American Civil War Rail-Weapons

From the very beginning of the war, the employment of railway batteries in the form of guns placed at the head of trains came into use at several different locations on the front line, either on the initiative of the high command or of especially inventive local commanders. For example, in May 1861, in order to protect the network of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Union General McClellan ordered the mounting of artillery at the head of troop trains. The Dictator was another example, made famous during the siege of Petersburg between June 1864 and March 1865. This 13in coast-defence mortar lacked armour protection, and fired from a simple platform wagon. However, in this chapter we will confine ourselves to an examination of those armoured artillery batteries which demonstrated the modern aspects of the American Civil War, and which provided the inspiration for similar construction in many future conflicts, beginning with the Franco-Prussian War, until surpassed in ingenuity during the Boer War.

During the very first days of the war the Federal Government ordered the construction of an armoured wagon to protect the track workers on the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. It was placed under the orders of General Herman Haupt, a renowned railroad engineer, but he refused to use it, considering the wagon to be a ‘white elephant’. Nevertheless, the idea of armouring railway vehicles had taken root.

The Union Army built several armoured wagons. In the Summer of 1862, General Burnside ordered the construction of armoured wagons to counter the incursions of guerrillas and Southern raiders, but they were not meant to resist artillery. These wagons were mainly built in the workshops of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

In 1862 a captain in the 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment designed an armoured artillery wagon which was built by the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad and used for patrolling the line to the west of Newberne, where the Confederates were posted in some force. Propelled ahead of an engine with an armoured cab, this wagon bore the name Monitor. The wagon front, sides and rear were all inclined vertically inwards by some 15 degrees, and were painted black, with red firing loopholes. Its front end, pierced by an embrasure for a small naval gun, was armoured with vertical rails, and the sides and rear by boiler plate. The sides were bulletproof, and the front armour resisted projectiles from field guns. The roof was left open for ventilation and light, and covered by a tarpaulin. One Confederate artillery lieutenant expressed puzzlement and alarm at the first appearance of what the Southerners called the ‘Yankee gunboat on wheels’.

Faced by the cottonclad wagon of General Finegan (see the chapter on the Confederate States of America) during the Confederate attempt to recapture Jacksonville, in Union hands ever since 10 March 1863, the Northerners built their own armoured railway battery, armed apparently with a 10pdr Parrott rifle. The fighting between the two was the first example of combat between armoured railway wagons. The siege of Jacksonville would be lifted by the Union forces on 29 March.

In the same year, the Scientific American described trials by the Northerners of an armoured engine named Talisman, on which the cab and connecting rods were protected by an iron plate four-tenths of an inch (10mm) thick, on the advice of General Haupt. However, the trials showed that only small-arms projectiles would be stopped.

A Union armoured train was built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad with the aid of the 2nd Maryland Regiment, and was given the task of protecting the region around Cumberland. The train was arranged symmetrically on either side of the engine, which had an armoured cab. At front and rear there was an armoured battery protected by rails on three sides, the roof and rear of the wagon being left open, and then an armoured van with firing loopholes. In spite of its armour, a projectile in the boiler of the engine followed by a second striking an armoured wagon led to its destruction by the Confederates in July 1864.

The siege of Petersburg (June 1864–April 1865) saw the employment of railway artillery by the Union forces who wished to seize this strategic railroad centre where five major lines converged. The United States Military Railroad (USMR) which was by this time fully operational, deployed these weapons to such good effect that the Confederate Army was gradually cut off from outside aid. The town fell on 3 April 1865.

The Dry Land Merrimac

In June 1862 the Union Army of the Potomac advanced on the Confederate capital of Richmond. General Robert E Lee looked for a means of countering the enemy’s preponderance in heavy siege artillery, which they would be transporting into position by rail. On 5 June he asked Colonel Josiah Gorgas, the Chief of Ordnance, if it would be possible to mount a heavy gun on a railway car. The challenge was taken up by the Navy, who already had experience of armouring the famous Virginia (ex-Merrimac), which had taken on the Union blockaders and fought the first ironclad battle with USS Monitor.

On 26 June, Captain M Minor reported to Lee: ‘The railroad-iron plated battery designed by Lieutenant John M. Brooke, C.S. Navy, has been completed. The gun, a rifled and banded 32-pounder of 57 cwt, has been mounted and equipped by Lieutenant R.D. Minor, C.S. Navy, and with 200 rounds of ammunition, including 15-inch solid bolt shot, is now ready to be transferred to the Army.’ The railway gun was manned by Lt James Barry CSN, Sergeant Daniel Knowles and thirteen gunners of the Norfolk United Artillery Battery, many of whom had previously served on the Virginia.

The Battle of Savage’s Station, fought on 29 June 1862, was a Union defeat, watched by Confederate Major General Magruder from the rail overbridge. The railway gun was propelled towards the Union lines along the track of the Richmond & York Railroad by an unarmoured steam engine, with obstacles being removed or pushed aside by the gun itself. Firing explosive shells as it advanced, it forced the Union troops to abandon their lines across the track and take up flanking positions beside it, which the gunners could not counter as they had no means of training the gun to one side. Eventually, the gun had progressed so far in front of the Confederate lines that it risked being lost due to the Union flanking fire, and Lieutenant Barry ordered it to pull back.

Fifty-nine years after the event, the Confederate veteran Charles S. Gates described from memory the famous ‘Dry Land Merrimac’, as the railway gun was called by Richmond newspapers in 1862. Later descriptions, and reconstructions in model form, have been based on his recollections,5 including the painting above.

Fortunately we also have an eyewitness to the action, who fixed the scene in a watercolour. Private Robert Knox Sneden of the Union Army was a topographical engineer, who produced maps for the Army of the Potomac. Among his almost 1000 watercolours, sketches and maps was a painting of the Battle of Savage’s Station, with the railgun as the centrepiece. While answering many questions, his depiction poses others.

Private Sneden may have painted this scene from memory afterwards, as the Army of the Potomac was forced to withdraw from in front of Richmond in some disorder. He certainly stretches the platform wagon to a unbelievable length, which would be too weak to support the weight of the gun, never mind withstand the recoil. As he obviously observed the event from a considerable distance away, his rendering of the moving flatcar may not be all that accurate. Nevertheless, what his illustration does reveal is the ‘Virginia-like’ armoured casemate surrounding the cannon and its gunners, with armour on the sides as well as the front. He has correctly depicted the Union force being obliged to take up position flanking the railway track, which would ultimately oblige Lieutenant Minor and his men to pull back, for fear of being fired upon from the rear.

There has been some confusion in the minds of railway enthusiasts between this gun and the Union railway gun used at the siege of Petersburg, mounted on a fourteen-wheel wagon (see the United States of America chapter). The latter gun, however, is clearly protected by timber baulks alone, even if they do cover the sides as well as the front, and there is no covering of iron as mentioned in all the accounts of the Confederate piece.

Accounts differed as to its effects in action, and certainly the Union commanders did not make much of it in their reports. But then, mentioning the attack of an unstoppable railway weapon adding to the debacle of the battle would be like rubbing salt in one’s own wounds. After the battle, presumably recognising its tactical drawbacks, the Confederate Navy retrieved their valuable gun and the platform would be returned to freight work.

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