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The Civil War and African American Railroaders: Part 1 of 2

November 10, 2017 | Lily Anna Blouin

The NRRHoF is creating a series of blog posts during the month of November titled

“Take This Hammer: Stories of African American Railroaders.” Our blogs will be part of a year-long worldwide celebration of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture called Lift Every Voice.

Please note that many of the quotes contained in this blog post use language no longer acceptable today. Additionally, many quotes contain words that reflect an archaic spelling.      


As we continue to explore the African American experience and the railroad, we find ourselves looking back on the American Civil War.


In the spring of 1861, the rights of 4 million enslaved African Americans pervaded the national discourse—and rumblings of war shook the nation. Lincoln maintained throughout the war that he did not intend to abolish slavery in its entirety, but many—such as Frederick Douglas—believed the conflict would be a catalyst for the end of slavery in America.[1]


As Union forces began to make their way South, they were amazed by the number of slaves who, having escaped, flocked to Union camps and railroad junctions. These men were determined to play their part in the fight for freedom. In April 1862, the Richmond Dailey Dispatch reported that 36 men enslaved by the R.F.&P railroad ran away, “almost certainly to the Union Army.”[2] Later, in August of 1862, as Union forces retreated toward Washington, more than 10,000 slaves followed after them. In a letter to General Herman Haupt, Col. W.W. Wright recalled the sight. “The contrabands fairly swarmed about the Fredericksburg and Falmouth stations, and there was a continuous black line of men, women and children moving north along the [rail]road, carrying all their worldly goods on their heads.”[3]

“Contrabands” at Cumberland Landing, Virginia, May 1862. Union forces attempted to provide shelter and accommodations for the men, women, and children who flooded the ranks, but the numbers were often overwhelming. As a result, hundreds of refugees died of disease and exposure in the so-called “contraband camps.”[4]

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Struggling to keep up with the demand for maintenance and repair of the lines, Union commanders often employed fugitive slaves to work along the railroad. “Most worked on maintenance, doing the heavy labor of repair and track laying, but some were brakemen and firemen…Others were wood choppers, cutting lumber for ties and fuel.”[5]


The thousands of African Americans who had been enslaved by or put to work on the railroads prior to the war could now employ those skills in the fight for freedom, turning their knowledge into an act of war. As William G. Thomas suggests in his article, “Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” using the railroads against the Confederacy “was not only a military act but also a social and political one.”[6]


Federal forces encountered tens of thousands of former slaves who sought freedom and work in the Union Army Camps, but the status of these refugees remained unclear well into the conflict. The continued use of the term “contraband” perpetuated the ideology of ownership, and despite their oftentimes superior work ethic and skill level, African American laborers continued to suffer great inequality.

The testimony of Major Erasmus L. Wentz, Superintendent of the Norfolk and Petersburg R.R., dated May 1, 1863, speaks to the number of escaped slaves who sought work on Union railroads, as well as the continued inequities they faced behind Union lines.

I have been here over a year and have had several thousand contrabands at different times working on the [rail] road ect. On the average I can get, in this climate, 33 per. cent more work out of them than out of white laborers. I pay them for such work $15.00 a month and white laborers for the same work $30.00 a month. I can effect with contraband labor things which I would not undertake with white labor. For example, I have found no difficulty in getting a gang of negroe labrers to take hold of a stick of hardtimber 18 square and 60 feet long and lift it by main force breast high onto the cars. In regard to all heavy lifting they are in this climate quite superior to Irish laborers. As it is known that I pay them regularly fifteen dollars a month and rations, I can at any time obtain within twelve hours 300 good hands, if I want them to work on the road, or 500 within 48 hours. I employ them therefore, for the time I want them and then dismiss them, sure of being able to obtain them again, when I want them. (Private — the contrabands employed by the Quartermaster have not received any wages and their rations are dealt out to them by subordinates, among whom there is a great deal of dishonesty they do not give the contrabands near what they are entitled to.)[7]


In an earlier letter, Wentz reported that “the negro force (contrabands)…on the Norfolk and Petersburg Rail Road in Government Employ, are so poorly shod that I find it impossible to work them any longer without furnishing them with shoes. This will have to be done or we will be obliged to dispense with their services.”[8]

In order to appreciate how incredibly significant the African American contribution was to the Civil War, it is important to take a moment to appreciate the groundbreaking nature of the railroads. Railroads profoundly shaped the war—in fact, of the several names given to the American Civil War, ‘Railroad War’ is one of the more common. As historian Angus James Johnston, II, noted, “until the time of the civil war, armies moved no faster than they did in ancient Rome.”[9]


Now, entire armies could traverse long distances in a fraction of the time. What once took months was now accomplished in a matter of days. Generals on both sides quickly realized the vital role that railroads would play by their ability to rapidly move troops, supplies, and information across a vast area. Victory would not necessarily be determined by how many troops one had; instead, the focus became how quickly they could move. Suddenly, railways were at the center of military strategic planning. Control of the railroads became synonymous with victory—to destroy enemy tracks, bridges, and depots was to cripple their ability to wage war.


