Railroads: Crossing An Ankle-Deep Obstacle

ECW welcomes back guest author Jon-Erik M. Gilot

The Civil War has no shortage of exciting and heartrending stories involving railroads. Stonewall Jackson’s masterful overland transfer of looted B&O locomotive and rail cars from Martinsburg to Strasburg in the early months of the war kept the Confederacy humming for years to come, while the ‘Great Locomotive Chase’ one year later become the stuff of legend, spawning books, songs, and even a Walt Disney movie. Railroads were also deadly, with accidents often claiming the first or last regimental casualties as troops shuttled to and from the war.

My favorite Civil War railroad story happens to be one of the most dramatic of the war…and also one of the least talked about. The transfer of some 25,000 men of the XI and XII corps of the Army of the Potomac west to Chattanooga in aid of the besieged Army of the Cumberland in September 1863 represents (in the opinion of this author) the most impressive military rail transfer of the war. The trip took the men some 1,200 miles on nine rail lines, through eight states and four river crossings, all done in less than two weeks’ time in an era without the benefit of uniform railroad gauges and standardized time. The logistics of such a movement even in modern times would be mind-boggling!

While the history of this rail transfer certainly deserves better treatment than what I can provide here (I highly recommend Rescue by Rail by Roger Pickenpaugh, the definitive work on the subject), I’d like to focus on one specific and vital section of the transfer that occurred just about five miles south of my desk – the transfer across the Ohio River at Benwood, West Virginia from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to the Central Ohio Railroad at Bellaire, Ohio.

Benwood, West Virginia is better known for its connections to floods, coal and industry than to the Civil War. A 1924 coal mine accident claimed the lives of 119 miners. Around that same time my own third-great grandparents arrived in Benwood from Abruzzo, Italy. But Benwood had played an important role in the Civil War. In the spring of 1861, Ohio Governor William Dennison had established Camp Jefferson at Bellaire, Ohio, directly across the Ohio River from Benwood. Troops arrived in Bellaire on the Central Ohio Railroad and crossed the Ohio River on ferry boats and steamships. Troops from Ohio, Indiana and points west marked Benwood as the point where their feet first touched Virginia soil as they entered ‘the seat of war.’ At Benwood the troops would board the Baltimore & Ohio line for points east. As such, the town saw nearly continuous troop movement throughout the war, but nothing compared to the numbers they would see in the fall of 1863.

Steamboats Conveying Troops between Bellaire and Benwood – Frank Leslie’s illustrated

By September 25, 1863, most of the XI Corps had been loaded onto trains bound west, with approximately 40 enlisted men per boxcar and officers riding in passenger cars. Within three days, all 25,000+ troops of both corps had departed Virginia on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, transferring onto the B&O at Washington for the next leg on to Benwood. The first four trains carrying the XI Corps would arrive at Benwood on the morning of September 27, a full day before the entire caravan would even depart Washington. By the time the last troops departed the capital the line snaked nearly 500 miles to Columbus, Ohio. [i]

Upon arriving at Benwood, the troops were greeted by Joseph B. Ford, B&O general agent at nearby Wheeling who had been tasked by B&O President John Garrett with supervising the crossing of the Ohio River and reloading at Bellaire. Whereas other agents were responsible for hundreds of miles of transfer, Ford’s responsibility entailed just a few hundred yards representing a vital section and one of the first great obstacles of the journey. ‘Colonel’ Ford was a trusted agent along the B&O, having been with the railroad since 1852. He was “almost idolized” by employees of the railroad and was “recognized by all as a just and humane man.”[ii]

Plans and timetables had accounted for the troops detraining at Benwood, loading onto steamboats to ferry across the river and loading onto cars of the Central Ohio Railroad. What railroad and military officials hadn’t considered in initial planning had been the recent weather in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Near drought-like conditions had persisted in the area throughout the summer. On August 29, 1863, the Wheeling Intelligencer had reported the river stage at a mere 20 inches covered in a green film. Choking dust clouds blew through the streets. Little rainfall was recorded in September, with river levels “consistently below two feet in the main channel, and river traffic was possible only for the smallest of steamboats.”[iii]  By the summer of 1863, the West Virginia legislature debated funding for river improvements in the interest of both economic and military purposes. Prior to the installation of a lock and dam system in the 20th century the Ohio River skirting the northern panhandle of the state was notorious for drying up in the summer, freezing solid in the winter and devastating flooding throughout the years.

