"Rail lines were strategically important during the Civil War, and were responsible for much of the Union’s impact on Alexandria. The town had been a center of rail transportation before the war, but took on an increased significance with the outbreak of hostilities." – Alexandria: strategic rail hub in Civil War, Pamela Cressey
It doesn’t take a genius to appreciate the fact that an army with the superior logistical system has an advantage over its enemy. It did, however, take a genius to implement a better one in the Civil War.
The ingenious person in this case was Herman Haupt, appointed by President Lincoln as Chief of the US Military Railroad Construction Corps. Getting supplies to the troops doesn’t sound all that difficult, but without the proper leadership, a supply chain can break down quickly.
With an intelligent and no nonsense approach, Haupt prioritized supply items for shipment and unclogged snafus. Given the rank of Colonel, and then promoted to one-star General, he also solved a problem that was hampering the Union’s re-supply efforts south of Alexandria. As Bernard Kempinski notes, wide creeks and swamps had prevented railroad tracking between Alexandria and the supply point in Aquia Creek, in between Quantico and Fredericksburg.
At the wharf, the train cars were transferred directly on to barges, made up of two canal boats lashed together, over which rails had been laid, and were pulled down the river to Aquia Creek where they could be transferred back to rail. The barge avoided the necessity of unloading the cars for the river portion and were forerunners of modern containerized freight.
Historians have recognized Haupt as an unsung hero. The wharf he built is long gone, but the memory and appreciation lives on with a riverside walkway and the interpretive marker by Ford’s Landing.
I would like to thank Kempinski for his wonderful website “American Civil War in Miniature.” For the weary researcher not fully understanding what took place and exactly where, his page on Alexandria arrived like a gift from heaven. If you are interested in this topic, be sure and check out his offerings.
I would also like to thank Pamela Cressey of Alexandria Arch. The work she and her staff does, especially with the interpretive markers and the research behind them, is invaluable to understanding the many layers of history in the city.
Note: The black and white photo is used with permission from Kempinski, who obtained it from the Library of Congress (public domain).