Volume III - No. 3
TWELVE THOUSAND IN FOR A SIXTY-MILE RAILROAD
The Capture of the Petersburg and Weldon Line in 1864
By Raleigh C. Taylor,
Little boys are told, doubtless with good reason, that they should not put pennies on the tracks since possibly the locomotive would be derailed. One way and another, however, it always costs more than a penny to stop a train, just as it costs a great many pennies and sometimes a few lives to start one, if we count the construction of the road.
The Petersburg and Weldon Railroad, one of the earlier Virginia lines, was relatively inexpensive in construction. Certainly its 60 miles of right-of-way crossed neither mountain nor desert, and it appears that the story of its building has left no deep impress on American history. Not so for its destruction, for the stoppage of that one line had significant military consequences during a period which equals the time in which Napoleon moved from exile to empire and back -- a hundred days.
It was in the summer of 1864, when the nation still awaited the outcome of Grant's struggle with Lee, begun in May on the Rapidan River but now shifted, after many battles and unprecedented losses, 70 miles southward to Petersburg. The Confederates, holding Petersburg and Richmond, had to draw supplies from farther south. If Grant could cut the railroads in that direction, Lee would be compelled to leave his entrenched line around the two cities.
The Petersburg and Weldon thus had become increasingly important in the campaign. As early as May 7, while Grant was still in the Wilderness, Federal cavalry from Butler's army had interrupted traffic. Again in late June raiders crossed it once more, and this time the infantry reached the rails. The effort cost them 2,000 prisoners and gave to General William Mahone his first victory in the defense of Petersburg. Nevertheless, the blue-coats remained on the road or in easy reach of it for some days. With Early rapping at the gates of Washington, however, there was urgent call for troops and the road was abandoned once more to the Confederates.
In July and August the wheezy locomotives still were rolling between Weldon and Petersburg. In mid-August, General Gouverneur K. Warren, a small man in a large black hat, with a heavy sword and a long bird nose, the engineer officer who had seen and defended the key position at Gettysburg, was given his greatest assignment. With a semi-detached left wing finally consisting of 20,000 infantry, he moved out to take possession of the railroad. His column advanced swiftly, bothered more by dust and sunstroke than by the shots from Confederate pickets. A storm came in early afternoon and with it one of the divisions moving northward was attacked by the Confederates in the thick woods. The battle had no particular result except to show that the road was not to be taken without trouble.
Next day, in continued rains that made the wagon roads impassable, the Confederates, having realized the seriousness of Warren's expedition, gathered all available strength to thrust it back. The red-bearded A. P. Hill, who was to die when Petersburg fell, did his best to postpone the day. His wiry, high-voiced "toy soldier" General Mahone pushed his division down through the woods to the west of Warren and, although the artillery pounded them back from the open ground beyond, they brought in a heavy "bag" of prisoners, just as they had done two months before near the same spot.
Two days later the Confederates with a still stronger force tried once more, this time from the west, but the chief result was the 350 dead and wounded left in Federal hands. With that failure Lee decided that the game no longer was worth it, or at least that there was no use pushing his thinning regiments against well established lines.
The Federals began a thorough destruction of the rail line, extending the work southward as more troops arrived, this time under Hancock, the corps commander of whom Grant said that he never committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. Yet Hancock's troops, two miles south of Warren's line, were struck and surrounded by A. P. Hill and Hampton's cavalry. Hill, sick, directed the attack from a blanket on the field. The Federals were broken and lost nine cannon. August 25 was a black day for Hancock who expressed the hope that he might never leave that field. He and Miles (later to command the army) and Gregg of the cavalry saved what they could from the wreckage.
The tale of the Weldon was not over quite yet. In December General Warren was sent out again, on a miserable march through rain and sleet, to complete the destruction southward. He reached Emporia, burning the ties and heating and bending the rails from the Nottoway to the Meherrin. The main event, besides the weather, was the finding of considerable quantities of applejack in almost every house, a circumstance which caused delay and straggling and the rise of a rumor that the country people had killed some of the soldiers. The consequences was the unauthorized burning of many houses on the return march.
Thus, before the end of 1864, the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad was disposed of entirely as a military factor. Forty miles of it was a complete wreck. Leaving out labor and property loss, the work had cost the Federal army 9,500 men in killed, wounded and missing --- more than 200 for every mile of wrecked track. Confederate losses are estimated at 2,339. It is doubtful whether any other railroad in the world has been more thoroughly baptized in blood.
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