The CIty Point & Army Rail Road was an operation of the United States Military Rail Roads around Petersburg, Virginia in the last year of the war. After Grant moved the Army of the Potomac to the south side of the Appomattox River in June of 1864 it was vital to bring them food and ammunition and to carry away wounded. City Point, at the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers, had deep enough water to handle large seagoing transports. The twelve mile long City Point Railroad had connected the deepwater port with Petersburg before the war, although by the time the Siege of Peterburg began the wharves had been burned and the railroad was unservicable.
By the end of June the wharves had been rebuilt and the rail line relaid eight miles to Pitkin Station, just out of artillery range from Confederate lines.The rail was laid with iron taken up from the Richmond & York River Railroad, which had been serving as Grant’s line of supply before the army’s move to Petersburg. This brought supplies to within two miles of the Union right flank in all weather, drastically reducing the distance they would have to be dragged by mule along the muddy and often bottomless Virginia country roads. Regular scheduled service started along the line on July 7.
The City Point terminal was expanded with a three track engine house, a turntable, and storage and facilities on the flats below the river bluff (below).
Tracks led out onto the wharves to facilitate loading directly from ships. Barges also floated fully loaded train cars down Chesapeake Bay and rolled them onto the tracks without needing to be unloaded and reloaded.
On August 9, 1864 the magazine wharf, which handled all of the ammunition that was used by the Federal army, blew up. It killed at least 43 and possibly as many as 60 people. Grant, who was in front of his headquarters tent a short distance away, had just finished speaking with his Assistant Provost-marshal General George Sharpe about Confederate spies in the camp. Grant’s aide, Horace Porter, wrote in his book, Campaigning with Grant, “there rained down upon the party a terrific shower of shells, bullets, boards, and fragments of timber. The general was surrounded by splinters and various kinds of ammunition, but fortunately was not touched by any of the missiles. Babcock of the staff was slightly wounded in the right hand by a bullet, one mounted orderly and several horses were instantly killed, and three orderlies were wounded.”
It was assumed that the explosion was due to careless handling of ammunition, although Sharpe tightened security. It was not until after the war that it became known that the exposion was an act of sabotage by Confederate Secret Service Agent John Maxwell, who simply walked up to one of the ammunition barges and gave a crewman a box to give to his captain. The box was a bomb that contained twelve pounds of gunpowder and a clockwork mechanism. When it exploded it caused a chain reaction that included two barges and the storage building on the wharf, exploding 30,000 artillery shells and 75,000 small arms rounds.
The old City Point Railroad disappeard into Confederate lines not far past Pitkin Station, so extending the military railroad farther meant surveying and building an entirely new line. Engineer J.J. Moore laid out a new route which paralleled about a mile behind the Union siege works. Nine miles of track were completed by the end of September, extending to the Weldon Railroad and the headquarters of the Union Fifth Corps, which was the left flank of the Union line at the time.
The construction of the railroad was relatively primative. Very little grading was done, with the tracks following the lay of the land. One staff officer wrote, “It ran up hill and down dale, and its undulations were so marked that a train moving along it looked in the distance like a fly crawling over a corrugated washboard.”
When the Union line was extended in November the railroad was also, with two and a half miles built to Peebles’ House. In December a branch was laid south from the main line parallel with Jerusalem Plank Road to Fort Blaisdell, part of the secondary Union defensive line protecting the Union rear. The final extension was a branch that ran south and west to just before Hatcher’s Run.
By the end of the siege a total of 22 miles of railroad was built and operated. As many as fifteen trains a day ran on the system, with each train capable of carrying 1,400 tons of supplies – the equivalent of 100 wagons.
The result of this construction was that for much of the siege almost all of the long Union line south of the Appomattox was less than two miles from the railroad. This didn’t just mean food and ammunion could reach the fighting line much easier and quicker. The total tonnage of supplies needed was reduced, since the use of draft animals was drastically cut. Even mules eat ten times the weight in food as a soldier – the rule of thumb was that for every wagon hauling supplies a second was needed to haul fodder for the animals. A typical train replaced 100 wagons that would have been pulled by six hundred hungry mules (not to mention a hundred hungry teamsters!)
The railroad had immense tactical benefits as well. Troops could be pulled out of the trenches and quickly transported to almost any other part of the line, arriving faster and less exhausted than their counterparts in grey, who had to struggle the entire distance on muddy roads.
Today there is a wayside marker at the location of Meade Station in the Eastern Front Unit of Petersburg National Battlefield Park which talks about the role of the Militray Rail Road. A short stretch of track shows the light rail and simple construction methods used.