During the war, the Virginia Central was a key element in Virginia's vast rail network, the most extensive in the South. The line remained largely in Confederate hands throughout the war and was essential to the rapid movement of troops and supplies, especially between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley. Union cavalry raided the line regularly, burning bridges and tearing up track, in a generally futile effort to disrupt the Confederate supply line. In 1862, for example, during the Peninsula Campaign, Union cavalry destroyed the bridge over the South Anna River and ripped up track between Hanover and Atlee stations, but the damage was soon repaired. In May 1863, Union raiders attacked Louisa Court House and burned Hanover depot. During the Overland Campaign of 1864 and thereafter, numerous raids resulted in the burning of Beaverdam Station, the destruction of the bridge over the Chickahominy River, and the tearing up of miles of track. Because Union cavalry forces could not hold territory, however, the Confederates quickly repaired the damage.
Union raids and temporary destruction did not dissuade the Confederates from utilizing the line effectively. During the Battle of Cold Harbor north of Richmond, on June 7, 1864, Union general Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General Philip H. Sheridan to lead about six thousand cavalrymen on the largest raid against the line to that date. Grant's goal was not only to destroy this important railroad, but also to draw Confederate troops west, away from Richmond. General Robert E. Lee responded by sending Major General Wade Hampton's five-thousand-man cavalry division in pursuit. Hampton caught up with Sheridan at Trevilian Station in Louisa County, where the two forces clashed in a bloody fight on June 11–12. Hampton prevailed, and Sheridan led his force back to Union lines east of Richmond. The track sustained little damage, and that was soon repaired.
By the close of the war, the Virginia Central Railroad, like many other Southern railroads, was unable to offer continuous service all along its line. The raids, the heavy use it received during the war, the loss of rolling stock, and the depletion of the company's capital as Confederate currency and bonds became worthless, all contributed to the poor condition of the railroad. Remarkably, however, the line was once more quickly repaired and reopened for continuous service on July 23, 1865.
In 1868, the Virginia Central Railroad merged with the Covington and Ohio Railroad to form the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Over the next two decades, to help open the great Pocahontas–Flat Top Coal Field in West Virginia, two new lines were added to the railway: the James River Line along the former towpath of the James River and Kanawha Canal, and the Peninsula Subdivision from Richmond through Williamsburg to Newport News. Coal was transported east from the fields along the relatively flat James River Line to Newport News, while empty coal trains rolled west to the fields on the more steeply graded former Virginia Central Railroad line. As part of the new entity, then, the Virginia Central Railroad contributed to the development of West Virginia as well as Newport News, continuing its long history as one of the state's most important railroads.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Bocian, M., & Salmon, J. The Virginia Central Railroad during the Civil War. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Virginia_Central_Railroad_During_the_Civil_War_The.
- MLA Citation:
Bocian, Meredith and John Salmon. "The Virginia Central Railroad during the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 6, 2012 | Last modified: October 27, 2015
Contributed by Meredith Bocian and John Salmon. Meredith Bocian is a doctoral student at Auburn University, pursuing a degree in nineteenth-century United States history. John Salmon is historian for Virginia Civil War Trails, and author of The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. He also helped author the National Park Service's Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment (2006).