March 31, 2014

Book Review - The War Came by Train

Every wonder why the West Virginia state outline has the twin panhandle shape? You can find the answer as well as many other fascinating stories in Dan Toomey's book, "The War Came by Train, The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the Civil War." It is a highly readable and interesting account of the role the B&O had in the civil war. It is not a dry business history, but a living tale full of the characters and actions from the civil war.

To say that the B&O was central to the civil war would be an understatement. As the only railroad linking Washington, DC to the north through sometimes hostile territory, the B&O was vital to the Union. But it was also a trunk line linking the eastern seaboard with the Ohio River valley while passing through the coal mining region of Western Virginia.  One of its main commodities was coal, and the B&O's fleet of iron coal pot hoppers figure prominently in the book.

Of all the northern railroads, the B&O had the highest percentage of military traffic. It also suffered the most damage of any northern road. Robert E. Lee once said of destroying the bridges on the B&O in the Cheat River valley it would be, "worth to me an army." If you are a fan of the B&O, as I am, you will cringe as you read Dan's well researched telling of the damage and depredations the Southern armies and bandits inflicted on the railroad.    The damage that Jackson and the rebels inflicted on the B&O,  including plain old train robbery, went a long way to ensuring that the state of Maryland remained staunchly in the Union. In spite of constant raids and damage, the railroad was able to quickly repair itself and continue to conduct business, albeit with some prolonged gaps in service due to rebel occupation. Dan does a good job of chronicling these raids and keeping them in the overall context.

Dan's story starts with the John Brown raid. Did you know Robert E. Lee and Jeb Staurt rode the B&O on a light engine from Washington to Harper's Ferry to take command of the federal response to Brown's raid. He progresses through the war to the funeral train that took assassinated President Lincoln home to Springfield through Baltimore. The final chapters on the post-war B&O's efforts to recover propety stolen during the war and the B&O's role in the veteran reunions that took place up until 1938.   Dan also also has fascinating chapters on the role the B&O had in West Virginia's statehood, and in the troop transfer for the Chattanooga Campaign.

All in all a great book. If you are a B&O fan, this is a must read. Others will find the book useful as the B&O was at the center of most of the war's critical campaigns including Antietam, and Gettysburg. But be careful, after you read this book, you might find yourself wanting to build a railroad depicting the B&O. I know I am.

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