Thursday, March 22, 2018

Petersburg's Railroads - The Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad


Last Monday evening I was honored to speak to a local group of history enthusiast about Petersburg's railroads. I covered the antebellum as well as their Civil War history. It was after all the railroads which placed Petersburgs in the crosshairs of Gen. Grant's sights.

I've not shared much on Petersburg's railroads on this forum, so I thought I'd take some of the material that I covered in the history talk by making a handful of posts. The first one will cover the Petersburg Railroad.

The Cockade City's oldest railroad was the Petersburg Railroad, also sometimes known as the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad. It ran from its depot on Washington Street (shown on the right side of the image above) to Garysburg, North Carolina, on the north side of the Roanoke River and then to the adjacent town of Weldon, on the south side of the Roanoke River. From Weldon, other connector lines ran to the coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina.

The Petersurg Railroad received its charter from the Virginia legislature in 1830, and opened in 1833, making it one of the early railroads in the United States. Although the line served both commercial as well as passenger use, it figured more prominently int the former than the later. However, a travler remarked that "a journey which formerly required two days, is now performed between breakfast and dinner, and may be retraced by tea time." The sixty mile trip now only took four hours!


The Petersburg Railroad evolved partly out of a rivalry with Norfolk for the tobacco business of northern North Carolina. After its opening in 1833, its effect on Petersburg was almost immediate. The railroad brought in new businesses and spurred the creation of more rail lines that will be discussed in future posts.


During the Civil War, and due to the Petersburg Railroad's Deep-South connections, it became a primary focus for the Union army. Grant and Meade made two separate efforts to attain the line. The first, what has become known as Grant's Second Offensive (June 22-23) ended in a failed attempt to cut the line when troops of the II and VI Corps moved west from their lodgement on the Jerusalem Plank Road. The II Corps ran into a furious counterattack by Gen. William Mahone's Division, which resulted in over 2000 captured Union soldiers and which left the VI Corps unsupported and vulnerable, causing both corps to retreat after briefly reaching the rail line near where Richard Bland College is today.

The other significant military actions along the line occurred during Grant's Fourth Offensive (August 1864). The first of that fighting occurred where the June actions happened and became known by a couple of names: The Battle of Weldon Railroad, or the Battle of Globe Tavern. Fighting broke out on August 18 as Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren V Corps secured a section of the track and held on tenaciously as the Confederates counterattacked for three days trying to recapture the vital rail line. With reinforcements from the IX Corps, the federals held on and extended their earthworks west of the railroad.

A few days later on August 25, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps, just returned to the Petersburg front after a tour of duty fighting north of the James River at Deep Bottom, was attacked by Confederates just about five miles south of Globe Tavern on the rail line at Ream's Station. In the savage combat that resulted, Hancock was forced to relinquish the field and the railroad to the Southerners. However, since the federals had control of the rail line south of Petersburg at Globe Tavern, the Union defeat did not significantly alter the situation.

By capturing the Petersburg Railroad south of the city, the federals forced the Confederates to seek an alternate route to get their supplies to their troops at Petersburg and Richmond. What the Southerners devised worked, but proved to be and inefficient alternative. They unloaded their entrained north-bound supplies at Stoney Creek Station, about 18 miles south of Petersburg, onto horse and mule-drawn wagons that then went cross-country to the west to Dinwiddie Courthouse and then finally up the Boydton Plank Road into Petersburg.

With the Petersburg Railroad under control in August 1864, Grant set his sights on capturing the Boydton Plank Road and the Southside Railroad farther to the west. Those two goals would prove to be a hard road to travel, as they would not be attained until late March and early April 1865.

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