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

November 13, 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.  

African American laborers destroying rail lines.

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Using their in-depth knowledge of the Confederate rail network, including train schedules, engineers, and geographic locations, formerly enslaved rail workers also served as intelligence agents during the Civil War. Assisting as guides and informants, they helped locate key sites of Confederate mobilization, plan attacks on supply lines and bridges, and coordinate troop movements and battle plans with the rail schedule.


In his article, “Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” William G. Thomas explores the value of such information and the direct role African Americans might have played in carrying out strategic military action through the experiences of Mr. Samuel Balton. When the Sixth Wisconsin marched to Frederick’s Hall Station, they “destroyed bridges railroad track, and burned a large amount of confederate supplies.” Thomas posits that Balton may have supplied the intelligence that led to the success of the raid, and may have even physically led the Sixth to the station himself. As evidence, Thomas points out “no other Confederate railroad station was so explicitly targeted in the summer 1862 campaign.”[1] We may never know if Balton actually played a part in the raid on Fredericks Hall Station, but other examples of former slaves aiding Union forces suggest that it is certainly possible.


When the Union navy landed near Hilton Head, South Carolina, in December of 1861, several African American volunteers approached the officers with a plan to destroy the principal railroad bridges between Charleston and Savanah.[2] In his Reminisces, published after the war, Haupt reflected the “friendly contrabands” whose knowledge of the Fredericksburg railroad helped secure the safe passage of Union troops in 1862.


After the Confederates had evacuated Fredericksburg, Union spies reported that the tracks in the depot had been mined with a number of torpedoes which were set with percussion fuses. Soldiers removed those which friendly "contrabands" pointed out, but as an extra measure of precaution the first train to move over the tracks consisted of a locomotive pushing ahead of it a car very heavily loaded with scrap iron, so as to explode any that had been overlooked. None were found.[3]


Contemporaries were aware of the value of these “black dispatches,” as they came to be called. Shortly after the start of the war, General Benjamin F. Butler had issued orders that all "contraband" arriving in Union lines be brought to him directly for debriefing.[4] In May of 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, noted that "The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes."[5] Perhaps Frederick Douglas said it best when he wrote, “The true history of this war will show that the loyal army found no friends at the South so faithful, active, and daring in their efforts to sustain the government as the Negroes. Negroes have repeatedly threaded their way through the lines of the rebels exposing themselves to bullets to convey important information to the loyal army of the Potomac.”[6]


In P.K. Rose’s article, “The Civil War: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence,” Rose goes so far as to suggest that of all the contributing factors that led to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, “there can be no doubt that ground held by Union forces played a significant role in the Victory.”[7] Thanks to the observations of Charlie Wright, a young black slave, escaped from Culpeper Virginia, who noted the movement of Confederate forces towards Maryland and reported it to General Hooker. As a result, Hooker ordered his troops to shadow the Confederate’s advance before Lee moved to attack Washington, placing Union troops at Gettysburg first.

Citations and Further Reading:

  1. Thomas, William G. "Been Workin' on the Railroad."

  2. Thomas, William G. The Iron Way, 28.

  3. Haupt, Herman. Reminiscences of Herman Haupt . . . . Milwaukee, 1901, 49.

  4. Rose, P. K. "The Civil War: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence." Central Intelligence Agency. June 27, 2008. Accessed November 02, 2017.

  5. U. S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Vol. 25, p. 2. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office; 1880-1901, 826.

  6. Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1995, 64-65.

  7. Rose, P. K. "The Civil War: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence."

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