The following is a short but incomplete history of the railroads of Fredericksburg and how they impacted the terrain of the Battle of Fredericksburg of 1862. In the years between 1834 and today there have been two railroads in Fredericksburg. The first was the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) railroad, chartered in 1834. It thrived by providing reliable transportation between Richmond, the capital of Virginia, and Washington DC. Building northward from Richmond, it reached Fredericksburg by 1837 and Aquia Creek by 1842. From there the passengers transferred to a boat on the Potomac River for the two-hour cruise to Washington DC and points beyond. The railroad replaced the slow, bumpy coaches and wagons that had previously plied the dirt roads. In 1842, the English author Charles Dickens spent five months in America. He collected his experiences in a book titled ‘American Notes’. He wrote of the tortured experience traveling by boat, coach and train on the route between Washington DC and Richmond. At times, winter ice significantly interfered with the river portion of the route. It was not until 1872, following the Civil War, that the two cities were connected directly by rail.
Until almost 1900, the RF&P was single tracked. As the RF&P moved north out of Fredericksburg it ran through a cut on both sides of the bridge over Hazel Run that can be seen in the 1867 Michler map.
The second, less successful railroad that served Fredericksburg was first known as the Fredericksburg and Gordonsville (F&G). It was chartered in 1853. Curiously, the railroad only went to Orange, Virginia, a distance of 38 miles. While an extension was contemplated, it was never built beyond Orange to Gordonsville, another ten miles. Throughout the railroad’s history, the lack of adequate capital was always a constraint. During the Civil War the F&G railroad remained unfinished. Although most of the 40 foot wide roadway had been cleared of trees and graded, no track was laid, nor culverts or bridges constructed. The incomplete roadbed of the railroad featured in official battle reports by Union and Confederate commanders. It was also mentioned in accounts found in letters, newspapers and published in books of the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Wilderness. In 1876 the F&G was restructured with new funding as the Piedmont, Fredericksburg and Potomac (PF&P) with track laid as a less costly narrow gauge railroad. It opened for traffic in 1878. Its final incarnation came in 1925. Under new management and with adequate financing, it became the Virginia Central (VC) railroad. The VC widened the tracks to standard gauge. No matter under which name it operated, it was always merely a short haul system that made its living carrying passengers and products between Orange, the surrounding countryside and Fredericksburg. It failed for the last time as a result of the depression in the 1930’s. It filed for bankruptcy in 1938 and abandoned all but one mile closest to Fredericksburg. In this narrative, for simplicity, I refer to the railroad by its first name, the F&G.
Both railroads featured passively during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. By that time, the railroad bridge on the RF&P over the Rappahannock River had been destroyed twice; first by the Confederacy as they retreated from Manassas to Richmond in March 1862 and second by the Union following a brief occupation of Fredericksburg by General McDowell’s Corps when the Union rebuilt the bridge only to destroy it again when they withdrew in May 1862.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Prussia Street (Lafayette Boulevard) and the railroad depots; passenger and freight, marked the initial exit point for Union troops as they moved west out of Fredericksburg on their way to Marye’s Heights. Looking at a map of this area, this was because of the extra width of Prussia Street at that point and the openness of the route. For similar reasons, this was also a primary aiming point for Confederate artillery. Miller’s battery (click here) and Squires battery (click here) of the Washington Artillery were situated to fire directly down Prussia Street. In addition to Prussia, Union commanders then expanded the number of exit point’s sending their troops on streets to the south (Frederick and Princess Elizabeth) to minimize troop exposure to the deadly Confederate artillery fire. This strategy met with mixed results. Alternate routes used by the troops were George and Hanover Streets which were further to the north of the city.
Union troops did not appear to have had a problem crossing the RF&P railroad cut. This was not true for the cut made for the F&G, the then “unfinished” railroad. The F&G rail cut became a death trap for those Union troops that maneuvered out of Lower Fredericksburg, by the streets described above, to join other Union troops in the attack. This is easy to visualize in Frank Vizetelly’s drawing from 11 December 1862. This was sketched during the height of the Union assault to cross the Rappahannock River. The ground between the two railroads was open.
On the day of the battle, Confederate artillerymen observed the F&G railroad cut became a trap for Union soldiers:
“Once they [sought shelter in] … the railroad cut, and several shells from our batteries exploded among them, before they could escape from it. Once they charged by attempting to cross the cut, running down one side and up the other, and again … a murderous fire from out batteries caused them to retire precipitously…” Report of Colonel Henry Coalter Cabell.
A Confederate 30-pound Parrott Rifle and Read’s battery of three guns, stationed on Lee’s Hill, were sited to fire directly down the F&G railroad bed, as seen in Vizeletty’s drawing. The open ground can also be seen in this early post-war photograph that was taken from the RF&P near the Hazel Run railroad bridge looking west. Lee’s Hill is on the crest of the hill on the far left of the photo.