As members of the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps (U.S.M.R.R.), runaway African American slaves and freemen became the backbone of the Union rail network and, ultimately, the war effort. They maintained supply lines, repaired rail lines that had been destroyed in battle or by enemy troops, and at times, sabotaged the rails themselves.

Attempting to literally halt the enemy in its tracks, both Union and Confederate armies sabotaged the rail lines as they passed through enemy territory. Notice the U-shaped rails in the background (above). Known as “Sherman’s neckties,” rails were often heated at the center and bent around trees and telegraph poles to disfigure them and ultimately slow the repair process.

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One of the earliest assignments of the U.S.M.R.R., and one the earliest records of African American contributions to the war effort, was the restoration of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad mainline in 1862. Under the direction of Chief Railroad Engineer (and National Railroad Hall of Fame Inductee) General Herman Haupt, and Union General Irvin McDowell, a work crew of untrained soldiers and “contrabands” restored the railroad and rebuilt the famed “beanpole and cornstalk” bridge.[10] In his correspondence, General McDowell remarked that the work moved along with “the troops, aided by such colored fugitives as could be had, and when possible, the work was pushed night and day.”[11] It was a massive undertaking. It was also critical to the advancement of the approximately 40,000 troops who had been stranded following the First Battle of Bull Run.[12]


Haupt later noted that hundreds of contrabands or 'Loyal Blacks' performed the hardest labor along the tracks, at the depots, and “anywhere labor was needed.” He went on to boast that what had taken soldiers ten months to complete, the “contrabands” had finished in about one-sixth of the time. [13]

By the end of the war, the task of building and rebuilding the railroad for use by Union forces had become second nature to those who worked as part of the U.S.M.R.R. Construction Corps. This bridge was destroyed and rebuilt four times over the course of the war. When it was rebuilt for the last time in 1864, the U.S.M.R.R., along with large numbers of black freedmen, finished the job in under 48 hours.  

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According to the Railroads and the Making of Modern America Digital History Project, by the end of the war the railroads employed more than 7,000 individuals, many of them freedmen or former slaves. “The U.S.M.R.R. had become one of the first government organizations to employ black labor and became over the course of the war one of the most extensive employers outside of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.).’[14]


Watch our blog next week for part two of this post.


Citations and Further Reading:

  1. "The Civil War and emancipation, 1861 - 1865." PBS. Accessed November 5, 2017.

  2. Thomas, William G. The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America. Yale University Press, 2011, 121-122.

  3. "Contraband." Railroads and the Making of Modern America. Accessed November 08, 2017.

  4. Thomas, The Iron Way, 121.

  5. Thomas, The Iron Way, 121.

  6. Thomas, William G. "Been Workin' on the Railroad." The New York Times. February 10, 2012. Accessed November 08, 2017.

  7. "Testimony of Major Erasmus L. Wentz, Superintendent of Norfolk and Petersburg R.R." Railroads and the Making of Modern America. Accessed November 03, 2017.

  8. "Letter from E. L. Wentz to Daniel Craig McCallum, October 13, 1862." Railroads and the Making of Modern America | Search. Accessed November 03, 2017.

  9. Johnston, Angus James. Virginia railroads in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: Published for the Virginia Historical Society by the University of North Carolina Press, 2012, 1.

  10. The nickname comes from a comment made by Abraham Lincoln: ""That man Haupt has built a bridge four hundred feet long and eighty feet high, across Potomac Creek, on which loaded trains are passing every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but cornstalks and beanpoles." See:

  11. Thomas, William G. The Iron Way, 122. To learn more about General Haupt visit, or check out James Arthur Ward’s Biography, That Man Haupt: A Biography of Herman Haupt. Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

  12. For further reading on the importance of the railroad and the Civil War, check out John E. Clark, Jr., Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001; Thomas, William G. The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America. Yale University Press, 2001.

  13. Ward, James A. That Man Haupt: A Biography of Herman Haupt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973, 117.

  14. "U.S. Military Railroads and Black Labor." Railroads and the Making of Modern America. Accessed November 3, 2017.

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