Thursday, May 26, 2011


Following the creation and organization of the Confederate States government in the early months of 1861, on April 4, the Virginia Secession Convention met and voted “NO” to secession. However, on 15 April, after President Abraham Lincoln called for a 75,000-man army to invade the “rebelling” states, the Virginia Secession Convention reconvened and voted on 17 April, provisionally, to secede, on the condition of ratification by a statewide referendum.

The Governor of Virginia immediately began mobilizing the Virginia State Militia to strategic points around the state, including the assignment of Maj. Gen. Kenton Harper to the "Forces In and About Harper’s Ferry, Virginia" on 18 April. Nine days later, on 27 April, Col. Thomas J. (later “Stonewall”) Jackson, then of the Virginia State Militia, was ordered to relieve Harper. He began the task of organizing the defense of Virginia at that location. Harper’s Ferry held not only important arms production factories, but was a chokehold on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and key telegraph trunk lines connecting Baltimore and Washington, D.C. to the Ohio Valley and interior of the United States.

"Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. View of Maryland Heights at confluence of Shenandoah and Potomac rivers." Wet plate glass negative (1865) by James Gardner. Civil War glass negative collection, Library of Congress.

During this point in the Civil War, the state of Maryland's stance in the war was also not yet determined. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, then owned by the state of Maryland, ran through Maryland and along the Potomac River Valley in its pass through the Appalachian Mountains, but took a crucial turn at Harper's Ferry and passed south, through Virginia and Martinsburg while crossing the Shenandoah Valley. The railroad then continued on through much of present-day West Virginia, which then was still part of Virginia, meaning that the railroad continued for a major portion of its route through potentially “southern” territory. This exposed the railroad to raids and capture by Confederate forces if either Virginia or Maryland seceded from the Union.

As the inevitable war approached, the president of the B&O Railroad, John Garrett, who was sympathetic to the Union, did all he could to placate both sides in order to protect the railroad operations. Colonel Jackson, gathering intelligence on freight passing on the line, determined that coal was being shipped in large quantities from the Ohio Valley to Union naval bases in Baltimore which were fueling U.S. Navy warships attempting to blockade the more southern states. Jackson then devised a covert plan to destroy B&O Railroad operations while simultaneously benefiting Virginia and possibly the Confederacy.

Jackson complained to the B&O Railroad that the trains disturbed the rest of his
troops, and notified John Garrett that trains would only be allowed to pass through Harper’s Ferry between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in order to ensure their rest was not disturbed. This timetable bottleneck caused the B&O Railroad to pile up trains in yards on either side of Harper’s Ferry in order to maximize their throughput during this new curfew.

Harper's Ferry Armory burning during the great Confederate Train Raid of 1861.

On May 24, Colonel Jackson executed a raid to cut the B&O Railroad lines east of Martinsburg and west of Point of Rocks, thereby trapping a large quantity of
rolling stock in between, especially in the rail yard at Martinsburg. Jackson sent the 5th Virginia Infantry to Cherry Run, west of Martinsburg, to sever the line in that location, and he sent Col. John D. Imboden to Point of Rocks, east of Harper's Ferry, to sever the line there. From Martinsburg, the Winchester & Ohio Railroad ran as a spur off the mainline south to Winchester, Virginia, allowing Jackson to move his captured rail assets quickly to Winchester.

With the assistance of Captain Sharp and wagoners in Winchester, Jackson’s forces moved a total of 56 locomotives with tenders and over 300 railroad cars off the B&O Railroad and into Virginia State Militia hands. The wagoners in Winchester rigged special carriages and dollies to transport this equipment, especially the disassembled locomotives, south from Winchester along the Valley Turnpike over 100 miles to Staunton, Virginia. Although the locomotives and rail cars could have been placed on the Manassas Gap Railroad at Strasburg, Virginia, this would have required their transit via the Manassas Junction, which was considered too vulnerable and risky at the time to use. In an incredible and historical feat of engineering, the Virginia militia soldiers pulled the locomotive boilers with 40-horse teams, rigged artillery-style, through downtown Winchester south on the Valley Pike to the railhead at Staunton. These captured steam locomotives were subsequently sent into service on Confederate rail lines all throughout the South.

There will be a Re-enactment of the Great Train Raid this Memorial Day weekend in Strasburg, Virginia.

Various rail assets continued to be moved up the valley through the summer months of 1861, and for a period of the next two years, many of the railroad cars were still being secretly hauled away up the Valley to points deeper south for service in Confederate hands.

On 23 May the Commonwealth of Virginia conducted its popular vote, and secession was formally ratified. Immediately Major General Joseph E. Johnston, then of the Virginia State Militia, relieved Colonel Jackson and took command at Harpers Ferry on 24 May. Shortly afterward, on 8 June, all Virginia State troops were transferred to the authority of the Confederate States.

Following the war, all but one locomotive were returned to full service in the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The one locomotive not returned had been damaged by a Union raid, and was installed as the boiler for an engine in a Confederate gunboat. This railroad heist holds the record for being the largest train robbery and railroad theft in history.



  1. The venerable Turner Ashby was very active in the campaign you describe above. He was a hard charging Virgina boy. I found a very nice Confederate button while looking for arrow heads there in the flood plain upstream from the Point of Rocks bridge.