To his credit, Ford alerted Garrett on September 25 that the ferry crossing at Benwood would not be possible just as the first troops were loading onto trains in Virginia. Garrett alerted Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, mastermind of the rail transfer, instead proposing construction of a pontoon bridge to be completed before the first trains pulled into Benwood. As no pontoon bridge could be delivered in time, over the next two days Ford scoured both sides of the Ohio River, assembling a variety of scows and barges which were lashed together and strung across the river – the first bridge of any kind to connect Benwood and Bellaire. Upon completion on September 27 Garrett wired Stanton that “a substantial and superior bridge…is in full readiness to make the transfer across the Ohio.” [iv]

By the time the first trains carrying troops reached Benwood at 11AM on September 27, 1863, the men had traveled more than 400 miles in 42 hours. They were tired and some slipped out of line to find a drink. Strict orders out of Washington ordered the closure of saloons along the route of travel and prohibited the sale of alcohol to troops. J.B. Ford, known as an avowed temperance man, did his best to enforce the ban locally. The local provost guard – Company A West Virginia Independent Exempt Infantry – as well as government detectives were detailed to round up all drunk or straggling soldiers. The Independent Exempts were unique among all others accepted into Federal service in that the average age of its soldiers stood at greater than 50 years, with several enlisted men and officers serving well into their 70’s! Even still there are accounts of drunk soldiers at the crossing, a problem felt along the length of the transfer.

Crossing the pontoon bridge between Benwood and Bellaire took approximately 30 minutes per trainload of troops. The last train reached Benwood on September 30 and by the end of the day all of the XI and XII corps were on the west side of the Ohio River, stretching from Bellaire to Jeffersonville, Indiana. The pontoon bridge crossing the river was left in place through the end of October, for a total of 36 days and at a cost of a mere $1,510.52.[v]

The first troops reached their destination at Bridgeport, Tennessee on the night of September 30, the last troops arriving on October 8, changing the fortunes of the Army of the Cumberland and redeeming Chattanooga for the Union. Troops would continue to cross the Ohio River at Benwood for the remainder of the war on their way to or from the front.

After acquiring the Central Ohio Railroad in 1865, the B&O began plans for a more substantial bridge to span the river, which was completed in 1871 in the same area where the pontoon was strung eight years earlier.

Postwar B&O Span Crossing the Ohio River Between Benwood and Bellaire (Library of Congress)

Jon-Erik M. Gilot holds degrees from Bethany College and Kent State University. He has been involved in the fields of archives and preservation for more than a decade and today works as an archivist in Wheeling, West Virginia. 

Sources:

[i] Pickenpaugh, Roger. Rescue by Rail: Troop Transfer and the Civil War in the West, 1863. University of Nebraska Press. 1998. pgs. 73, 95

[ii] Wheeling Register, 08 October 1879. Chronicling America, Library of Congress

[iii] Finstein, Jeanne. Wheeling During the Civil War. Morris Publishing. 2015.

[iv] Pickenpaugh, 97

[v] Pickenpaugh, 98

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2 Responses to Railroads: Crossing An Ankle-Deep Obstacle

  1. I think a separate article, comparing and contrasting a similar undertaking by Co federate Gen. Longstreet would be helpful. Changes of guage, etc. was involved with his massive troop movement to join the battle of Chickamauga.

  2. Rob wilson says:

    Where there is a will there is a way! Thanks for a thorough overview of the challenges faced and creatively overcome in the Union troops crossing the Ohio River.

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