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NP: November 18, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 33: Railroad With A Purpose

Railroad With A Purpose

(The following is the thirty-third in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg.)

Because Petersburg had won some fame as a builder of railroads, and because the results accounted for its strategic importance, symbolism was served when General U. S. Grant built a railroad to help bring about the fall of the city. On the basis of information available to it, Petersburg followed the hostile project with interest.

Grant began by using the line of the old City Point Railroad, more recently a portion of the South Side Railroad, and materials from the Norfolk and Petersburg, then useless to both sides.

The military railroad followed in part the line of the City Point, its gauge being changed from five feet to four feet eight and a half inches. This route reached the Union right before Petersburg, near the Appomattox River. More important was the long branch constructed to the south and west to serve the line extending around the city. This line was completed to the Yellow House (or Globe Tavern) on the Petersburg Railroad, then in Union possession, in mid-September [1864]. The date of completion usually is given as September 12, the length as 13 miles, 17 miles, or 21 miles. Both points would depend upon what part or how much of the line was under discussion, for, as Colonel Lyman wrote, branches were like mushrooms and went shooting out at the shortest notice. Horace Porter said that the road would have been 13 miles long on a plane but that its rise and fall defied all ordinary measurement. He further described it as being—viewed from a distance—like a fly crawling over a corrugated washboard.

Construction was preceded by a minimum of grading, although at points close to the lines the road was protected by earthworks thrown up against Confederate fire. Humorous and disrespectful as descriptions might be, the result was that Grant could supply his army in all kinds of weather and could move troops quickly when necessary.

In the fall [of 1864] 18 or more trains with 15 or more cars each were traveling the road. Soldiers usually traveled on large box cars carrying food and ammunition. Passengers indited no let[t]ers in praise of the line’s comfort, and men trying to sleep in its vicinity sometimes resorted to profanity, but the U. S. Military Railroad before Petersburg was a vital part of a massive war effort.

Nor did the boxcars always return empty to City Point, where the coal docks, freight yards, roundhouses, and repair shops were to be seen. From houses along the way, furniture, silver, jewelry, portraits, and more utilitarian articles which attracted the visitors were likely to make the trip to City Point and beyond.

One story of the line bears out the remark about branches shooting out on short notice and in all directions. A party of Union soldiers unexpectedly came upon a railroad track in the woods. It occurred to them that this must be the famed South Side Railroad, which after all was an object of their effort.  Hearing the noise of an approaching train, they prepared to capture it. Not until it came in sight did they realize their plans were directed against their own U. S. Military Railroad.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “Railroad With A Purpose.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  November 18, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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