Places & Things > Railroads

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was one of the earliest railroads in American history. It played a vital role in the Civil War, providing the only rail route from the north to Washington D.C., as well as an important connection from the Ohio River valley to the Chesapeake Bay. Its position running along the border between the Union and the Confederacy caused it to be a target for the military campaigns of both sides, and its track, buildings and equipment were destroyed and rebuilt throughout the war. Nevertheless, under the able leadership of its president, John W. Garrett, the railroad finished the war strong and profitable.

The Early Days of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad

The idea for the Baltimore & Ohio started in 1827 when a series of meetings was held by Baltimore businessmen to discuss the potential loss to the city’s commerce which would be caused by the proposed Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The canal was planned to connect Cumberland, Maryland, with Washington, D.C., diverting traffic from the Maryland panhandle which Baltimore considered to be their natural market.

The first stone of the railroad was laid in 1828 by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence. The first thirteen miles of track was laid to Ellicott’s Mills (now Ellicott City) in 1830. The cars were pulled by horses, with the horses changed at Relay. But in the same year Peter Cooper’s experimental steam locamotive, the “Tom Thumb,” was tested against a horse-drawn train, and the railroad adopted the new morive power.

By December of 1831 the railroad had been completed to Frederick, and in April of 1832 it reached Point of Rocks. In December of 1834 the road was completed to Sandy Hook, across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry.

The Washington Branch

In 1831 the Maryland Assembly authorized the Baltimore & Ohio to build a 30 mile line which branched off the B&O’s main line at Relay to connect to Washington. Construction started in 1833 and was finished in August of 1835 when the Thomas Viaduct was completed. The viaduct was at the time the largest railroad bridge in the country. It is still in use today, making it one of the oldest railroad bridges in continuous use in the world.

Thomas Viaduct, engraving from The United States Illustrated, Charles A. Dana, Editor, 1858. United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID hhh.md0802.

The railroad began carrying the mail between Washington and Baltimore in 1838. In 1843 the country’s first telegraph line began being laid along the railroad between the two cities, with financing from the Federal Government. The line was completed in 1844 and the message, “What hath God wrought?” was sent, the first telegraph message. The combination of the rapid movement of the railroads and instant communication of the telegraph would transform the world, as would be seen with their impact on military strategy in the Civil War.

West to the Ohio River

The bridge across the Potomac to Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) was completed in 1836. The 830 foot covered wood truss would be the only railroad bridge across the Potomac until the Civil War. In 1837 the Winchester & Potomac Railroad connected to the Baltimore & Ohio from the south with a “Y” onto the Potomac bridge. This brought in traffic 32 miles to the south from the Shenandoah Valley’s largest city.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad crossing of the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. This is the second bridge at the location, which replaced the original wooden covered bridge and lasted until the Civil War. The C&O canal is visible just above the bridge. The Winchester & Potomac Railroad enters the photo from the lower right and joins the B&O at the bridge.

Construction continued west across northern Virginia until crossing back into Maryland at the confluence of Patterson Creek and the North Branch of the Potomac. The road reached Cumberland in 1842, beating the C&O Canal, which would not be completed to that point until 1850.

In 1852 the B&O reached the Ohio River at Wheeling. A suspension bridge for road traffic crossed the Ohio there since 1849 (it still exists today, although it is resticted to pedestrian and bicycle traffic.) Attempts to build a railroad bridge extending the railroad into Ohio were blocked until after the Civil War. A second line split off from the original at Grafton and built to the Ohio River at Parkersburg. Parkersburg was 89 miles downstream from Wheeling and below rapids that limited navigation during low water periods on the river.

The Baltimore & Ohio at the Beginning of the War

By 1861 the Baltimore & Ohio operated over 500 miles of railroad connecting Baltimore, Maryland with Washington D.C. and with two points on the Ohio River on the western border of Virginia. It ran 236 locomotives which included some of the most advanced engines in the country, 128 passenger cars and nearly 3,500 frieght cars. The railroad was in sound financial shape, and in an age where gruesome railway accidents were commonplace due to unregulated, slipshod operating methods and dangerous engineering practices, the Baltimore & Ohio did not suffer a single passenger fatality in the ten years before the war.

Timeline of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War

October 16

John Brown’s Raid

John Brown and 18 armed men captured the Baltimore & Ohio railroad bridge, the United States Armory and Arsenal and the United States Rifle Works. When the nightly express train was halted at the bridge Heyward Shepherd, a free African American and an employee of the railroad, was shot and mortally wounded by Brown’s men when he went to investigate the reason for the delay.

Townspeople and local militia gather, and people on both sides are shot and killed. Most of Brown’s men are driven into the Armory’s fire engine house.

A special B&O train was sent from Washington D.C. carrying 90 United States Marines commanded by army officers Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant James E.B. Stuart and Marine Lieutenant Israel Green. The Marines storm the engine house and kill or capture Brown’s men, losing one Marine killed and another wounded.

