Stealing Railroad Engines

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By Ernest Shriver 1898

Among the earliest and most perplexing problems that confronted the Confederate leaders in the civil war was that of railroad transportation. The territory controlled by them at the beginning of the struggle—roughly speaking, that lying south of the Potomac—was threaded by numerous railways, the equipment of which was fully equal to the requirements of peace traffic; but when war came and there were masses of men, horses, food, ordnance and ammunition to be moved, the lack of sufficient rolling stock became at once apparent. The southern railroads had a few shops, it is true, but their combined facilities were not equal to the manufacture of half the rolling stock needed. Where were the much needed locomotives, cars and machinery to come from? European markets were out of the question and northern shops equally so, for obvious reasons, even supposing that the requisite funds had been forthcoming. Invention, lashed by stern necessity, soon found a way out of the dilemma, at once simple, bold and effective, though not unattended with difficulty and danger.

The plan based on the axiom that “all is fair in love and war," was nothing more or less than that of seizing rolling stock of a northern road and appropriating it to use on the southern lines, which included the Raleigh and Gaston, from Raleigh, North Carolina, to near Petersburgh, Virginia; the North Carolina Central, from Raleigh to Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Virginia Central, from Gordonville, Virginia, to Richmond

The successful carrying out of this scheme forms a unique and exciting chapter, which has been but little touched upon by war historians. It is the purpose of the present article to describe this remarkable movement or rather series of movements (for the accomplishment of the plan covered nearly two years), and it is believed the recital will prove highly interesting news to the readers of this generation.

In June. 1861, the Confederate forces under General Joseph E. Johnston, occupied Harper's Ferry, controlling the Baltimore and Ohio railroad from Point of Rocks, a few miles south of Harper's Ferry, to a considerable distance west of Martinsburgh. The Union forces under General Patterson, were between the Potomac and the Pennsylvania line. Smiling fortune could hardly have fashioned a situation more favorable to the plans of the Confederates, covetous of northern locomotives, for right between the hostile lines, and yet generally within the grasp of the southern forces, ran the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, a prosperous trunk line of standard gauge, extending from Baltimore to St. Louis and completely equipped with first-class rolling stock, while at Martinsburgh, only thirty-eight miles from the nearest southern railroad, and but eighteen miles from Winchester, which the Confederates at that time held without dispute, was the terminus of one of the divisions of this trunk line, with shops and roundhouse, a point of assembly and distribution for cars and engines.

Getting possession of this coveted material was but a matter of protecting skilled workmen while they vanquished mechanical difficulties. That these difficulties were by no means small will be seen from the statement that the sole means of transporting the prizes from Martinsburgh, the point whence most of them were taken, to Strasburgh, Virginia, where they could be placed on the tracks of the Manassas Gap railroad, was by way of Winchester over a turnpike.

It is generally conceded that the idea of taking the Baltimore and Ohio rolling stock originated with Colonel Thomas R. Sharp, at the time of the occurrences narrated captain and acting quartermaster in the Confederate army. He was a civil engineer by profession and a thorough railroad man, self-reliant and resourceful. Most of the facts given are obtained from J. E. Duke, now residing in Cumberland, Maryland, and in 1861 Colonel Sharp's confidential clerk. Mr. Duke, who enlisted in the army from Jefferson County, Virginia, was detailed for duty in the quartermaster's department, was present when some of the locomotives were taken and was more or less identified with the entire movement. His memory has been refreshed and his facts substantiated from other sources when thought necessary.

The necessity for obtaining the railroad material in the manner described created a special organization, entirely separate and distinct from the military, though, of course, co-operating with them, and which, while working under authority of the quartermaster general's office at Richmond, might have been christened the "railroad corps." The part taken by the military in the locomotive seizures was merely that of furnishing protection. The armed forces invested and picketed the country and left the railroad men free to operate.

In speaking of the Baltimore & Ohio as a "Northern" road, the term is used broadly, as distinguishing the line from those lying entirely within what was at that period of the war a Confederate territory. Geographically speaking, a good portion of the road traversed the border between the military North and South. It was frequently in the hands of both armies, though the Confederates inflicted nearly, if not all, the damage upon the road during the struggle.

