Sunday, April 5, 2015

Some bridges you just hate to burn

     President Abraham Lincoln called the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad "the gut of the Confederacy." To Rutherford B. Hayes, it was "the jugular vein of rebeldom," and to James Garfield, "the grand lever on which the rebellion hangs."
     If three presidents could see how vital the railroad was, then why did the Confederacy leave it virtually undefended? Did they think the Yankees would spare the line for its covered-bridge aesthetics?
     Well, it worked for a little while.
     The V&T ran 219 miles from Lynchburg to Bristol, carrying lead, iron, salt, gunpowder, grain, and cured meat from the mountains to Robert E. Lee's army. Between April 4 and 8, Gen. George Stoneman and his soldiers destroyed or disabled over 100 miles of the track, using bonfires to bend the rails and burn the crossties. Timber trestles were especially easy to destroy and difficult to rebuild.
     On April 4, just a few hours before Gen. Stoneman intercepted the news that Robert E. Lee was retreating from Richmond toward Lynchburg, he had dispatched a battalion of 220 Pennsylvania soldiers under Major William Wagner to get as close to Lynchburg as possible and worry the Confederates about an attack from the west.
     Stoneman's commanding officer, Gen. George Thomas, had misgivings about destroying the railroad (which he called the East Tennessee and Virginia), because he knew the Union would soon have to rebuild it. On March 18, three days before the raid left Knoxville, Thomas directed Stoneman to:

destroy the railroad beyond Christiansburg, about ten or fifteen miles, where there are numerous trestles and small bridges, but not to destroy the bridge over New River west of Christiansburg. Should he ascertain that there is not a large force of the enemy in Southwest Virginia, and should he ascertain on reaching Christiansburg that General Sheridan has captured Lynchburg, as in now reported in the papers, he will not destroy any of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, but to move in the direction of Danville and threaten that place, should it be garrisoned by a large force; but, if it be weakly garrisoned, to attack it and destroy as much of the railroad as he can.
     The New River was the most formidable river crossing between Lynchburg and Bristol. The Union destroyed the trestle in 1864 in a raid that included two future presidents, Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley. It took the Confederacy two months to reopen the line. Stoneman damaged the bridge April 6 but did not destroy it. 
William Wagner's portrait when he was the
 first mayor of Colorado Springs, 1876-77
     The decision about whether to burn bridges near Lynchburg was left to Major Wagner, a 28-year-old from Philadelphia who was fascinated by trains. After the war, he would partner with his commanding officer, Col. William Palmer, as they blazed the way for the Union Pacific Railroad and co-founded the city of Colorado Springs.
     Stoneman dispatched Wagner's battalion April 4 from Jacksonville, Va. (now called Floyd). They marched overnight through heavy rain, reached Salem, Va., the afternoon of  May 5, and began working their way along the the tracks on the north side of the Roanoke River.
     On April 6, they passed through Liberty, Va. (now Bedford), where the mayor surrendered without a shot. Then they came to two majestic covered-bridge railroad trestles spanning the Little Otter and Big Otter creeks, which were undefended and ready to surrender to a match.
     Major Wagner hoped he wouldn't have to burn them. He ordered his men to build pyres of fence rails around the bridge timbers but not to light them just yet. Knowing Lee's days were numbered, he camped for more than a day, hoping he would get orders to call off the destruction. But the orders never came, and by midnight of April 7, Wagner knew he could wait no longer. He torched the bridges and marched overnight toward Lynchburg to gauge the Confederate resistance there. 
     On the morning of April 8, Wagner probed Lynchburg and got within about three miles of downtown before encountering substantial opposition. He withdrew quickly but convinced the Confederates that an attack could be imminent. This caused such panic that Gen. Grant heard about it on the eastern front. When Robert E. Lee heard that a Yankee army was approaching Lynchburg, he realized he was surrounded, and he surrendered the next day. 
     As far as Gen. Grant was concerned, Wagner's raid was Stoneman's most significant accomplishment. In his 1885 memoirs, Grant wrote:
The only possible good we may have experienced from these raids was by Stoneman getting near Lynchburg about the time the armies of the Potomac and the James were closing in on Lee at Appomattox. … He got on that [rail]road, destroyed its bridges, and rendered the road useless to the enemy up to within a few miles of Lynchburg. His approach caused the evacuation of that city about the time we were at Appomattox, and was the cause of a commotion we heard of there.
     With his mission accomplished, Wagner had to find a way to reunite with Gen. Stoneman, who by now had completed his destruction in Christiansburg and was on his way to who-knows-where in North Carolina. Over the next four days, Wagner's cavalry rode 207 miles while skirmishing with the enemy and eluding 1,500 rebels sent to hunt them down. Unlike the high toll of the 3-day raid on Wytheville, Wagner lost only one man killed and two wounded during his 9-day campaign.
     Wagner's battalion finally caught up with Stoneman the evening of April 12, guided the final miles by the glow of the bonfires Stoneman had lit in Salisbury, N.C.

The red lines on this 1871 map show the movement's of one of Stoneman's eight regiments, the 15th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry. At the top is Major Wagner's expedition to Lynchburg. Note how close he was to Appomattox the day before Lee's surrender.

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