The Confederate sailors worked their rifled gun feverishly on the hard, sand-covered wooden deck. When the piece was ready to fire, the crew moved it into battery, quickly rearranging the breeching ropes as they took care not to bang their heads on the wood and iron casemate. When all was ready, a naval officer gave the order to fire. With a thunderous report, the gun fired solid shot at a Federal target as smoke wafted back through the gun port, and the gun finished recoiling back on its naval carriage. The crew repeated the drill, ignoring the enemy’s small-arms fire. Soon, however, the opposing guns got the range and pummeled the casemate on the bow, prompting the officer in charge to signal the engineer to back up the locomotive coupled to his railroad battery.
Actions such as this were not uncommon during the American Civil War that raged from 1861 to 1865. They could not have transpired, however, had it not been for the extensive industrialization that occurred in the United States a few decades before the conflict. A major part of this industrialization involved the building and exploitation of a large railroad network. During the Civil War, both North and South used rolling stock not just for extensive logistical operations, but for tactical missions as well. Federals and Confederates modified flatcars and boxcars—several of which were ironclad—for combat missions. Remarkably, the inspiration and technology for many of these primitive armored fighting vehicles originated in the U. S. and Confederate navies.
During the first few months of the war, troops sometimes boarded unprotected or minimally protected “armed trains.” Both sides soon learned, however, just how vulnerable troops on open railroad cars were to improved small arms. The new rifled musket was much more lethal than the smoothbore musket that the U.S. military had used to good effect against the Mexican Army in the 1840s. Moreover, improvements in artillery technology ensured that these weapons could damage rolling stock, to say nothing of flesh and blood. While these trains proved useful, devastating ambushes glaringly illustrated their vulnerabilities. To prevent such nasty surprises, many armed trains operated with cavalry and infantry escorts. These escorts slowed the train—an unacceptable hindrance, since speed was of the essence in tactical situations. Though displaying considerable potential, armored trains needed protection to survive on the modern battlefield.
Luckily, an answer came on the divided nation’s waterways, where riverine craft had been using hay and cotton bales, along with timber, for protection against incoming rounds. In fact, sailors and soldiers alike referred to many of these steamboats as “hay-clads,” “cotton-clads,” or “timber-clads.” It did not take long for soldiers to use the same expedients for “shielded trains” that might withstand even some artillery projectiles.
One problem associated with such shielding is that it is flammable. “Hot-shot” might cause wet hay or cotton bales to smolder, and the smoke might hinder a gun crew’s view. Moreover, bales and timbers were bulky, while iron could provide the same protection for a fraction of the space. As early as April 1861, workers in Philadelphia built a “portable iron railroad fort” to protect crews repairing bridges burned by secessionists south of the city. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published a sketch of this “powerful engine of war,” but the idea languished until spectacular naval engagements spurred military minds to action.'
To recount the famous story of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly known as the Merrimack) is unnecessary here. The Virginia demonstrated the obvious superiority of ironclad vessels over wooden ships, and the Monitor, having fought the Virginia to a draw, confirmed that ironclad vessels were the wave of the future. This duel caused an epidemic of “monitor fever”—a popular enthusiasm for the construction of ironclad vessels—-to sweep the nation. Shipyards began building ironclad vessels in quantity, and armies followed suit quickly by building several ironclad railroad cars. The epitome of naval influence on armored fighting vehicles was the “Railroad Merrimack.”
As Major General George McClellan’s powerful Federal army crept up the peninsula to threaten Richmond in spring 1862, General Robert E. Lee suspected that the Yankees had built an ironclad railroad car mounting a heavy gun to “sweep the countryside.”2 The rain-soaked ground made handling of field pieces difficult, so such a railborne weapon might prove useful. To counter this threat, Lee ordered the Navy Department to construct an ironclad railroad battery. The naval officer who designed the battery was John M. Brooke, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who earlier had been closely involved with the transformation of the hull of the USS Merrimack into the ironclad ram officially christened the CSS Virginia.
