Too Few Trains

The Reinforcement of P. G. T. Beauregard at First Manassas

By Charles T. Harrell © 1999
reprinted by permission of the author

Chapter 4

Jackson's command approached Piedmont Station about 6:00 a.m. and within two hours most of his brigade, excepting the 33rd Virginia Infantry, had boarded a train for Manassas Junction. It was an exceedingly slow trip, eight hours for the thirty-six mile trip but as Jackson's troops detrained at Manassas and were placed in line late Friday afternoon, history had been made. The first major movement of a organized combat force from one theater of operations to another had been perfected and proved the value of railroad transportation to military operations. But it did not end there. Only 2,000 troops had been moved and another 10,000 awaited transport. The defense at Blackburn's Ford had afforded the Confederates some time, but would it be enough?(26)

The fundamental problem which Johnston faced on July 19th was a shortage of trains. Major Whiting had reported that the railroad could transport the entire army within 24 hours and Manassas Gap Railroad president Edward Marshall assured Johnston of its feasibility, but if to transport 2,000 men one way took eight hours, how could the railroad transport 12,000 in twenty-four? Meanwhile, Confederate troops kept arriving from Johnston's van at the little Piedmont Station. As the soldiers waited, John O. Casler recalled "a regular picnic with plenty to eat, lemonade to drink, and beautiful young ladies to chat with" created a near party atmosphere. There was only one train available and little hope of finding another in time to complete the movement on time. A second train arrived about 3:00 p.m. and the 33rd Virginia Infantry boarded arriving late Friday evening.(27) On a third run, the train loaded the 7th and 8th Georgia Infantry Regiments of Bartow's Brigade and set off once again for Manassas Junction. This train ran exceedingly slow. W.A. Evans of the 11th Mississippi describe his train trip with the words, "Imagine our impatience on a freight train going only six miles to the hour" as his regiment approached the sounds of battle.(28) Berrien McPherson Zettler, a private in Company B, 8th Georgia Infantry wrote in 1912 of his experience with military railroad transport.

That day we came to a station on the Manassas Gap Railroad, said to be about twenty-five miles from Manassas Junction, our destination according to the good ladies who furnished our breakfast and filled our haversacks. About sunset we boarded a freight train. You remember it was July. I thought the top of the car would be the best place, so I climbed up. But soon the heated metal and boards, supplemented with cinders and smoke from the engine, caused me to want to be inside the car. So at the first station I swung down and entered. I thought of the "black hole of Calcutta" and began to think my time had come - not from Yankee bullets, but from choking suffocation. I felt that I was being cooked alive. I have disliked the looks of a freight car ever since that night. Do you blame me? I slept some, of course, but was waked up every few minutes, it seemed to me, by rude jolts as we backed or went into a side track to get out of the way of an approaching train.

It was said the employees or officials were in sympathy with the Yankees and were simply "killing time" to delay our arrival at Manassas. However that may be, it is a fact we took all night to make that twenty five miles, and did not reach Manassas Junction until seven or eight o'clock Saturday morning.(29)

When the train finally returned to Piedmont Friday evening, Johnston's hopes revived. There would be a chance to move more troops to the field of battle. But instead of picking up more troops, the engineers and train crew abandoned their locomotives and retired to their homes complaining "that they had been working for twenty-four hours and were now going home for some rest." After a night's rest, the crews reappeared and began the operation once again.(30)

What transpired in the homes of the train crew that night is not known, but it is not too far to speculate that the railroad personnel realized the importance Johnston and the Confederates placed on the rail movement. Possibly doubting the righteousness of the Confederate cause, the conductor might have deemed it wise to delay the movement in case of a Federal victory at the ensuing battle. Subsequent events combined with a general mistrust of the railroads by the Confederate troops add credibility to this theory.(31)

Fearing a repeat of Friday night's rest by the train crews, Johnston found another train from an undisclosed location and loaded it with the 4th Alabama Infantry, 2nd Mississippi Infantry, and The University Greys and Noxubee Rifles from the 11th Mississippi Infantry under Lt. Col. P.F. Liddell. Generals Bee and Johnston accompanied this train, which seemed to make record time taking only five hours to gain Manassas Junction arriving shortly after noon on Saturday, July 20th.(32) It had been thirty hours from the time Jackson arrived at Piedmont Station to when Johnston and Bee arrived at Manassas Junction and yet only slightly more than one-half of the Army of the Shenandoah had arrived at their objective. Scholars must ask themselves if marching the thirty-six miles would have been quicker than railroad transportation. Had the railroad promised more than it could deliver? Or was there a conspiracy?

