I consider the “Marne Taxis” the second most innovative experiment in the history of military transport. On the night of 7 September, 1914 about 1,000 Renault taxicabs and their drivers were requisitioned off the streets of Paris to transport 6 thousand soldiers 31 miles, where they arrived just in time to stop the German march on Paris and save France. This desperate measure also produced two odd facts. In feeding the cab drivers, twenty refused their wine ration – an almost unbelievable 0.02% of Frenchmen were actually oenophobes. The second odd fact was that paying off the meters, which were kept running, cost the French tax payers only about 70,000 francs - proving that Parisians never tip. The greatest innovative experiment in military transport came on 18 July, 1861, at the little railroad station of Piedmont Station, Virginia on the Manassas Gap Railroad, when for the first time in history an army was transported by rail directly to a battlefield. And this one also produced two odd facts.
It all began with Jefferson Davis' desperate telegram to Joe Johnston, on 18 July, 1861- “General Beauregard is attacked; to strike the enemy a decisive blow, a junction of all your effective force will be needed.” The attack by General Tyler's division might have been a farce, originally intended as a feint. But the crises for the Confederacy of the slave states was real. Outnumbered two to one in both theaters, the rebellion could survive only if the two rebel armies could combine against one of the federal armies. But from Winchester, to Manassas Junction was 60 miles. A forced march by road would take four to five days. The troops would arrive exhausted, spread out and with substantial loses to straggling. And the federals could probably match that march. But at his headquarters in Winchester, General Johnston had what he hoped was a better idea.
Johnston sent his chief engineer, Major W.H.C. Whiting, to the closest Manassas Gap Railroad connection - Piedmont station. His orders were to find if “trains, capable of transporting the troops to their destination more quickly than they were likely to reach it on foot, could be provided there." Whitting reported back that MGRR president Edward Marshall promised his railroad could transport Johnston's entire 11,000 man army to Manassas Junction in just 24 hours. However the supply wagons and artillery would have to go by road, since he had no rail cars capable of carrying them.
Johnson now called out the local militia to hold Winchester, while his army maneuvered. He also left behind his 1,700 sick men, unfit for duty. If federal General Patterson had moved against Winchester any time between the 18 and 24 July, he would have faced around 3,000 barely trained and badly armed old men and boys, and sick and wounded soldiers, with little artillery support. Even General Patterson, with just 6,000 men left after the 90 day Yankee volunteers had all gone home, could have captured Winchester. But he never tried.
The first to step off was Duncan's Kentucky Battalion, members now of Colonel Thomas Jackson's brigade. Private J.W. Brown wrote to his father, "We broke up camp at Winchester, Va. on the 18th... and made a forced march, marching all day and all night, of thirty miles...” In fact they left after noon, and marched only 17 miles from Winchester to Ashby's Gap. The 1,000 foot pass through the Blue Ridge mountains, was a toll road and paved. It had been named after Thomas Ashby, who founded the village of Paris at the eastern end of the gap. Jackson's brigade arrived there after dark, having marched 17 miles in 14 hours. Jackson then let his men catch some sleep in a field south of Paris.
Joe Johnston and his staff rode on the 7 miles on to Piedmont station that night, to discover there were no cars waiting and just one sad locomotive. It turned out the Manassas Gap Railroad had only one engine, and the engineers told the frustrated general that it would take 8 hours to make the 30 mile round trip to deliver just one 2,000 man brigade, and return for a second. It appeared railroad president Marshall was a true executive, well versed in schmoozing bankers and investors, but who had no idea how to actually run his railroad. Johnston contained his anger, and set about assembling every box and passenger car he could find.
When Jackson's men arrived about 6 a.m the next morning, 19 July, they found a train ready and waiting, with steam up in the engine. And the entire neighborhood had assembled to greet them. It was, according to soldier John Casler, “a regular picnic with plenty to eat, lemonade to drink, and beautiful young ladies to chat with" . It would remain a romantic image for the next 150 years.
By 8 a.m. Jackson and his men (short the 33rd Virginia regiment, which had to wait for the next train) were loaded, and the train roared off at 8 miles an hour - 30 minutes to Rectortown, 21/2 hours to Broad Run, 3 hours to Gainsville and 4 ½ hours to Manassas Junction, stopping at every station to refuel, add water and oil the engine.