Brooke’s railroad battery resembled a cross-section of the famous vessel mounted on a flatcar, since it had a thick casemate of railroad iron and timber mounted at a 45° angle on its bow. Through the casemate’s narrow embrasure protruded the snout of a 32-pounder Brooke rifle, a naval gun of the same variety that had served so successfully on the Virginia. Breeching ropes controlled the recoil of the piece, which armorers mounted on a standard naval carriage. As befitted the design, a naval crew served the battery. Lieutenant John Barry of the United Artillery Battery commanded the crew, and at least two of these men had served previously on the Virginia.
While many simply called this novel weapon “Lee’s railroad battery,” some Richmond newspapers invoked the name of their hero-ship and called it the “Railroad Merrimack” after it bombarded Federal troops at Savage’s Station on 29 June 1862. Expecting to duel a Federal railborne ironclad, the “Merrimack” also carried bolt shot for piercing armor. In their haste to get into action, Confederates had neglected to arm the seagoing Merrimack with such shot, and thus lost an excellent opportunity to damage the Monitor. This time, however, the Confederates on the railborne “Merrimack” were prepared. As it turned out, the Confederates could not test their armor-piercing ammunition on the Federal ironclad, as it proved to be a phantom; it existed only in Lee’s mind, as no other reference to it exists.
Even without having tested its anti-armor ammunition, the “Railroad Merrimack” proved successful, and it inspired others to build railroad batteries. Major General John B. Magruder, under whose command the “Railroad Merrimack” fought at Savage’s Station, had a “railroad ram” built for his successful Confederate assault on Federal forces at Galveston, Texas, in the early hours of 1 January 1863. This particular railroad battery mounted an 8-inch Columbiad. Later, troops serving under Magruder in Texas worked on an ironclad car that sported a rotating turret. Confederate Major General Howell Cobb, who also had fought at the Battle of Savage’s Station, built an unarmored railroad battery that assaulted Federals at Jacksonville, Florida in 1863. This “Dantean Monster,” as a Massachusetts colonel called it, prompted the Federals to improvise their own railroad battery. They took a 12-pounder Parrott gun and a crew from the USS Norwich and placed both on a railroad car. The Yankees then pushed the battery by hand to duel with the dreadful “Monster,” which had a 32-pounder. The “Monster’s” larger gun out-ranged the 12-pounder of the Bluejackets, but they nonetheless fought gamely in an inconclusive duel during which the “Monster’s” shells dismembered some Federal soldiers.’ After this action, the “Monster” disappeared from the war, but another Confederate railroad battery serving under Lieutenant Drury Rambo fired a few rounds at retreating Federals during the Confederate victory at Olustee, Florida, in February 1864.4
The family tree of the “Railroad Merrimack” shows that it likely produced at least four descendants on the Confederate side, one of which was turreted. Not surprisingly, it produced Federal descendants as well. Major General Benjamin Butler, the commander of the Army of the James, surely heard of the “Merrimack” when it reappeared in battle east of Richmond in June 1864- Renowned for his experiments with novel weapons, Butler had two remarkable railroad batteries built at Fort Monroe, Virginia. The first of these, the “Land Gunboat,” was an improved version of its Confederate predecessor. It had frontal armor that extended down to the tracks, side armor, a strong undercarriage, and a 30-pounder Parrott rifle. Furthermore, this formidable railroad battery had a “stealth” feature. To eliminate the prominent smoke, steam, and sound signature of a puffing locomotive, the “Gunboat” had metal rings bolted to its hull so that troops might pull the car in and out of firing positions with ropes. The “Gunboat” apparently never fired a shot in anger, but its sturdy undercarriage served as a bed for a huge eight-and- a-half-ton seacoast mortar, the “Dictator,” which hurled 200-pound shells on Petersburg after July 1864.
While the “Railroad Merrimack” prompted the use of several railroad batteries on both sides, the naval action at Hampton Roads aroused interest in building ironclad cars elsewhere. Two months after an amphibious force took New Bern, North Carolina, in March 1862, Federals mounted rails on the front and sides of a flatcar. They cut one or two firing embrasures in its sloping ends and mounted two heavy guns within, and cut rifle apertures into the car’s sides as well. The Federals hedged their bets by having the railroad battery operate with another ironclad railroad car that carried two 6-pounder howitzers on naval carriages that could fire from any of its six portholes. Musket apertures in the boxcar-shaped car allowed Marine artillerymen, who were accustomed to firing on a moving platform, to support their comrades in the railroad battery. When Federals coupled both cars together as an ironclad train, they called it “Burnside’s Monitor” (after their commander, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside), and they referred to the individual cars as “railroad monitors”— even though one was actually a railroad battery. Federals ultimately dismantled this car, but the other car fought often during the war. Several other boxcar-shaped ironclad cars defended Federal railroads during the war, and soldiers often called them “gunboat cars” or simply “gun cars.” At least one car on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad had a wooden turret, hence its moniker: “land monitor.”
