Tag Archives: Orange & Alexandria Railroad

150 years ago: Moving trains by water to supply the army

Yesterday I left off noting that armies on the move need support in order to keep up momentum.  Even without suggesting General Sumner should have crossed the Rappahannock and occupied Fredericksburg – just to stay in front of Fredericksburg – the Army of the Potomac needed logistic support.  To continue the offensive, the army needed everything from axle grease to hard tack to bullets, and even more in-between.

However by early November 1862, the logistic tail following the Army of the Potomac lay back along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  Engines and their rolling stock worked the rails extending to the southwest of Alexandria.  With the change of objective, the army no longer needed depots at places like Manassas Junction or Warrenton.  Rather the army needed a line running due south towards Fredericksburg.  For General Ambrose Burnside’s plan to reach Richmond through Fredericksburg to work, the rail road had to move.  Problem was the old Fredericksburg railroad was not in shape to support anything, having suffered damage due to the war.  And even if built, railroaders feared the line was exposed to irregular activity.

To resolve the problem, the U.S. Military Railroad came up with a novel solution.  General Herman Haupt wrote of this in his reminiscences:

The reconstruction of the wharves and track from Acquia Creek to Fredericksburg was prosecuted with unprecedented expedition.  It was on November 10 that I directed W.W. Wright to hold himself in readiness to commence work so soon as General Halleck should decide upon its necessity. It was November 11 when a telegram was sent to Colonel Belger at Baltimore to provide canal boats, and five days later, November 17, considerable progress had already been made in the work of reconstruction.  The Superintendent reported that, in five days after commencement, a section of the wharf 1,000 feet long was completed, and a locomotive and cars landed and trains commenced running to Potomac Creek.  In five days more trains were running to the Rappahannock.

The Schuylkill barges answered admirably, and thus was formed a new era in Military Railroad transportation.  Two of these barges were placed parallel to each other and long timbers bolted transversely.  The length of the barges was sufficient for eight tracks carrying eight cars, and two such floats would carry the sixteen cars which constituted a train.

In this way hundreds of loaded cars were transferred from the advanced location of the Army, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, loaded on the floats, towed sixty miles to Acquia Creek, transferred from river to rail, and sent to Falmouth without break of bulk, in about the same time required to march the army across the country by land.  Supplies were at Falmouth as soon as there were forces there for their protection.

We might fact-check Haupt’s claim about the arrival of supplies and troops coinciding.  Still the point made is valid – the railroad system shifted with remarkable speed and flexibility.  While the repair of port facilities was certainly nothing new, the use of barges to move the rolling stock was a new practice at the military operational level.

One wartime photo shows a pair of barges, as described by Haupt, with eight box-cars loaded.

Rolling stock on barges

Another wartime photo shows perhaps a variation on the theme – three lashed barges with more tracks.

Three barge floats

I’ll defer to the railroading experts out there.  But this seems to me a likely means to transport the heavier locomotives.

As a “trained” logistician, I’d point out the genius of this operation was not just floating the rolling stock, but alluded to in Haupt’s closing – no breaking of bulk cargo.  In other words, the cars were packed at a depot or warehouse and then shipped directly to the front without cross packing.  Such was a significant time savings. And time is everything when discussing transportation and logistics in the military context.

Fast forward a little over eighty years.  Different location, similar logistic problem, but larger scale.  For the armies going into Normandy in June 1944, logistic support was more so a monumental task.  A modern mechanized army requires more than just hay and hardtack.  No doubt, you’ve seen the D-Day documentaries that cite tens of millions of tons of supplies going ashore at the Mulberry harbors.  But just getting those supplies to the beach didn’t meet the needs of the front line soldier.  As the beachhead enlarged and extended, the supplies had to be transported over one-hundred miles (excuse me… kilometers) to the front line areas.  As with the Civil War days, the logisticians needed to save time by avoiding the practice of breaking bulk.  So they did this:

Rails allowed the LST to carry the cars from English ports to the French beaches.  There the LST opened its bow doors and the stock rolled down onto a pre-fabricated line across the beach.

Take away the trucks and helmets, and you have a scene not too far removed from Acquia Landing in November 1862.

An Oddity for Leesburg: Tredegar Rifle Siege Howitzer

When the Civil War broke out, rifled artillery was all the rage.  Officials took old guns in hand for conversion, usually amounting to cutting rifling grooves and adding a reinforce band.  At the same time the foundries took existing patterns and bored new guns out as rifles.  Some of these turned out well.  Others not so.  The better of these conversions were James or early Brooke rifles.  The worst of these conversions are best described as “oddities.”  In February 1862, one of those oddities arrived in Leesburg, Virginia.

