Thursday, March 29, 2018

Petersburg's Railroads - U.S. Military Railroad

The final rail line we will cover is the United States Military Railroad (USMRR). This important line started at City Point (present-day Hopewell) and used the majority of that prewar rail line before branching off and turning south, and then eventually southwest. It began construction in June of 1864, and as  the Union army extended its line of earthworks attempting to cut Confederate railroads and roadways, the USMRR extended along with it.

Established along the rail lines were depots where supplies brought by ship to City Point were then loaded on to the trains and transported out to the front line troops in their earthen fortifications. The depots often took on the names of Union officers such as Meade's Station, Birney's Station, Parke's Station, and Patrick's Station.

The importance of the deep-water supply base at City Point has received too little attention in regard to the Union success in the Petersburg Campaign. Here ships and barges from Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., brought war materiel such as train engines and cars, heavy artillery, wagons, pontoons, uniforms, small arms, and draft animals for the army's use. Also the ships brought a steady and welcome supply of rations to the Union troops in the field.

Some soldiers mentioned receiving fruit, vegetables, various meats, and coffee, due to the efficiency of the USMRR. Some soldiers even praised the ability of the railroad to bring soft bread, still warm when they received it on the front lines, from the busy bakeries at City Point. In addition, a series of field hospitals along the rail line ministered to the sick and wounded of the Union army. The worst medical cases received transportation by rail from the front lines to the massive hospital complex at City Point, or water transport back to Washington D.C.

Constructed as quickly as possible, the USMRR often went ungraded. Lt. Col. Horace Porter of Gen. Grant's staff mentioned that, "It ran up hill and down dale, and its undulations were so marked that a train moving along it looked in the distance like a fly crawling over a corrugated washboard." When the campaign concluded in April 1865, the USMRR had laid 21 miles of track. One source explained that the line incorporated 25 locomotives pulling 275 cars, which logged approximately 2,300,000 miles during the 292 day campaign.

The last major Confederate offensive in the Petersburg Campaign, the attack on Fort Stedman on March 25, 1865, east of Petersburg, was intended in part to threaten the USMRR, which only sat about a mile behind Fort Stedman. Confederate Gen. John Brown Gordon believed that if he could pierce the Union earthwork line at Fort Stedman, as well as the Federally-reversed line of the old Dimmock line, the Yankees would be forced to contract their lines back in order to protect their railroad supply line and its terminus at City Point. If this happened it would provide Lee with the opportunity to detach troops, or leave himself, to help Gen. Joseph Johnston against Gen. Sherman in North Carolina. Although the attack was initially successful, a Union counterattack and artillery fire from neighboring forts quickly ended the brief Confederate success.

The USMRR was the key toward the backdoor of Petersburg, and Grant used it well.

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