When the Civil War started, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, owned by the state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore, owned 188 miles of rail in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The link between Maryland and Virginia was the train bridge at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).
At Harpers Ferry, the railroads split, actually partway out into the river of the Y shaped bridge. The mainline from Harpers Ferry went towards Martinsburg, eventually coming back into Maryland at Cumberland. The Winchester and Potomac Railroad went westward from the bridge. The Winchester and Potomac Railroad, as one might think, went from Winchester, Virginia to the Potomac River.
The B & O Railroad’s involvement in the war actually started with the insurrection at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. John Brown, the famed abolitionist, and his men stopped the B & O Express train in the early morning hours of October 17. From that point on, the railroad was in the center of the conflict.
During 1861, Confederates led by Thomas J. Jackson (later known as “Stonewall”) and his men made it their primary responsibility to harass the railroad. They stole equipment, blew up the bridges at Harpers Ferry frequently, destroyed rails and burned railroad stock. Throughout the war, the railroad was open and closed often, depending on how fast the Union’s Military Railroads’ Construction Corps could repair what the Confederates had destroyed. The railroad that had been one of the country’s great railroads was very unstable during the war years, and in fact changed hands several times.
Harpers Ferry became a strategic logistical supply base provided often by the B & O Railroad. Arguably the railroad had become the main supplier to the Union army. Shipments of men, supplies, ammunition and food were among the railroads’ main loads, replacing passengers and freight which had brought them their main profits before the war. The B & O Railroad’s huge fleet of 75 locomotives, 100 passenger cars and 2,000 freight cars were put to use quickly. Even though B & O Railroad President John Garrett (a Virginian) was sympathetic to the Confederacy, he realized that the company’s financial fate was more than likely tied to the North. Early on Garrett played both sides against each other, transporting Confederate soldiers on his coaches in both western Virginia and western Maryland. Criticism from both sides put pressure on Garrett to the point that he stopped his work for the Confederacy and pledged his railroad to the Union.
The attacks on the railroad equipment and rails also became controversial because it was the first time that a state owned operation came under fire from the enemy.
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