In June, 1861, "Stonewall" Jackson, acting under the orders of General Johnston, went to Martinsburgh and burned a number of cars and engines belonging to the Baltimore and Ohio road. The locomotives were but slightly injured (only the woodwork having been damaged), and were among those afterward carried off by the "railroad corps."

The first capture of locomotives took place at Martinsburgh on a bright morning in July, 1861. Everything having been previously arranged, the forces selected to do this work, consisting of about thirty-five men, including six machinists, detailed from the ranks, ten teamsters and about a dozen laborers, left Winchester before daybreak and proceeded by the pike to Martinsburgh. They were under the immediate charge of Hugh Longust, an experienced railroad man from Richmond. Forty horses, hired and where necessary impressed from the farmers in the rich valley, and in some cases driven by their well-to-do owners, formed a highly picturesque feature of the expedition. They were to furnish the motive power. Fine specimens of horseflesh they were; big, brawny-limbed, well-fed and in the very pink of condition for draught work. They would need all their strength before the day was over, for there were some troublesome hills along the route over which the ponderous iron horses were to be pulled. Upon arrival at Martinsburgh, Mr. Longust, a swarthy, wiry little man, looked about him until his eye fell upon a big locomotive standing on a side track near the roundhouse.

“That's the fellow we've got to begin on. Go in, boys'" he shouted. And then the skilled men and laborers began to work, using all expedition possible, for no one could say how soon they might be interrupted by the enemy. First, the tender was uncoupled, then the engine was raised by means of jackscrews and stripped of all the parts that could be removed, such as side and piston rods, valves, levers, lamps, bell, whistle and sandbox. All the wheels were taken off except the flange drivers at the rear. The stripping was done to lighten weight, secure greater ease in handling and for the better preservation of the running gear.

When this work had been completed, what had a few minutes before been a splendid iron Pegasus, was a helpless, inert mass; a mere shell, deformed and crippled, and ready to submit to any indignity, even to that of being hauled over a country road by the flesh and blood horses whose office it had so long usurped.

The next step was to swing the prize around until it hung poised in the air at right angles with the tracks and to replace the missing forward wheels with a heavy truck, made especially for the purpose, furnished with iron-shod wooden wheels, and fastened to the engine's bumper by an iron bolt serving as a linch pin. When the jacks were removed the engine rested on the flange drivers and the wheels of the truck. A powerful chain formed the connecting link between the locomotive and the team of horses. This chain was fastened to the single, double and “fou'ble" trees, by means of which the horses pulled. The arrangement was very ingenious and insured steady and united effort. The horses went four abreast and the forty, when strung along in pulling position, covered the entire width of the road and over 100 feet of its length. Probably no similar team had ever before been seen on an American road.

When all was in readiness a teamster mounted the end of each four, Longust gave the signal, the cracks of ten whips rang out and the locomotive novel trip was begun. The offstart was merry and inspiring enough to such of the townspeople as happened to be in sympathy with the movement and to the small boy who was as usual pri in force, it was an event keenly and long to be remembered, an experience to be treasured along with that of donning his initial pair of long trou but to the sturdy band of workers who had the prize in charge, the trip was anything but a holiday jaunt.

The time made varied according to state of the weather and the roads, the condition of the teams and various other causes. Sometimes the whole distance to Winchester, eighteen miles, was made in a single day, while at others only three or four miles would be covered in the same time. The average time of the entire trip was three days to Strasburgh, thirty-eight miles south of Martinsburgh. Often the macadam covering of the road would break through under the unwonted weight and let the iron monster down into the soft earth. Then there was hustling. The indispensable jackscrews came into use and timbers were placed under the wheels until after, perhaps, an hour's work a fresh start could be made. On levels, where there was good, solid road and all went well, the teams proceeded at a fast walk; up the hills they generally went faster, because it was only by a good running start that they could get to the top at all. As it was, the big horses had to strain every muscle in ascending the grades.

Before the first trip was made a prospecting party went over the route and examined the bridges on the line of the pike. In most instances these were not equal to supporting a heavy locomotive and it was necessary to go into the woods, cut timber and strengthen them for the unusual burden.

