The regiments of the Potomac Home Brigade were raised with the primary goal of protecting the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from maurauding rebel raiders. This was an essential mission given the importance of the B&O to the Union war effort. It was a vital artery for carrying men and materiel between the east coast and the old northwest. The B&O made possible the greatest logistical feat of the war – the transfer of the 11th and 12th corps west to Tennesse in the fall of 1863. Over 20,000 men along with their artillery, baggage, and draft animals were moved over 1,200 miles in a week. This amazing example of 19th century logistics would not have been possible without the men of the Railroad Department, who made sure that the trains were able to run without fear of rebel interference.
From Baltimore the railroad wound west through Maryland, following the north bank of the Potomac up to Harper’s Ferry. There it crossed the Potomac and meandered through the eastern panhandle of present day West Virginia before recrossing into Maryland in Allegany County. West of Cumberland the railroad again crossed into West Virginia, climbing through the hills and valleys westward to the Ohio River.
In 1861 much of that path would become – at least nominally – enemy territory. The remote hills and hollows of western Virginia were the ideal staging ground for partisan warfare, and the B&O became a tempting target for Confederate attacks. Some of the earliest rebel offensives of the war resulted from Virginia troops attempting to sever the vital lifeline, which in turn helped to solidify anti-Confederate sentiment in western Maryland (1). Cutting the railroad would not only help to isolate Washington, DC, but would also go a long way towards discouraging unionist sentiment in western Virginia. The B&O provided and economic, social, and political connection between upper (West) Virginia and the industrial centers of the north, not to the tidewater south. One Confederate officer recognized this phenomenon and made the following declaration:
We can now put matters to rights in Virginia and turn our attention to [Governor] Pierpont and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The former will soon be disposed of, and we trust that a portion of our army will immediately set to work to destroy the latter in a way to render its reconstruction impracticable. Every bridge, tunnel and culvert should be forthwith demolished – every embankment leveled, every cut filled up, and every cross tie and rail removed, from Harper’s Ferry to Wheeling and Parkersburg. The road has been a source of nothing but evil to the State since it was made, and more especially since the commencement of the war. Along its whole line the taint of disloyalty and treason is to be seen. It has more or less Yankeeized the entire region between its track and the Pennsylvania border, from the Ohio to the Potomac (2).
Many of the Virginians and West Virginians with ties to the railroad would find themselves in the ranks of the Potomac Home Brigade as the war commenced, and it is no coincidence that the Railroad towns on both banks of the Potomac became recruiting centers for the regiments (3).
Guarding hundreds of miles of railroad through wild and potentially hostile territory would be a challenge throughout the war. In response the Railroad Department relied on a number of different strategies to keep the trains running. Small highly mobile garrisons were strung out along the train line at different depots, where they were able to patrol against attempts to cut rail and telegraph connections. At important choke-points like bridges fortified blockhouses were constructed, allowing relatively small numbers of troops to fend off raiders. Perhaps the most innovative protection, however, came in the form of ironclad trains.
Much has been written about how the railroad changed the nature of war in the 1860s. For the first time in American history large numbers of troops could be moved rapidly to the front via rail. Cities like Corinth Mississppi, Chattanooga Tennessee, Atlanta Georgia, and Petersburg Virginia were targeted for the strategic rail connections they contained. Rail-mounted siege artillery was used for the first time in warfare. The invention of highly mobile ironclad trains for the protection of vulnerable infrastructure grew out of this experimentation, and several of these “land monitors” saw service along the more isolated parts of the Baltimore and Ohio. At the first sign of enemy activity beleaguered stationmasters could telegraph for backup and these steam-powered behemoths would rush to the scene.
At least two ironclad trains were operated along the Upper Potomac by Company K of the 2nd PHB Infantry. Before I get into their service though, let’s take a look at some descriptions so we can picture them a little better. One post-war account recalled that “At Cumberland, a couple of gondola cars had been in some way roofed over or covered with iron rails, the sides were pierced by port-holes, and they carried small brass guns, probably three or four-pounders” (4). A rebel who went into action against one of the trains provided described “…a train of house-cars, walled up on the inside with heavy cross ties for breastworks. There was an iron-clad battery formed of rail bars at each end, with the locomotive in the center” (5). These descriptions match others that I have come across. The consensus seems to be that there was an ironclad car on each end mounted with small artillery pieces and covered in iron rails, fortified cars for riflemen inside these, and a locomotive and tender in the center. The locomotives used for these ironclad trains were B&O engines no. 120 and 144, both of which were 0-8-0 Winan’s camels modified to protect the engineer (6).
Captain Petrie, the commander of this “rapid response force” was a native of Madison County, New York, and was 55 years old when the war broke out. In the years leading up to the Civil War he had made his way down to Somerset County, Pennsylvania, where he owned a prosperous farm. Like their commander, nearly half the men in Company K came from Pennsylvania -predominantly from the area around the town of Wellersburg. The remainder of the men came from far western Maryland and (West) Virginia, with a smattering of immigrants from Germany and Scotland.
In general it looks like Petrie’s command acquitted itself well, providing firepower in a hurry when and where it was most needed. They thwarted Confederate attempts to burn bridges and disrupt rail traffic between Harper’s Ferry and Cumberland on numerous occasions (7). As heavily armored as the trains were, however, they were far from invincible. Their ad-hoc armor was effective against small arms, but was vulnerable to larger artillery pieces. The Home Brigaders found this out the hard way in the summer of 1864.