To start out, in the summer of 1861, the Confederate Army ordered fifty 8-inch siege howitzers from Tredegar Iron Works.  Before the war Tredegar cast seven 8-inch Siege Howitzers Model 1841 for the US Government.  Those weapons weighed around 2,630 pounds.   The howitzers Tredegar sold to the Confederate government weighed about fifty pounds more, but are within the range for the 8-inch 1841 pattern.  Invoices show that Tredegar delivered only twenty-four of these smoothbore howitzers.  Two trophy howitzers captured outside Charleston, South Carolina, which have no foundry marks, may be the only survivors of Tredegar’s Confederate production (but such identification is based only on circumstantial evidence).

WNY 10 Apr 10 550

8-inch Siege Howitzer at Washington Navy Yard

Included in the tally of twenty-four, Tredegar bored out four of these 8-inch howitzers as 4.62-inch rifles.  No documentation supports such design change.  Perhaps someone in the new Confederate ordnance department asked for rifled howitzers.  Perhaps Tredegar just rode the fad, trying to rifle everything.  Perhaps some state (Virginia) authority called for the rifles.  Or perhaps someone in the field had a specific tactical role for these weapons.

Regardless of the origin of the idea, all four examples saw at least brief service in Confederate defenses.  Tredegar sent the first two, foundry numbers 1279 and 1280, to Essex County, Virginia in December 1861, presumably for Rappahannock River defenses.  Invoices link that shipment to Robert M.T. Hunter, the Confederate Secretary of War, who hailed from that county.   The third howitzer, foundry number 1342, went to the Richmond defenses at Meadow Bridges Road.  All three of these pieces returned to Tredegar within months and were rebored as 8-inch smoothbores.  Given the time frame, likely these weapons recycled out to the Richmond defenses in the summer of 1862.

That leaves the fourth rifle howitzer.  An invoice from Tredegar, dated February 11, 1862, indicates that howitzer and a rifle siege gun also of 4.62-inch caliber went to General Daniel Harvey Hill in Leesburg.

According to the invoice, the 4.62-inch rifle howitzer weighed 3,390 pounds.  The weight increase is within the range expected given the increased metal used by reducing the bore by about a third.  Other lines in the invoice include Tredegar’s fee for handling the gun for shipping, and even the cost of proofing the gun.  (I wonder if Tredegar worked in a charge for the paper the invoice was written upon!)

On the right margin is a note, “Sent to Genl. D.H. Hill as per R.R. Receipt.”  That receipt was attached to the invoice.

The invoice and receipt leave not doubt this weapon was a rifle siege howitzer.  Using the receipt as the lead, this howitzer took the round about route from Richmond to Gordonsville on the Virginia Central Railroad.  From there it must have taken the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to the north.  Perhaps unloaded at Manassas, the howitzer moved overland to Leesburg for delivery.  With little doubt, the rifle howitzer went into one of the forts, possible Fort Evans, then around Leesburg.

So was this rifle howitzer any good?  Well consider the projectile weight, likely powder charge, and the piece itself.  The 4.62 bore matches the smoothbore 12-pdr size.  As such the elongated rifled projectile would weigh between 20 and 30 pounds.  Recall that a smoothbore 8-inch shell weighed around 42 pounds.  The bore size matched the 8-inch howitzer’s chamber size.  That places the powder charge around four pounds.  As noted above the howitzer itself weighed just over a ton-and-a-half.  The reduced windage and increased resistance with rifling probably presented some recoil issues when firing this piece.  But the nothing that could not be allowed for.

The real problems would be range and accuracy, given the weapon’s howitzer form.  The 4.62-inch rifle siege gun shipped to Leesburg on the same invoice was a modified 24-pdr siege gun.  The gun, with an indicated weight of 5,150 pounds, likely possessed performance figures similar to Federal 24-pdr guns altered to the James system.  So assuming all things equal, the Tredegar siege rifles might boast 1900 yard ranges on typical siege carriages.  At the same elevation, I would expect the rifled howitzer to only reach 1200 yards.

The howitzer’s small size would allow higher elevations, perhaps extending range out to 2000 yards.  There the question becomes one of accuracy.  With a shorter bore than the rifle gun, the howitzer’s velocity would be lower.  Accuracy then would suffer.  Perhaps after a few test fires, the gunners figured out the 3,390 pound howitzer was more an albatross to be handled about than a functional weapon.

As indicated above, the other three rifle howitzers went back to the foundry and were remade as smoothbores.  There is no record of the Leesburg howitzer undergoing such modification.  While the odds are that fourth howitzer underwent a similar transformation, with no paper record there is another possibility.  With the withdrawal from Leesburg in March, just weeks after the howitzer and gun were received, General Hill marched his men and equipment south.  The Confederates destroyed most of what they left behind. What if the Confederates likewise discarded the “junk” howitzer instead of hauling it south?  Perhaps that rifle howitzer remains here in Loudoun, waiting to be unearthed.  Stranger “oddities” have occurred.