battalion protecting the line of communication from Saint Louis to Springfield. As this line has become the most important one in the whole State, and as it is threatened by hostile bands,” he hastily wrote.

Just prior to writing this letter, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon established the army’s base of operations at and around the crossroads town of Springfield, Missouri, which sat along the vital Wire Road. Lyon needed to retain communication with St. Louis, the home base of the Department of the West and was already secured by Union force. He would do so by securing and guarding the Pacific Railroad line, specifically its southwestern branch. However, this line only extended from St. Louis to Rolla, making any army wanting to transport supplies or troops to Springfield have to use the Wire Road, as well. Additionally, this rail line was vulnerable to hostile irregulars and the potential of advancing Confederate troops from the southeast. For Lyon’s Army of the West, it was imperative to keep this railroad line open.

Map of railroad lines in Missouri during the Civil War. The Pacific Railroad is shown as “B.” Image courtesy of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

By the time these belligerents would fight it out along Wilson Creek in August 1861, the railroad boom in Missouri was just ten years old. On Independence Day of 1851, the Pacific Railroad line officially broke ground in St. Louis, marking victory over the state’s hard-fought battle to construct a railroad line from the Gateway City to the Pacific Ocean. The efforts to build this transcontinental railroad actually began in 1849, but were hindered by a major cholera epidemic and catastrophic fire in St. Louis that same year. In the year following the groundbreaking ceremony, a second line was approved to extend from the newly-established town of Franklin to the southwest corner of the state. The southwestern branch had completed its track up to Rolla in early 1861, totaling 77 miles of track. By the eve of Civil War, Missouri had over 800 miles of railroad track, a vital resource for both sides.

Between both the southwestern branch of the Pacific Railroad and the Wire Road, Lyon’s troops had a 120-mile-long supply line to protect. Knowing that supplies, telegrams, munitions, and the possibility of reinforcements would be moving along the supply line, the Army of the West’s Inspector General Thomas Sweeney took action early in the campaign to secure the line. “I left Saint Louis Sunday, June 23, with 360 men, and arrived at Rolla, the terminus of the Southwest Branch of the Pacific Railroad, the same day, where I established a depot,” he wrote, “I proceeded from that point the following day, and arrived at this place Monday, July 1, having established garrisons at various points along the route to keep my communications open.”

Not only would Federal forces have to guard the supply line from the enemy, they also had to confront the lack of a continuous railroad line from St. Louis straight to Springfield. Captain Harding described it as, “mountainous and barren.” He even suggested to Lorenzo Thomas that, “teams have to take their own forage. It is absolutely necessary that a large amount of wagon transportation should be immediately provided.” Unfortunately for Lyon, supplies and munitions could take over a week to travel 200 miles on rail and road to their position at Springfield. An Iowa soldier wrote about the logistical nightmare in receiving clothing and supplies, writing, “Springfield was 130 miles by wagon from Rolla; we were 15 miles further and needed everything. We expected to get clothing and supplies when we neared Springfield but got nothing and were worse off than ever … everything was discontent.” The necessity of railroads for an army’s line of communication and supply line was certainly shown here for the Army of the West in 1861.

Contemporary sketch of Rolla, Missouri, the tail end of the Pacific Railroad from St. Louis towards Springfield. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Though used heavily by the army on its campaign against the Missouri State Guard and McCulloch’s command, the Pacific Railroad was also used by them on their retreat to Rolla following the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. During the evening following the battle on August 10, Maj. Samuel Sturgis, who was in command of the army after Lyon was killed in action, held a council of war to determine the army’s next move.

In the early morning of August 11, the defeated Army of the West abandoned its position at Springfield and traversed 120 miles to Rolla, where it could safely move to St. Louis. Sturgis’ army, though small in comparison to larger armies later in the war, had over 350 wagons pulling its baggage, munitions, provisions, and the wounded. When the army’s caravan reached Rolla and loaded the wounded onto train cars of the Pacific Railroad, it was the first time trains were used in the United States for battlefield evacuation. For John C. Fremont, the Union defeat at Wilson’s Creek and the army’s vulnerable line of retreat led him to declare, “that place (Rolla) is to be held at all hazards.”

Locomotive engine on the Pacific Railroad line during its first decade of service in Missouri. Image courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

The southwestern line of the Pacific Railroad, though 77 miles in length and far from the Union supply base at Springfield, was vital to the Army of the West’s operations in southwest Missouri. Most importantly, the railroad allowed for the maintenance of communication between Lyon and St. Louis, but the lack of railroad to Springfield significantly hindered the Army of the West’s ability to receive reinforcements and supplies, as well as safely transport the wounded to St. Louis. At the expense of success for the Army of the West, Federals and Confederate forces saw firsthand the superiority of rail over wagon. By war’s end, though, both sides understood the strategic and logistical importance of rail.

4 Responses to Railroads: Lyon’s Life Line

  1. Kristen
    Your commendable expose introduces an important facet of Federal operations in Missouri: railroads, their use and protection. The common point tying all of the important rail lines together at time of the Civil War: St. Louis, where the Federal forces quickly and strongly established a base of operations. Even the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad had a connection to St. Louis, via the junction at Macon.
    Another map you may find useful is to be found in Joe Ryan’s “American Civil War” (post of Civil War in the West) http://joeryancivilwar.com/Sesquicentennial-Monthly-Articles/March-1862/Civil-War-in-the-West/War-in-the-West-March-1862.html . Scroll down to the Map of 1861 Missouri, created by George Slouch, which includes: Locations of Springfield and Neosho (Rebel Capital of Missouri); shows the course of the strategically important Missouri River; and shows the rail lines all terminating at the Mississippi River (as they all did in 1861, requiring ferries to cross the river.)
    All the best, and thanks for educating us on this confused, but too-important-to-neglect battle ground of the War of the Rebellion.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thank you for reading the post and for your kind words. I also thank you for sharing that website with me. You make some interesting points about the connections with these railroad lines with St. Louis! It is amazing what you can discover and learn by looking at these maps. I hope to keep writing more about Missouri’s railroads, the Civil War in Missouri, and Wilson’s Creek. Stay tuned and I greatly appreciate your support.

      All the best,

      Kristen M. Pawlak

  2. One of the engineering troops guarding the railroad was ‘Piquenard’s Pioneers.’ (company G Third Regiment) Captain Alfred Henry Piquenard and his group of builders supported General Franz Sigel’s division at Jefferson City. Piquenard inspected the Pacific Railroad bridge at the Gasconade River. On Nov 2, 1861 Piquenard and his company guarded a provision train from Sedalia to Springfield. They returned to Sedalia and repaired rail lines on the South-West branch of the Pacific railroad. On Jan 25th 1862, Piquenard and his troops built block houses at the Osage bridge for defense of the Pacific Railroad line. They also built fortifications at L’Ours Creek bridge, Deer Creek bridge, and Bailey’s Creek bridge. While camping on the river bottoms guarding Moselle Trestle Bridge, Piquenard caught Malaria which ruined his health. After the war, Piquenard returned to architecture building the Missouri Governor’s Mansion, and Illinois and Iowa State

  3. CANYOU PLEASE say the source of the quote from Thomas Sweeney? I’m writing an article on First Iowa Infantry with Lyon on march to Springfield and can find little information about Sweeney’s time between St. Louis and Springfield. Mostly it’s now for my personal interest as I’ve gotten caught up in Civil War fervor.

    Really liked this brief article.

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