April 27 Colonel Thomas Jackson took command at Harpers Ferry. Notice was received that Northern troops were on the way from Ohio to Washington, and artillery batteries were set up to intercept any troop trains. Several trains were stopped and searched, but the only Union officer captured was General William Harney. Harney was a high ranking officer, one of only four line generals in the Regular U.S. Army. But he had been relieved from his command of the Department of the West after he had colluded with pro-Southern sympathizers, and was on his way from St. Louis to forced retirement in Washington. Harney was sent on to Rickmond on his parole, and was quickly released.
May 15 The railroad was notified by Colonel Jackson that no trains would be allowed through at night except scheduled passenger service.
May 23 Imboden and Harper were ordered to close the railroad.
June 10 The Harpers Ferry bridge was destroyed. The bridge was to be destroyed and rebuilt nine times during the war, all but once by military action.
June 23

Jackson began the destruction of 54 miles of the line, from Point of Rocks to Martinsburg. Forty locomotives and 380 cars were destroyed and 23 bridges burned.

The closure of the line had a huge impact. Freight rates skyrocketed from the Great Lakes just as the United States government was attempting to build up an army to defend Washington. The B&O at one point had 200 locomotives and 2200 cars idle.

Thomas R. Sharp was a 27 year old Pennsylvanian who had spent his adult life managing Southern rail lines, and had recently moved two locomotives across country from Leesburg to avoid Federal capture. He gathered a crew of ten teamsters and six machinists. Using 40 horses, 14 locomotives were moved from Martinsburg 40 miles up the Shenandoah Valley to Strasburg and the Virginia Central Railroad. Two were abandoned on the way south after runaways on a down grade, but 12 reached Strasburg.

July 2 Union General Patterson recaptured the B&O as his forces advanced south toward Winchester.
July 21 Captured B&O engines were used when Johnson’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah was moved by rail to reinforce Beauregard at the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
May Jackson’s Valley Campaign destroyed two bridges and some track near Martinsburg
September 4-20 Lee’s Maryland Campaign destroyed the road from Point of Rocks to Monocacy Bridge. Jackson’s Harpers Ferry operation destroyed 35 miles of track and bridges from Harpers Ferry to Hancock.
September 15 Virginia’s Governor Letcher announced open season on the B&O in a legislative message. “The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad has been a positive nuisance to this state, from the opening of this war to the present time; and unless its management shall hereafter be in friendly hands, and the government under which it exists be a part of our Confederacy, it must be abated.”
January 6 The road was reopened.
April 21 The Jones – Imboden raid destroyed the Mononghahelia River Bridge, the largest bridge on the railroad It also set fire to oil fields at Burning Springs, sending 150,000 barrels of burning oil down the river, destroying 2 trains, 16 bridges, and a tunnel.
May 4 The Mononghahelia River Bridge and the nearby destroyed trackage was repaired and restored.
June 17

Lee’s Gettysburg Campaign destroyed the road from Harpers Ferry to Martinsburg as the Army of Northern Virginia moved north into Pennsylvania, including 7 miles of bridge, track and many structures. The Long Bridge at Harpers Ferry was spared when the Union garrison withdrew onto the fortifications of Maryland Heights.

July 5 The bridge at Harpers Ferry was burned by the Union commander to deny it to Lee’s army on their retreat back to Virginia.
August 11 The road fro Harpers Ferry to Martinsburg was restored.
September 25

The first trains rolled as 23,000 men of the 11th and 12th Corps of the Army of the Potomac were transferred to the Western Theater in an emergency movement to save Chattanooga. The troops would be carried by the Baltimore & Ohio from Washington north to Relay House, then west across Maryland and West Virginia to the Ohio River.

By 10:00 am three trains totalling more than 60 cars carrying over 2,000 men had passed Martinsburg. Nine more trains carrying a further 7,000 men had passed Relay House.

September 27 The first troop train reached Benwood on the Ohio River in the morning. The men would cross the Ohio on a pontoon bridge and be handed off to other railroads to continue on. By that time 12,600 men, 10 cars of baggage and 33 cars of artillery had passed Washington.
September 30 The first four trains of the movement reached the end of the line, the burned railroad bridge at Bridgeport, Alabama.
October 8 The last men and guns finished the nearly thousand mile trip. 
February Rosser’s Raid burned two bridges near Cumberland, and Gilmore robbed a train at Martinsburg.
May 5 McNeil’s Rangers destroyed one passenger and two freight trains at Bloomington, Maryland, along with the machine shop at nearby Piedmont, West Virginia, including 9 locomotives and 22 cars.
July 4-12 Early’s Raid on Washington destroyed the line from Martinsburg to Harpers Ferry and on to Monocacy, as well as part of the Washington Branch at Beltsville.
July 9 The Battle of Monocacy was fought along the B&O just outside Frederick, Virginia.
July 21 The damage from Early’s Raid was rebuilt after Early retreated into the Shenandoah Valley.
July 26 Early returned north and damaged 75 miles of road from Harpers Ferry to Cumberland, including 11 miles of rail.
September 20-27 Repairs began after Sheridan defeated Early at Winchester and were finished in a week. 
October 13 Mosby’s Greenback Raid took place 7 miles west of Harpers Ferry. The engine’s boiler exlpoded after it derailed, killing the crew. Two army paymasters were relieved of $173,000. The passengers were ordered out so Mosby’s men could burn the train, but a carload of German Immigrants refused to budge. An interpreter explained that they had purchased through tickets to the end of the line. Mosby saw stacks of New York newspapers at the end of the car and ordered his men to scatter them in the aisles and “Burn the damned Dutch up if they wouldn’t move.”
November 28 Rosser’s Raid at New Creek and Piedmont was primarily after supplies for his hungry troopers. Very little damage was done to the railroad, and it was repaired in two days.