We don’t often hear about railroad accidents today. That’s not for a lack of reporting, but that railroad travel is exponentially safer now than it was 160 years ago. Traveling by railroad during the Civil War involved risking life and limb to get from Point A to Point B. As such, railroad accidents rank among some of the most tragic non-battlefield incidents of the Civil War. This doesn’t have so much to do with the death tolls, but that so often they seemed to occur while carrying men to or from the war, and often involved catastrophic injuries. One such accident on October 24, 1864 proved especially difficult for one town and one regiment.
Little has been written about the Sixth West Virginia Infantry, the single largest infantry regiment recruited for the Union Army during the Civil War. Whereas most infantry regiments had ten companies, designated A – K (‘J’ was excluded from company designation), the Sixth West Virginia Infantry companies ran from A through P, its ranks swelling to a healthy brigade size. Nicknamed the ‘B&O Regiment,’ the Sixth West Virginia never served as a cohesive unit. Instead, the regiment was broken up for the entirety of its service, with companies detailed as guards along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, from New Creek and Greenland Gap south of Cumberland, Maryland, stretching west to the Ohio River.
Where the regiment was unique in its size and function, Company F of the Sixth West Virginia was unique in and of itself. The company was organized in September 1861 at Rowlesburg, a strategically vital B&O station in Preston County, West Virginia. At Rowlesburg were three important bridges – one crossing the Cheat River, another crossing Buckeye Ravine, and a third at nearby Tray Run. The Tray Run Viaduct was one of the most impressive engineering feats on the B&O, running 445 feet long and standing 54 feet off the ground. Confederate General Robert E. Lee recognized the importance of this section of the line, and believed that severing the B&O at the Cheat River “would be worth to us an army.”
Company F was comprised principally of railroad workers from Rowlesburg, and would spend the entirety of its service stationed at Rowlesburg and Preston County. These men were literally guarding their homes and their livelihood. This generally amounted to a quiet service, including guard duty along the rail line, building a block house at Tray Run, and occasional scouting into neighboring Tucker County. Even in this seemingly sleepy corner of West Virginia the war would still find the Sixth West Virginia.
On November 9, 1862, John D. Imboden and more than 300 of his Confederate cavalrymen captured Captain William Hall and 33 enlisted men from Company F, who had occupied the Tucker County courthouse at St. George, Virginia, while on a scout. The men were paroled on site, though it would take more than three months to be exchanged and returned to their regiment. On April 26, 1863, the company would literally fight to save their homes when Confederate troops under General William E. ‘Grumble’ Jones attacked Rowlesburg, intent on destroying the B&O infrastructure at Rowlesburg as the main objective of the Jones-Imboden Raid. Approximately 250 men of the Sixth West Virginia withstood the Confederate attack and saved the critical railroad structures after Jones called off the attack.
The men of Company F passed an uneventful remainder of the war at Rowlesburg. By October 18, 1864, several men in the company had fulfilled their term of service and opted not to reenlist as veteran volunteers. Those men were discharged and allowed to return to their homes, however no paymaster was on hand to distribute their final pay. After waiting nearly a week for a paymaster to come to them, the men opted to instead go to the paymaster. On the evening of October 23, 1864, twenty-one men from Company F, under the command of Captain William Hall, boarded a train bound for Wheeling, where they would be paid off. Also on board the train were several officers, civilians and railroad employees.
Around 2:00am on October 24, as the train was passing Glovers Gap in Marion County, the westbound passenger train collided with an eastbound train filled with horseflesh. This section of Baltimore & Ohio track was no stranger to mishaps, with at least four serious accidents occurring there during the Civil War. While the passenger train was apparently running behind schedule, the accident was attributed to a difference in time kept by the two conductors, a critical oversight before the age of standardized time.
The scene was described as “a most terrible one,” with “the shrieks of the wounded and the general alarm and confusion.” Men and animals were thrown into the air or crushed by the twisted wreckage. The baggage car on the passenger train was in the rear, so that when the collision occurred, the passenger car was the first car behind the engine and tender to be struck, absorbing much of the impact. Reports indicate that the car was filled two to a seat, and that nearly everyone in the car was injured, with most of the wounds being life threatening. As the wounded pulled themselves from the wreckage, they began to take stock of their losses.
The B&O crew took three casualties, with the engineer and one fireman killed, and another fireman mortally wounded. For a regiment that was spared any large-scale battle during their service, the accident at Glovers Gap would result in the largest casualty event of the war for the Sixth West Virginia, losing one man killed outright, three mortally wounded, and sixteen others seriously wounded. This accident was also a mass casualty event for the town of Rowlesburg, West Virginia, as bad as if the company had been ravaged on a battlefield.
It would be seven hours before medical help arrived. After triaging the wounded on site, the men were carried to Mannington and loaded on cars for the army post hospital at Grafton, where many spent months recovering. Only one man walked away from the accident without injury.
The dead included Corporal Henry Felton Sr., who had lied about his age when enlisting. Rather than being underage, Felton would have been considered too old for regular service. He was 63 years old at the time of his death, suffering four fractured ribs and a dislocated sternum. Corporal David Grim suffered a compound fracture of the right clavicle, a compound fracture of right leg, deep lacerations, and dangerous internal injuries, including a liver “so tender that the finger, on the slightest pressure, protracted its substance.” Private Phillip Lynch suffered a compound fracture of the left leg, deep lacerations and scalding on the right leg, and died comatose ten days after the accident.
Seven men suffered fractured arms and legs, while others suffered dislocations, scalds, and severe flesh wounds. Captain William Hall was carried away with a broken left leg, severe burns and bruises. It would be more than two months before he was fit to return to duty, and even then, had to navigate on crutches. Hall wrote to a local paper following the accident, relating “the cries of those under the wreck were truly heart-rending.”
The story of Bayard Wilkeson, who with a pen knife amputated his own mangled leg, is well known to Gettysburg aficionados. A similar, though less heralded story played out at Glovers Gap. Leander Trowbridge, a corporal in Company F, was riding in the front car, and during the wreck was pinned under the toppled heating stove inside the car. Through scalded and lacerated up to his chest, fearing that the wreck would become engulfed in flames, Trowbridge had the foresight to take a knife and cut off his mangled left leg above the knee, freeing himself from the stove. He tied a handkerchief as a tourniquet and assisted two other wounded from the car before crawling out himself. Over the next few months he endured multiple medical amputations up to the middle thigh, and returned home in January 1865. His stump was so near the hip that it prevented Trowbridge from using an artificial limb, instead requiring crutches for the remainder of his life. He later moved to Kansas and survived until 1909.
Perhaps more humiliating than the injuries was the pain inflicted by government red tape. Because the wreck occurred several days following their discharge from service, the government took the position that these men were not entitled to a pension for injuries or death resulting from the wreck. It would instead take years, or in some cases decades before the men would receive a pension. For Leander Trowbridge, who lost his leg in the wreck, it would be nearly five years before realizing his entitlement.
A busy rail station during the war, where in May 1861 Captain Stephen Roberts was shot – considered one of the first armed Confederate casualties of the Civil War – Glovers Gap is today a quiet, remote cluster of houses. One of those “blink and you’ll miss it” kinds of places. The rail tracks are gone, though the old B&O line is clearly discernable next to State Route 250. There’s no sign or designation to show passersby that in this quiet corner of West Virginia, far from the battlefields that dominate our history books, the “B&O Regiment” suffered its most grievous losses of the war.