One of the hardest problems to solve was that of regulating the speed in descending hills. Just what the cyclist does for his wheel with his little spoonshaped brake, the men in charge of the locomotive did for that unwieldy mass of iron, for had it once got beyond control on a sharp down-grade, nothing could have saved the horses or anything else that happened to be in the way. After considerable experiment and thought, the all-useful jackscrew was again called into requisition and used as a brake, being fastened to the engine frame and placed sidewise against the drive wheel and tightened or loosened as the necessity arose by a man who rode on the engine. It is hardly need- ful to add that this man's position was no sinecure.

The tenders were conveyed to Strasburgh in the same manner as engines, eight horses being employed to the team. Cars were not so much in demand as engines, but a number of these were taken in the same manner. They were not only used afterward for transporting war supplies on the southern roads, but served the immediate purpose of carrying the detached portions of the locomotives.

When the engines reached Strasburg they were placed on the tracks of the Manassas Gap road, which had the same gauge as the Baltimore & Ohio—five feet, eight and a half inches—by the process employed in taking them from the rails at Martinsburgh, and the tenders having been attached, they were hauled, by means of other steam power, over the road mentioned and the Orange & Alexandria and Virginia Central roads to Richmond, the detached parts remaining in the cars. At Richmond they were assembled and kept until all had been brought from the line of the Baltimore & Ohio. Nearly a year was occupied in conveying the seized locomotives, nineteen in all, from the Baltimore & Ohio to Richmond, most of them coming from Martinsburgh, though a few were taken from Harper's Ferry and Duffields. The reason so long a period was covered in the collection of the seized stock was that the Baltimore & Ohio road was not continuously in the possession of the Confederates. Sometimes, by the fortunes of war, they were driven south of the Potomac and when, perhaps, after months of skirmishing, they regained the lost ground, the interrupted work of conveying the rolling stock was patiently and systematically resumed. Two or three of the locomotives which were started out of Martinsburgh on the pike never got to Winchester, the Union forces having suddenly appeared upon the scene and driven off the party engaged in hauling them. The attempt to convey them to Strasburg was never renewed and they stood by the pike between Martinsburgh and Winchester until recovered by the Baltimore & Ohio people at the close of the war, somewhat the worse for their exposure to the elements, but still capable, after repairs, of doing good service.

Some of the engines were the long, lean freight haulers of the day; some were passenger locomotives, but the majority were of the now -vanished " camelback " type, designed by Ross Winans of Baltimore. These "camelbacks " were sturdy pullers, and did excellent service in their time, but they were marvels of ugliness. The cab was perched on top of, and well to the front of the high boiler, and the engineer stood almost over the front wheels. In Blind Tom's pianistic description of the " Battle of Manassas," he used to imitate, with that robust voice of his, the whistle of a " camelback," and weird and blood-curdling as was the sound emitted from his lips, it was but a faithful reproduction of the original.

Now and then the squad in "turnpiking the engines, found it advisable in view of information received from scouts, to retire at night to Bunker Hill, a point well within the Confederate lines, to avoid the risk of capture, returning early next morning to resume operations. The loss of one of the skilled men would have been a far more serious affair than that of a private soldier, who was merely a fighter, or, perhaps, even than that of some of the commissioned officers. Notwithstanding the length of time over which the operations extended, and the frequent proximity of the Union forces, there was never as much as a skirmish. To carry off bodily such a great mass of heavy material from points at intervals within the clutch of the opposing forces, without the loss of a single man, was indeed a remarkable feat.

The last time the "railroad corps" handled one of the captured locomotives was in the spring of 1862, when the Confederates evacuated Manassas just after the Second Bull Run. At that time the "igg," a "camelback," and the last of the engines to be taken from Martinsburgh, was at Strasburg ready to be conveyed by the way of railroads to Richmond. The sudden move of the armv rendered this impossible, as the direct route to the capital had been cut off; so the night of the evacuation the railroad force were ordered to get that "camelback" to Richmond by the only route left open, namely, the very circuitous one by way of Mount Jackson and Staunton. Accordingly, the "199," which had already cost so much time and trouble, was put on the tracks of the Manassas Gap railroad and taken to Mount Jackson, a distance of twenty-five miles, and thence by team over the pike, a matter of seventy miles more, to Staunton, where it was again placed on the rails, this time those of the Virginia Central, and hauled to Richmond. The trip occupied about four days, and the movement was the most hurried and exciting of the series. Many bridges had to be strengthened en route, and in crossing some of them it was found neccessary to substitute a block and fall for the horses. Staunton was reached early in the morning, and though it was scarcely daylight, the major portion of the population were up and out to see the novel cavalcade.

