It was April of 1861 and one of the most troubled
regions of our troubled nation was the lower Shenandoah
Valley. In the border community of Martinsburg, petty
persecution alienated many who were not strongly committed
for or against the secession of Virginia from the Union.
Many young men were gone with either the Confederate army or
the Federal army.
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad spanned the region,
crossing the Potomac River at nearby Harpers Ferry, cutting
a great arc across the lower Valley, and re-entering
Maryland to the west at Cumberland. Since the 1830ís the
economy of the lower Valley had become increasingly linked
to the railroad. Virginiaís attempt to integrate its own
rail system with the B&O - the Winchester and Potomac
Railroad - was a mere feeder line, unconnected with any
other railroad. Many residents of the lower Valley were
willling to let the fate of the railroad determine their
At this same time, the 1200 Virginians and 400
Kentuckians who occupied Harpers Ferry received a new
commander, Colonel Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who had been a
professor at the Virginia Military Institute. Old Jack, as
he was known, was sent to Harpers Ferry to take charge of
these raw volunteers, construct some sort of defense,
observe the B&O Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal,
and to assess the morale in the northwestern part of
Colonel Jackson wore a bad-fitting, single-breasted
blue coat of VMI, and high boots which covered his very
large feet. He had the gait and mannerisms of an inept
professor, but had a stern military competence, for he was
an expert in organizing and molding troops. Old Jack never
spoke unless spoken to, never seemed to sleep, and had his
headquarters under a tree. He was said to have a mean
streak about little things, and believed that if something
was important, it ought to be done well. Yet, he was as
courteous to the humblest private as he was to the highest
officer in his command. Jackson was a deeply religious man
and stood very high in the estimation of all for his rigid
moral conduct and the absolute faith he displayed in both
word and deed.
When he took command at Harpers Ferry, Jackson noticed
that the B&O was still running. An exaggerated politeness
existed between the forces facing each other across the
Potomac. Richmond wanted the arsenal machinery moved from
Harpers Ferry, but at this time the only wagon
transportation available was that which could be
The trains ran both day and night through Harpers
Ferry, mostly carrying coal from Cumberland to the eastern
shore for the Federal Navy stockpiles. Since the railroad
was double-tracked from Point of Rocks, east of Harpers
Ferry, to Cherry Run, west of Martinsburg, trains could
travel both eastward (when loaded) and westward (when
empty). To keep an eye on the railroad, Jackson sent John
D. Imbodenís force to Point of Rocks, and Col. Kenton Harper
with the 5th Virginia Infantry to Martinsburg.
Under the pretext that his troops were having their
rest interrupted by the trains passing at all hours of the
night, Col. Jackson complained to B&O Railroad president J.
W. Garrett, and requested that all the night trains,
eastward bound, be scheduled to pass Harpers Ferry between
the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Garrett had no choice
but to comply, and for several days thereafter was heard the
constant roar of passing trains for one hour before and
Since the empties were sent westward at night,
Jackson again complained to Garrett that the nuisance was as
great as ever, and insisted that westbound trains pass
during the same two hours as the eastbound trains. Again,
Garrett complied, thus creating, for two hours every day,
the liveliest railroad in America.
As soon as the schedule was working at its best, Old
Jack sprung his trap. On May 22, Jackson ordered Imboden
to let all westbound traffic pass until noon, but to permit
no eastbound trains to pass, and at noon to obstruct the
road so that it would take several days to repair it. He
ordered Harper at Martinsburg to do the reverse. Thus, he
caught all the trains going east or west between those
pints. Various accounts state that as many as 42
locomotives were captured, and over 300 cars.
Some of the smaller engines were taken to Winchester
via the Winchester and Potomac Line. A tough problem was
encountered, though, for at Winchester, the branch line
ended. But the Valley pike lay between Winchester and
Strasburg, where the rails of the Manassas Gap Railroad were
waiting. With these small locomotives, it was possible for
horses to haul them 20 miles down the Pike to Strasburg.
On May 24, 1861, General Joseph E. Johnston took
command at Harpers Ferry, with Colonel Jackson being his
second in command. Since General Johnston did not see the
railroad as being as valuable to the Confederacy as did
Colonel Jackson, and since Federal forces under General
Robert Patterson approached from Chambersburg to the north,
and forces under General George B. McClellan approached
Romney to the west, Jackson was ordered to destroy any B&O
Railroad property he could not take with him.
He torched the roundhouse in Martinsburg, and other
buildings there. The bridge at Shepherdstown followed the
one at Harpers Ferry into the river. Three hundred five
cars, mostly coal-carrying gondolas were set afire, many
with the coal still in them, so that for weeks along miles
of track, their twisted & warped frames burned red-hot.
Jackson took his time with the locomotives, however, knowing
how badly the Confederacy needed such machines.
He wondered if there could be any way to put them to
use for the South. As he thought, he remembered the little
locomotives he moved overland from Winchester to Strasburg.
He made his own calculations, consulted, sought expert
advice, brought in Hugh Longust, a veteran Richmond railroad
man, and put Captain Thomas Sharp, acting quartermaster
general, to work. Thirty-five mechanics, teamsters, and
laborers were organized into a unit. They collected
powerful horses from the surrounding area, then went to work
on a 50-ton locomotive. They stripped it - bells, piston
rods, valves, pumps, lamps, anything that could be removed
to make it lighter, including the forward wheels, was
removed. They swung the frame off the rails onto an
emergency truck fitted with thick, iron-shod wooden wheels.
The locomotive was drawn by forty horses - four abreast, and
ten deep, connected to the locomotive by a heavy chain.
As the whips cracked, and the horses strained, the
iron horse lumbered southward. Along the macadam
turnpike, all bridges had been examined and strengthened or
repaired as necessary. Holes were filld in, and when hills
were too much for the horses, the army came to their aid.
Two hundred men added their muscles, their shouts, their
curses, and their wild singing to the racket. Often the
engine would break the crust of the road, sinking to its
axles, but it could be pulled out again, and sent on its way
southward. The great iron locomotive traveled eighteen
miles to Winchester the first day, and the twenty miles to
Strasburg in the next two days.
The whole countryside turned out to see the hilarious
spectacle. The spectators roared with laughter, but they
admired Jacksonís inventiveness. Through June and early
July, the slow procession of the engines moved on and on, as
the army attended to other business. As late as the next
summer, Valley men were struggling to drag the engines to
Strasburg. The last was No. 199, a Ross Winans camel-
back. It could not make the Manassas Gap before the
Federal Army closed it in 1862, so the determined crew
dragged it up the valley to Staunton, where it broke loose
on a hill and careened through the streets. It was a
fitting end to the hilarious and fantastic series of events.
As for the old professor, while attending to business,
Colonel Thomas Jonathan Jackson became General Stonewall
Jackson, earning his nickname at the Battle of Bull Run
(Manassas) on July 21, of that same summer. Jackson went on
to play a major role in the war until his death.