What occurred on the Manassas Gap Railroad later in the evening of Saturday July 20th is not clear. The trains returned to Piedmont Station from dropping off Johnston and Bee and loaded some of the troops remaining there under General Kirby Smith. The train carrying Duncan's Kentucky Battalion, the remaining companies of the 11th Mississippi Infantry, and the 1st Tennessee Infantry became involved in a train accident or collision. W.A. Brown, writing twelve days later, told his father, "We would have arrived there however in time for the fight if it had not been for a R.R. accident. Some body tore up the track on Friday (Saturday) night which had to be relaid before we could get off."(33) Another eye witness, W.A. Gus Evans of the Van Dorn Reserves, Company I, 11th Mississippi Infantry, penned shortly after the Manassas battle, "A railroad collision on Saturday evening detained us. The conductor was court martialed and shot, charged with bribery by the court and intentionally producing the collision so as to prevent reenforcement here (Manassas) in time for the battle of Sunday."(34) Colonel Keller Anderson wrote many years later for Confederate Veteran Magazine, "...the 1st Kentucky (Duncan's Kentucky Battalion) didn't share the glory (of First Manassas), they being dumped by a railroad wreck during the passage on the last part of the route."(35) News of the execution spread through the army. Henry McDaniel of the 9th Georgia Infantry described how he missed the great fight at Manassas because, "Our Regiment was kept at Piedmont until Monday morning (July 22nd) after the fight, when we came to Manassas on the cars. An engineer caused a collision of the trains on Saturday and that kept us out of the fight. He was afterwards shot. He was a northern man."(36)

Analyzing these eyewitness accounts it is safe to say that some event caused the train to stop and derail, be it due to collision, poor track, or sabotage reliable information is lacking. Secondly, the troops were anxious to get into the battle which many believed would decide the out come of the war and missing it angered the troops to such extent that the engineer, whom it seems caused the accident, was executed. Rumors existed, even among the high army staff that some railroad personnel may attempt to delay the movement towards Manassas Junction. The refusal to continue running trains during the night of July 19th-20th fueled the resentment of the officers. Added to the unendurable slowness of the trains as pointed out by W.A. Evans and B.M. Zettler and the excitement that many believed they would miss the only battle of the war, the soldiers seemed on edge and they turned their anger on an unfortunate conductor on an obscure little railroad in Northern Virginia. Finally, the train started on its ways soon after the execution and repairs were accomplished. The final result: three thousand southern troops were absent from the First Battle of Manassas.(37)

Railroad delays continued to plague the Confederates. The 13th Virginia Infantry under the dashing command of Ambrose Powell Hill was the last regiment to leave Piedmont Station 8:00 a.m. July 21st on two trains. The uncomfortable ride and cramped conditions on the railroad added to frequent derailments furthered their miseries and apprehensions. By 4:00 p.m. the trains were nearing Manassas Junction and the battle could be heard over the sounds of the struggling engines. Rumor of Federal capture of the track near Manassas induced the engineer and crew of the rear train to desert and flee into the woods. Lt. Colonel James Alexander Walker, who was himself a former engineer on the Covington & Ohio Railroad, took the train controls along with other qualified soldiers and reached Manassas Junction. The regiment then hustled off to the extreme right to counter a feared Union movement late in the day and missed the principle battle further to the north.(38)

One railway incident cannot be blamed on the railway company. While the 10th Virginia Infantry was traveling one of the last trains out of Piedmont station at an incredibly slow pace of less than five miles per hour, the engine stopped near a blackberry patch located on the side of an embankment. McHenry Howard relates "having had scanty fare since leaving Winchester, indeed dating from before that in our company, the blackberries on the side of the embankment were an irresistible temptation." It was difficult to keep the cars moving and it was everything the officers could do to force the soldiers from straggling. Howard continues, "I heard a voice exclaiming furiously, 'If I had a sword I would cut you down where your stand,' and raising my eyes I beheld the crowd scatting for the cars before an officer striding up from the rear. I stood still but felt very uncomfortable as he came up close and glared at me, thinking he was going to strike me and wondering what I would do, and when he turned off I was glad to regain my position on the car top." Howard narrowly missed severe treatment from General Kirby Smith himself. There were no more unscheduled foraging from that train during the remainder of the trip to Manassas Junction.(39)

Did the Manassas Gap Railroad transporting failure lead to missed opportunities at First Manassas? Were the railroads to blame? General Beauregard attributed his failure at offensive action squarely on the railroad as he wrote, "In consequence of the untoward detention of some 5,000 of Gen. Johnston's corps, resulting from the inadequate and imperfect means of transportation for so many troops of the Manassas Gap Railroad, it became necessary on the morning of the 21st before daylight to modify the plan" of attacking the federal left near the Orange & Alexandria Railroad Bridge across Bull Run.(40) Would Beauregard have organized his own offensive before the Union onslaught if he had all of Johnston's troops at Manassas before that fateful Sunday morning? If Johnston had reached the battlefield with his entire army within twenty-four hours of reaching Piedmont Station would his men have been in a position to oppose "the best planned Union offensive during the entire war?"(41) If Kirby Smith's brigade had arrived just a few hours earlier on July 21st, could Beauregard had delivered the final punch and pursuit that would have ended the war in the summer of 1861? In conclusion, if there had not been too few trains available that Friday morning at Piedmont Station, history might have been changed.(42)