150 years ago: The debut of railway artillery at Savage Station

One hundred and fifty years ago today (June 29), the seven days battles continued. Following the defeat at Gaines’ Mill, General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac concentrated south of the Chickahominy River. The Federal position centered on a railway stop named Savage Station, on the Richmond and York River Railroad. The railway passed through the Federal lines, east to west, running into the Confederate lines defending Richmond. This arrangement provided the Confederates an opportunity to employ a new weapon in an effort to dislodge the Yankees from their positions at the gates of Richmond. General Robert E. Lee ordered forward an armored railway gun.

The story of the Confederate railway gun traces back to the desperate days of early June 1862. On June 5, General Lee inquired if Colonel Josiah Gorgas, Confederate Chief of Ordnance, had the means to mount a heavy cannon on an armored railway car. The mobility afforded on such mounting would counter the numerical superiority of the Federal siege guns (I hesitate to use the proper term “siege train”, which might confuse some readers). If the Army could not support this request, Lee asked if the Navy might.1

And it was the Navy which accepted this task. With Captain George Minor and Lieutenant John M. Brooke involved, the Navy expedited the work. On June 21, Lee informed Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, “…the railway battery will be ready for service to-morrow.” Lee felt it appropriate the Navy man the gun.2 Five days later, Captain Minor related more details about the railroad gun to Lee:

The railroad-iron plated battery designed by Lieut. John M. Brooke, C.S. Navy, has been completed. The gun, a rifled and banded 32-pounder of 57 cwt., has been mounted and equipped by Lieut. R.D. Minor, C.S. Navy, and with 200 rounds of ammunition, including 15-inch solid bolt shot, is now ready to be transferred to the Army.3

The exact design is, in my view, open for some debate. A drawing based on the recollections of Confederate veteran Charles S. Gates appears in a 1921 Army assessment of railway artillery:4

Granted, memory should be taken with a grain of salt. This does depict a basic two-bogie flatcar with an angled superstructure. The front has iron plate on top of the wooden face. The carriage is, if not accurate, at least suggestive of a two truck navy carriage. Of course the gun depicted is not anything like a banded 32-pdr.

More recently, in the February 2011 issue of Civil War Times, David H. Schneider proposed one of the more familiar wartime photos, showing a railroad gun attributed to the Federals at Petersburg, actually depicts the Confederate railroad gun. Schneider suggested the two photos were taken in 1865 after Richmond was abandoned, and show Federal soldiers inspecting the weapon. (While that explanation is certainly plausible, and even lean in that direction, I think we are still short of documentation for positive identification.)

Railroad Gun, rear view

Readers may recall that I offered up a more precise identification of the gun on the railroad car in a letter to the editor that appeared in the August issue of the magazine. I contend the gun is not a Navy type, but rather an Army 32-pdr seacoast gun, based on the presence of sample scars (the dimple on the knob) and the lines. So we’d call this weapon a “32-pdr seacoast gun, banded and rifled.” I could even suggest a couple of Tredegar receipts to narrow down the date the weapon was modified.

Front View of Railway Gun

Unfortunately the surviving photo of the gun from the front does not offer sufficient resolution to make out any markings, which would conclusively identify the gun. And I cannot square my identification with Captain Minor’s description. He referenced a 57 cwt. gun, which would weigh around 6384 pounds. The likely Army models were Models 1840 or 1845, which would weigh between 6,900 and 7,200 pounds – or upwards of 62 cwt.

Regardless if we have the exact model of gun correct, the photos show a seven axle railcar, not a four axle type seen in the Gates drawing. So… Maybe it the Minor-Brooke railgun, and maybe it isn’t.

What we do know is the railgun went into action on June 29, 1862. As General John Magruder‘s command (his own division along with those of Generals D.R. Jones and Lafayette McLaws) advanced out of Richmond along the Williamsburg Road towards Savage Station, the railroad battery moved forward in support. In his official report, Magruder noted the railroad line had to be cleared of obstructions to allow the battery to move forward (one of the many limitations of railroad artillery). Once in position, Magruder felt the railroad gun performed well.