The return trip, running empty, took about an hour less, and the little engine that could arrived back in Piedmont Station about 3 p.m.. It was quickly reloaded with more troops and set out for the second trip. By now Johnston had scrounged up a second engine, one of the half dozen liberated from the Baltimore and Ohio shops in Martinsburgh, and smashed together another train, which he sent off about five that evening.
This third run carried the 7th and 8th Georgia regiments. Private W.A.Evans would recall later, “I thought the top of the car would be the best place...But soon the heated metal and boards, supplemented with cinders and smoke from the engine, caused me to want to be inside the car. So at the first station I swung down and entered. I thought of the "black hole of Calcutta" and began to think my time had come - not from Yankee bullets, but from choking suffocation. I felt that I was being cooked alive...I slept some, of course, but was waked up every few minutes...by rude jolts as we backed or went into a side track to get out of the way of an approaching train.”
The approaching train was the returning little engine, empty again. And when it pulled into Piedmont Station, at about 10 p.m., Friday, 19 July, it found even more eager troops ready to load. Instead the exhausted train crews went home to get some sleep. Joe Johnston was apoplectic, but while the engineer and crew slept, the engine was probably serviced, as was the additional engine, spending the night in Manassas Junction. Rebel commanders were unfamiliar with the limitations of railroad equipment and expected it to work miracles, when it fact it had already done just that. The first amazing fact about this experiment in military transport was that in one day, about 6,000 men - half of Johnston's army - had been delivered 50 miles to the battle field. They had no artillery, or supply trains, but you can't have everything.
Saturday morning, 20, July the men of the 8th Georgia infantry regiment, remembered “the good ladies who furnished our breakfast and filled our haversacks.” But the hospitality of Piedmont Station had by now run low. Mrs. William Randolph complained, “ The soldiers...have eaten up everything I have in the house, and still they keep coming." That night, the last train carrying the 10th Virginian regiment left Piedmont Station about 3 a.m, filled with exhausted, hungry men, who had seen no romantic examples of southern womanhood offering succor.
These men had not eaten since leaving Winchester, and the engine was now traveling barely 5 miles per hour, because of wear and tear to the roadbed. At one water stop the hungry soldiers spotted blackberry's in a nearby field. McHenry Howard was among those who could not resist. “I heard a voice exclaiming furiously, 'If I had a sword I would cut you down where your stand,' and raising my eyes I beheld the crowd scatting for the cars before an officer striding up from the rear.” The officer turned out to be a tired and frustrated General Kirby Smith. “...he came up close and glared at me, thinking he was going to strike me and wondering what I would do, and when he turned off I was glad to regain my position on the car top.”
Shortly after resuming its journey, the train derailed. The crash was likely caused simply by the wear on the track and the wheels, never meant to carry this volume and these weights, and having been badly maintained for years by a company always operating near bankruptcy. No one was killed because the crews had been running at a reduced speed. But the soldiers had little doubt it was sabotage. According to W.A. Brown, “Some body tore up the track on Saturday night which had to be relaid...” Henry McDaniel of the 9th Georgia was clearer. “An engineer caused a collision of the trains on Saturday and that kept us out of the fight. He was afterward shot. He was a northern man." And W.A.Gus Evans contended it was a conductor who was “court martialed and shot, charged with bribery by the court and intentionally producing the collision...”
It seems likely that someone, a civilian conductor or an engineer, working for the Manassas Gap railroad was dragged before a kangaroo court, tried, convicted and shot that Saturday. And it seems likely that if the unfortunate victim had intended to cause damage, he would made certain the train was running faster when it was run off the rails, or sooner, before all but the last brigade of Joe Johnston's army had reached Manassas Junction. But the soldiers were weary, after a long forced march, with no food and little water. They were frustrated with the delays, lack of sleep, and they were not thinking clearly. They were also suspicious of the mechanics and their mechanical world that was destroying the economic viability of slavery. And it seems likely that on 20 July, 1861, they struck out in anger at the only part of the north they could reach at that moment.
Non one seems to have recorded the name of the officer who ordered the railroad man's death. The rebel victory on the 23 July laid bare the paranoia behind the act, and it seems likely the officer responsible was no longer proud of his action. This was the second odd truth the southern cavaliers would learn over the next four bloody years. Never start a war. Ever. Besides killing people, and destroying lives, it puts far too much power in the hands of tired, frightened and and angry average people, who will then do things they will regret for the rest of their lives.