In July 1864 Jubal Early launched the last large Confederate invasion of the north, sending cavalry under Generals John Imboden and John McCausland deep into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Early on the morning of July 4 approximately 1,500 of these gray-clad troopers launched an attack on the railroad bridge spanning the South Branch of the Potomac, approximately 1.5 miles east of Green Spring, WV.
Guarding the bridge was a two story blockhouse on the western end, garrisoned by the 153rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Skirmishing erupted along the picket lines a little after 5 AM. Heavily outnumbered the Buckeyes gradually fell back to the blockhouse, which was further reinforced by an ironclad car manned by an officer and 6 men of Company K, 2nd PHB Infantry. Lt. Moses Bickford commanded the ironclad, and his younger brother Albert was among his command. The Bickford brothers hailed from New Hampshire, but the rest of the crew were locals. They included John and James Croston, two brothers from Hampshire County, WV; Benjamin Closs of Bedford County, PA; Alexander King of Allegany County, MD; and Dennis Dehaven of Somerset County, PA. Their car was armed with a single 12 pounder field piece hidden behind a porthole equipped with a movable lid (8).
The Yankees kept up a brisk fire throughout the morning, even as Imboden’s men brought up artillery in an attempt to batter down the bridge supports. Both the blockhouse and rail car drew artillery fire as well. Early in the day a lucky rebel shot found its way through the small porthole in the rail car from a half mile away. The car was filled with flame and smoke as the shell’s fuze sputtered away. Private John Croston grabbed the burning shell in an attempt to throw it out of the porthole before it exploded, but in vain. Badly burned, he, his brother, and the other Home Brigaders scrambled for the trapdoor in the bottom of the car. All seven managed to slip out of the ironclad right before the shell exploded, wrecking the rail car (9). The loss of the ironclad led the rebels to redouble their efforts to take the blockhouse, and it was only the timely arrival of Captain Petrie and another ironclad car that saved the day (10). The rebels retreated, leaving the bridge intact, and Petrie was able to capture a handful of the Confederate stragglers.
Less than a month later another one of Petrie’s ironclads was involved in a desperate fight just west of the South Branch, near Green Spring, WV. On August 1 John McCausland’s rebel cavalry was cutting across Allegany County after burning Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
As he moved towards Cumberland he and his men were repulsed on te high ground east of town at the Battle of Folck’s Mill. Under cover of darkness the rebels withdrew southeastward across the mountains and towards Oldtown, Maryland. There they could cross the C&O Canal and the Potomac to the relative safety of the West Virginia hills. Guided by a local held at gunpoint, the Confederates took a meandering mountain path through the night, arriving at the outskirts of Oldtown just before dawn (11).
Observing some infantry and an ironclad train blocking their escape the rebels decided to use their superior numbers and speed to push across before Union reinforcements arrived from Cumberland. A sharp fight broke out on the ground between the canal and the river as the northern skirmishers fell back across to the (West) Virginia side of the river. As at nearby South Branch, there was a blockhouse overlooking the river crossing that served as a rallying point for the retreating Federals. Rifle and artillery fire from the armored train raked the bridge and the area between the river and canal, keeping the Confederate’s pinned to the river bank; approximately 100 Ohioans (of the 153rd Ohio again) added their fire from the blockhouse. Repeated rebel attempts to ford the river were repulsed until several artillery pieces were moved within range. Firing from the high ground on the north bank of the Potomac the rebels managed to put a shot through the boiler of the locomotive, scalding a number of men, disabling the train, and reducing the Home Brigaders to sitting ducks (12). Petrie’s command fled to the nearby woods, abandoning their Ohio comrades in the nearby blockhouse. Surrounded, vastly outnumbered, and low on rounds the Ohioans soon surrendered, but not before inflicting heavy casualties on the rebel cavalrymen. Their last obstacle cleared, the rebels continued their southward movement, leaving the abandoned ironclad behind.
EDIT – Speaking of Civil War blockhouses, here’s a great article on their construction via Craig Swain. No doubt the blockhouse that guarded the rail station and river crossing was similar to the ones seen here.
These two incidents clearly show the limitations of the Federal ironclad rail cars. Against lightly armed raiders and partisans they were more than capable of defending their objectives. Against thousands of rebels armed with heavier artillery, however, they were vulnerable to a lucky shot. Nevertheless they remain a fascinating part of the war on the Potomac frontier.
(1) Snyder, Timothy. “Border Strife on the Upper Potomac: Confederate Incursions from Harpers Ferry and their Affect on Maryland-Virginia Relations, April-June 1861” Maryland Historical Magazine. Spring 2002.
(2) Emphasis mine. “The March into Maryland” Petersburg Express. 28 September, 1862. Quoted in The Valley Register 3 October, 1862.
(3) These include Monrovia, Berlin, Point of Rocks, Cumberland, and Oakland in Maryland and Piedmont, New Creek, and Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia.
(4) Koontz, William; editor. A History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania Volume II. Lewis Publishing. 1906. p 322.
(5) Gilmor, Harry. Four Years in the Saddle. Harper Bros. 1866. p 218.
(6) Baltimore and Ohio Employee Magazine. May 1918. p 20-22.
(8) Maxwell, Hu and Swisher, H.L. History of Hampshire County, West Virginia, from its Earliest Settlement to the Present. A.B. Boughner, Printer. 1897. pp 648-649
(9) Ibid. pp 649-650
(10) Nichols, Clifton. A Summer Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, in 1864. New Era Company. 1899. p 110-111
11 Gilmor. p 216
12 Ibid. pp 219-220; OR Series I Volume 37 (Part I). pp 188-189