Alexandria: strategic rail hub in Civil War

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Alexandria: strategic rail hub in Civil War

May 4, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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The Alexandria roundhouse, which was located near Duke and South Henry streets, was expanded and 75 new buildings were constructed in a 12-block area of the city by the United States Military Railroad during the Civil War. Photo/courtesy National Archives.
Rail lines were strategically important during the Civil War, and were responsible for much of the Union’s impact on Alexandria. The town had been a center of rail transportation before the war, but took on an increased significance with the outbreak of hostilities.

Timothy Hill studied Alexandria’s Civil War railroad history as part of an archaeological study before the Duke Street widening project a few years ago. The United States Military Railroad (USMRR) station incorporated 12 blocks southwest of Duke and Alfred streets from 1861 to 1865.

Hill’s work complements the research by Robert Slusser on the Lincoln railroad car and provides the context for understanding the place in which the car was constructed.

When war broke out, the North commanded 21,000 miles of rails contrasted to the South’s 9,000 miles. The rails, however, had not been used for military purposes and were privately owned.

Standardization was not yet the norm. Variations in track size, especially in the South, inhibited the movement of trains between railroads for the movement of troops and supplies. In fact, many military planners believed that the static nature of the rail lines would impede the flexible movement of troops.

Yet on May 24, 1861, the Union troops occupied Alexandria and took over the Orange and Alexandria RR roundhouse, shops, and rails without specific plans as to their use. Rivalries between Northern rail lines resulted in confusion, including a bottleneck in transporting troops to Washington. As a result, the USMRR was created; however, the rail operations were mishandled by the military, which had little railroad experience.

Although Alexandria had become a hospital and supply center by 1862, there were neither organizational nor logistical improvements for efficient rail service.

A general reported that long delays resulted from carrying stream water to fill locomotive tanks.

Herman Haupt, a railroad engineer, was appointed to direct USMRR operations from his Alexandria headquarters. His organizational skills developed general supply line principles and construction methods, which greatly increased rail service.

Haupt also expanded the O&ARR station to fit USMRR needs. New shops, engine houses, accommodating 30 locomotives, a commissary, a turntable with cupola, and rail spurs were constructed; the roundhouse was expanded. The shops repaired rolling stock, and produced ironwork for bridges and new cars.

In November 1863, work began on a special rail car, the chief executive’s. Intended as the first presidential car, it was the only one ever constructed.

Next: construction of the Lincoln railroad car.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.