All the engines were kept at Richmond until the last one had been seized, the original intention having been to do the repairing and refitting there, but in Mav, 1862, when McClellan began his movement up the Peninsula and preparations to evacuate the capital were made, the dismantled locomotives and their dislocated members were among the very first freight started out of Richmond. To have allowed those precious "camelbacks " to fall into the hands of the northern troops after such risks and the expenditure of so much time, ingenuity and labor, would have been galling indeed. Colonel Sharp, who had them in charge, directed Mr. Duke to hurry the prizes by rail to a safe point in the South. They were accord- ingly taken to a place on the North Carolina Central road, in Allamance county, North Carolina, about fifty miles west of Raleigh. The movement was successfully accomplished, and the engines found another temporary resting place. Meantime the large shop buildings of the Raleigh & Gaston railroad at Raleigh were leased by the Southern government, fitted up with improved machinery, and the “Confederate States locomotive shops were established. The shops were ready for work by July, 1862, and the captured locomotives and the carloads of accessories were hauled back to Raleigh and a large force of workmen began the refitting and repairing. As fast as ready the rehabilitated engines were turned over to the various southern railroads, who purchased them from the Confederate States, readily paying for them by credits upon the government transportation accounts. The existence of the shops, which were extensive and fully equipped, was not generally known and was one of many evidences that the Confederate leaders, or at least some of them, realized that the war was to be no "three month's affair," but a long and hard struggle, and that the most systematic and thorough marshaling of resources and facilities was necessary. About ten months were occupied in turning out the locomotives, and it was over eighteen months from the date of the first raid on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad before they were all in active use again. They proved highly valuable in subsequent operations, coming into use as they did when much of the southern rolling stock was completely worn out.

The long time covered, first in securing and transporting the rolling stock, and afterwards in placing it in running order after the dismantling, showed no lack of skill or enterprise on the part of those engaged in the task (the fact that they accomplished it at all proved that they possessed those qualities in abundance), but is only evidence of the great and varied difficulties under which they labored. The delay was owing, in some degree, to the peculiar character of the mechanical obstacles to be overcome, but much more to the frequent changes in the positions of the contending armies. The "railroad corps" had always to follow the armv.

The operations were not confined to the carrying off of cars and engines. The best portion of the equipment of the Raleigh shops, above described, including lathes, planers, drill presses and last, but not lightest, a turn-table! were all conveyed to Raleigh in cars, by the way of the pike and railroads, from the Baltimore & Ohio roundhouse at Martinsburgh. More than this, at a later period of the war, the "railroad corps," who seemed to have stopped at nothing, actually tore up and hauled away the ties, rails, chairs and spikes, forming about five miles of the Baltimore & Ohio road between Duffields and Kearneysville and relaid it from Manassas Gap to Centerville for the use of the army. Mr. Duke remembers and relates with dry humor how, after most strenuous efforts, this piece of track was got into position late Saturday evening and how the very next day, Sunday, it was captured by the Union forces. This episode occurred just prior to Second Bull Run and was a striking example of the extreme uncertainty of war movements.

It is generally understood that after the war the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was reimbursed by the United States government for the damage inflicted in the seizure of the engines, cars and track material, as well as for the destruction of numerous bridges, etc., by the Southern forces. It is also reported and generally believed, that a number of the locomotives were recovered by the road after the war and were used for some time in the regular service of the company. Colonel Sharp, who conducted the movements for the seizure of the rolling stock, was, not many years after the war, made master of transportation of the Baltimore & Ohio road and filled that important position for a number of years under President John W. Garret, who was at the head of the road during the war, and who was able to appreciate enterprise and ability, even when for a season directed against his own interests.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).