Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Historic "Firsts," the Railroad and the Battle of Vienna

The Battle of Vienna is often described as being a historic first, although not everyone agrees on what that first is. A historical marker in Vienna, erected in 1975, describes the action as one in which "a railroad was first used tactically in warfare."  The Vienna Centennial Park marker notes that in 1861, "[f]irst use of a railroad in war occurs in Vienna during the Civil War."  The Strategic Junction marker on Hunter Mill Road explains that the action at Vienna "was the first tactical use of railroad in the war."  The Fairfax County Sesquicentennial website description of the Battle of Vienna concludes that "[t]his would go down in history as the first time a train was engaged in warfare in US history."  So, who is right? What claim does the Battle of Vienna have in the annals of military and railroad history?

Certainly the skirmish in Vienna cannot be considered the first time a railroad was ever used in the history of warfare.  Trains saw some limited use for westward troop movements during the Mexican War (1846-48). The 1st Georgia Infantry, for instance, gathered in Columbus, Georgia in 1846 and marched to Chehaw, Alabama, where they took a train to Montgomery on their way to rendez-vous with other forces gathering along the Rio Grande.  Trains were also used in Europe during the Crimean War (1853-56). In 1855, a railway was constructed from Balaclava to Sevastopol to transport ammunition and other supplies to British and French troops laying siege to the Russians at Sevastopol.

The railroad town of Grafton, occupied by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's troops, 1861.  Note the train at the center of the engraving (courtesy of Wikipedia).

The railroad also saw what was likely its first tactical use in the Civil War a couple of weeks before the June 17, 1861 action at Vienna.  Following the Union seizure of the important rail hub at Grafton, (West) Virginia on the Baltimore & Ohio line in June 1861, Major General George B. McClellan ordered his forces in the area to pursue the retreating Confederates at Philippi.  The movement was designed "[t]o prevent their further outrages upon the railroads or upon the property of loyal citizens." (McClellan Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 65.)  The Union soldiers, starting for Philippi on June 2, advanced in two separate columns.  The part of the force under Col. Benjamin Kelly, numbering around 1,600 men, took the train eastward towards Harpers Ferry to mislead Confederate scouts and pickets as to the intention of the movement.  About six miles from Grafton, Kelly's force left the train cars at Thornton and marched over a little-used road towards Philippi. The Federal troops defeated the Rebel force at a battle on June 3.  Today, the state of West Virginia is proud to proclaim that the "first tactical use of the railroad to move troops to battle" in the Civil War occurred at Grafton on June 2, 1861.  And keep in mind this movement predates the more-often cited tactical use of the rails to move Confederate troops from the Shenandoah Valley to the front at Manassas in mid-July 1861.

Given that railroads had seen use prior to the Civil War, and that a Union force had already employed a railroad for tactical purposes at Philippi, Vienna's "first" must relate to something other than what the historical markers say.  The train at the Battle of Vienna was ambushed, making it inaccurate to speak of "tactical use."  Above all else, the attack on the train at Vienna appears to be the first time a train came under fire in the Civil War, if not in all of U.S. history.  The prize goes to Fairfax County's website for using such a description of the battle.  And it turns out that the Vienna Centennial Park marker gets it at least partially right.  Text on another part of the marker notes, "Though the battle was short, Vienna achieved distinction as the site of the first railroad battle in history."  (Although I am not sure if it was the first in world history, it likely was the first in our nation's history and in the Civil War.)

U.S. Military R.R. locomotives during the Petersburg Campaign, c. 1864-65 (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Created in 1862, the U.S.M.R.R. operated a rail network in support of the Union war effort.
Vienna set the stage for the future appearance of railroads in military engagements, such as the Battle of Wentzville, Missouri on July 16-17, 1861, where a train carrying six companies of Union infantry was attacked near Wentzville by Confederate bushwhackers over the course of two days. Trains were also used offensively during the Civil War, including the "dry land Merrimac" train battery employed by the Confederates at Savage's Station in June 1862.

Vienna can rightfully claim a Civil War "first," even if that "first" is not always stated as precisely as it could have been.  The attack on the Union train there reminds us of just how central a role railroads would play during four long years of combat.

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