Taking my position on the railroad bridge, which commanded a good view of the fight and of the enemy’s line of battle, I directed the railroad battery, commanded most efficiently by Lieutenant Barry, to advance to the front, so as to clear, in some degree, the deep cut over which the [temporary Federal] bridge was thrown, and to open his fire upon the enemy’s masses below, which was done with terrible effect.5

General McLaws’ assessment was somewhat more subdued. He reported that Lieutenant Barry “… moved down the road, keeping pace with the advance of the troops and by his fire annoying the enemy whenever the range would allow. His enthusiasm at the decided success of the experiment and in pushing through obstructions deserve all praise.”6 On the Federal side, the railroad gun received little mention in official reports.

The main tactical shortfall of railway artillery (be that Civil War or World War era) was the limitations on employment. Railway guns were stuck on the railway. And unless complex traverse mechanisms were used, their traverse was very limited – often governed by the curvature of the track. The Confederate gun could only “point” in the direction the track ran. After the brief work at Savage Station, Confederate artillerists could not bring the rail-bound, rifled 32-pdr to bear on any targets.

Today the railroad right-of-way on which the first railway gun went to war still runs eastward from Richmond. The battlefield site, however, is largely covered by the intersection of Interstate Highways 64 and 295. A marker in Sandston, at the site of Fair Oaks Station where the rail gun was first pushed towards Federal lines, mentions the debut of railroad artillery.

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Notes:

  1. Letter from General Robert E. Lee to Colonel Josiah Gorgas, June 5, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part III, Serial 14, page 574.
  2. Letter from General Robert E. Lee to Secretary Stephen R. Mallory, June 21, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part III, Serial 14, page 610.
  3. Letter from Captain George Minor to General Robert E. Lee, June 26, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part III, Serial 14, page 615.
  4. Miller, H. W., Lt. Col. Railway Artillery: A Report on the Characteristics, Scope of Utility, Etc., of Railway Artillery, Volume I Washington: Government Print Office, 1921, Page 8.
  5. Report of General J. Bankhead Magruder, August 12, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part II, Serial 13, page 664.
  6. Report of General Lafayette McLaws, July 20, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part II, Serial 13, page 718.

6 responses to “150 years ago: The debut of railway artillery at Savage Station

  1. Pingback: 150 Years Ago: A flag of truce to discuss “hard war” | To the Sound of the Guns

  2. Nice summary. I was looking at some hand-drawn maps of the Battle of Savage Station and they all show a cute locomotive pushing a cart with a cannon sticking out the front. Each shows a puff of smoke (locomotive is vertical, cannon is horizontal). I wondered if they might have been put into place earlier, like at Seven Pines.

  3. Great article. Any idea how big of a crater the shell from that railroad cannon in question would make in the ground?

  4. And I wonder why they couldn’t have rigged up some kind of turntable for it like on a “Panama” seacoast mount. Maybe with some large gears to slowly traverse it and crewmen turning hand cranks or something. Granted, it was 1862 technology they were working with but still I would have thought they would have made the effort seeing as it would make this cannon MUCH more useful if it could be pointed in other directions besides the way it was facing on the track. Maybe a turntable would have made the flatcar too wide to fit through railroad tunnels? Or maybe it was considered such a high priority to get it into action as quickly as possible regardless of its limited-to-nonexistent traverse?

    • Bill, in short, all that you propose amounted to weight. Even up into the 20th century, most large railroad guns did not have on carriage traverse, using curved railroad tracks for traverse. This weapon was designed to aid a long defensive line. As such, the defenders could pick a good place to employ it.

  5. Pingback: Whitworths and a rail gun: Confederates haul guns out from Richmond | To the Sound of the Guns

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