For all their value against infantry, however, most of these ironclads were thin-skinned and could not withstand artillery projectiles, a problem of recurring importance when Confederate horse artillery ventured near Federal railroads. Once again, naval technology provided a solution, and an 1863 West Point graduate with naval connections, Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs, suffered from a severe case of “monitor fever.” Both sides of Meigs’s family had distinguished service records. His father was Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, and his uncle, John Rodgers, Jr., was a veteran naval officer and captain of the monitor USS Weehawken. In June 1863, the ship’s 15-inch guns swiftly pounded the formidable CSS Atlanta into submission. Knowing the strength of the defeated Atlanta and realizing that the Confederates could not bring heavy artillery along to raid railroads, Meigs copied her sloped-casemate design for “railroad monitors,” since turrets really were not necessary. But as for Meigs’s turret-less ironclads, Federal officials still dubbed them, “railroad monitors.”
As chief engineer of the Baltimore defenses during Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, Meigs was in charge of building fortifications as well as protecting the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The young lieutenant believed that railroad monitors with sloped casemates would be as strong as blockhouses—if not stronger—and their mobility would make for a flexible defense. Meigs found a sympathetic audience in his commanding general, Robert Schenck, whose armed train Confederates had bloodily ambushed at Vienna, Virginia, in 1861. Schenck accordingly authorized the construction of five of Meigs’ railroad monitors “for the better defense of the railroad . . .
B & O shopworkers built five railroad monitors within a week, and they also built five “rifle cars,” which were railborne infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), to accompany the monitors just as IFVs have supported tanks in more recent times. Infantrymen rode within these fortified boxcars and engaged the enemy with small arms through firing apertures. Borrowing from naval tradition, Meigs named the monitors after Federal victories, including “Port Royal,” “Antietam,” “Vicksburg,” and “Gettysburg.” Meigs’ formal names did not enter popular usage, however, as the troops preferred to call them “gunboat cars,” a far more colloquial term appropriate for cars that resembled case- mated gunboats. At any rate, the monitors and the rifle cars moved out in an ironclad train “to get in Lee’s way,” as Meigs hoped.6 He expected to use his ironclad train as an armored spearhead to delay Robert E. Lee while the Army of the Potomac pursued the Army of Northern Virginia. As the drama unfolded, more cautious superiors held Meigs back at Harpers Ferry and Lee’s army escaped. The train nevertheless did good service, as it protected crews that quickly repaired the B &. O Railroad. Though Meigs soon left armor service and was killed in action in 1864, his monitors continued to protect the vital B & O against Confederate depredations until the end of the war.
Meigs did not get a chance to hinder Lee’s army, but his successors used ironclad trains that set several precedents for armored trains the world over. In fact, for a few decades around the turn of the century armored trains and railroad batteries were some of the most powerful weapon systems on land. The influence that naval technology had on these weapons did not stop with the Civil War, as designers borrowed armor plating, guns, ammunition, equipment, personnel, and even a nautical lexicon to meld with small arms and rolling stock to produce viable weapon platforms. As the internal combustion engine became more efficient, tanks and aircraft became the nemesis of railborne weapons, and the number of armored trains and railroad artillery has decreased steadily since World War II. Some nevertheless soldier on in the Balkans and in Third World nations. Moreover, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and self-propelled artillery can claim conceptual ancestors in Civil War rolling stock modified with naval technology.
1. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 18 May 1861, pp 5-6.
2. Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (ORA), vol. 11, part 3: p. 574.
3. ORA, vol. 14: pp. 234-36.
4. ORA, vol. 35, part 1: pp. 348-51.
5. ORA, vol. 17, part 1: p. 525.
6. John R. Meigs to Louisa Rodgers Meigs, Montgomery Meigs Papers, (Supplemental Family papers), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.