During the Battle of Chancellorsville on 3 May 1863, the F&G railroad cleared right of way was crossed twice by Confederate troops in their movement around the Union right flank before Jackson’s flank attack. On the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness on 6 May 1864 elements of General Longstreet’s Corps found that the F&G railroad bed eased the movement of a portion of his troops, acting as passage through forests for their flank attack.
When the guns fell silent at the close of the Civil War, a destitute South, including the citizens of Fredericksburg, took stock of the destruction and devastation that came with war. Where to start rebuilding? What to do first? For the railroads, this was easy to answer. Find funding and restore; lay new track, rebuild bridges and culverts, and begin the flow of passengers and commerce. Both railroads figure significantly in the post-Civil War development of Fredericksburg. They continued to do so up to the Depression in the 1930’s for the F&G and up through the Second World War for the RF&P. After that point, the RF&P suffered reduced traffic due to competition with air travel, efficient highways, cars and trucks.
Post-Civil War maps show the subsequent development of each railroad system. The 1878 Grey’s map documents the gradual prosperity of each railroad, consequently the South, of which Fredericksburg was a good example.
The construction date of the first RF&P passenger depot is unknown, but likely was erected shortly after the railroad reached the City in 1837. Built of wood between Charles and Princess Anne Streets was probably a very small structure, just large enough to house a ticket office and provide some degree of shelter for passengers. This depot remained in existence until 1887 when it was replaced with the second building. These can be seen in this 1863 photograph by Andrew J. Russell. This photo was taken from a hillside adjacent to and upstream of the destroyed railroad bridge on the east side of the Rappahannock River.
The current RF&P passenger depot that sits on Lafayette Boulevard, between Caroline and Princess Anne Streets, is the third station located in this general area.
The F&G railroad also added facilities in the area along Lafayette between the city and Hazel Run, as did local businesses which used its freight services. The Sanborne insurance maps from the same period provide greater detail of the railroad infrastructure along Prussia Street.
As the 20th Century began, traffic on the RF&P greatly increased. As a result, the entire railroad was double tracked between 1903 -1907, with the exception of 0.62 mile (one kilometer) of track through the city of Fredericksburg and over the Rappahannock River. It was likely during the double tracking initiative that the original cut, just north of Fredericksburg, was filled in and the track realigned. The RF&P facilities in Fredericksburg saw other significant construction projects undertaken by the Railroad in and around Fredericksburg. In 1909-1910, in addition to the new passenger depot, the RF&P constructed a new freight depot, a new interlocking plant and tower to control the switches in the area, two steel water stations for steam locomotives and a freight yard. In 1925, construction began double tracking this .62 mile (one kilometer) of track, elevating tracks through Fredericksburg to eliminate grade crossings, enlarging and renovating the 1909 passenger depot, and building a double track reinforced concrete bridge over the Rappahannock. By May 1927, the new bridge, elevated tracks and enlarged passenger depot were in operation.
With the reduction of passenger rail travel and reduced freight, the RF&P cut back and ultimately eliminated the railroad facilities built during 1910. In its place there now sits a planned community of apartments and condominiums. Some reuse was made of railroad buildings while others were demolished. Amtrak took over most of the remaining passenger rail services nationwide in the 1970’s. CSX Transportation currently manages freight services on the RF&P tracks. After 2000, the passenger depot lay abandoned for a period of time. Today, the building is a restaurant. The Virginia Railway Express (VRE), a commuter service makes four trips (morning and evening) daily between Fredericksburg and Washington DC.
Gone are the open fields that once lay adjacent to Hazel Run. The landscape, while similar to 150 years ago underwent important changes dictated by a growing population and the press for economic development. Pieces were reclaimed while others have been lost.
If you were to venture to this triangle of land today between the two railroads, significant parts of the terrain were altered by post-Civil War development. Would a veteran of the battle recognize his surroundings? Would you or they be able to follow the paths General Getty’s, Sturgis’ or Whipple’s troops took during the battle or the forces of Generals Zook or Griffin through the unfinished railroad cut on their way to assault Marye’s Heights?
The F&G railroad cut adjacent to the Cobblestone development is also changed. Its steep sides are softened or gone today. Only the road bridge over the cut provides a hint of its original dimensions. Lee’s Hill, the location of the deadly Confederate guns can be seen in the far background beyond the bridge. Today the city of Fredericksburg has built a walking and bike ride trail along the first three miles of the original railroad bed. The trail begins at the Cobblestone development adjacent to Lafayette Boulevard. They have plans on extending this further as far as I-95.
OR XXI, Report of Colonel Henry Coalter Cabell, Chief of Artillery, MG McLaws’ Division, p 586.
Dickens, Charles, American Notes, Chapter 5 http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/americannotes/6/
Griffin, William E, 150 Years of History Along the RF&P, Richmond, Whittet & Sheppardson,. 1984
A.J. Russell, ‘Secech Women’, Western Reserve Historical Society, Archives Library, Cleveland OH; National Archives photography
Virginia Central Railway Trail; http://www.fredericksburgva.gov/index.aspx?NID=742