The drumbeats of sectional rivalry that had been heard in the debate over a transcontinental railroad route became a call to arms when South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860. A banner headline in the Charleston Mercury screamed the news—“The Union Is Dissolved”—while out in Charleston Harbor, a garrison of seventy-odd Union artillery troops under the command of Major Robert Anderson awaited its fate.
Confederate batteries led by fiery Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard began a bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Two days later, Major Anderson, who had once been Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point, surrendered the post. Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis, whose call for reason over politics had gone unheeded when it came to selecting a transcontinental railroad route, had been elected president of the Confederate States of America.
The outbreak of war had an immediate impact on the Pennsylvania Railroad. William Jackson Palmer’s high-level errand-running for J. Edgar Thomson suddenly became much more dangerous. Maryland’s status as a border state was tenuous at best, and Southern sympathies ran high there. When normal communications and train traffic through the state were disrupted, Thomson feared that Washington, DC, would become totally isolated from the North.
“The suspension of intercourse between this place [Philadelphia] and Washington,” Thomson wrote Lincoln’s secretary of war, Simon Cameron, “has caused an intense feeling here in relation to the safety of the capital, and there is great eagerness to rush to its assistance.”1
Thomson offered the full services of his railroad to the federal government, but orders for troop displacements were painfully slow in coming. Noting the lack of troops moving south from Philadelphia despite his arrangements for transporting five regiments per day, Thomson grew caustic. “We infer from this,” he scolded Cameron, “that you must feel entirely safe at Annapolis and at Washington.”2
Meanwhile, Cameron was busy raiding Thomson’s corporate pocket for talent. Because telegraph lines were down, Palmer hand-carried a dispatch from Cameron to Thomas A. Scott, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s vice president. Cameron wanted Scott’s managerial skills in the War Department, and within days, Scott was assistant secretary of war for transportation. He soon became the Union army’s railroad czar.
“This morning we open three daily passenger lines to and from Baltimore,” Scott wrote Palmer shortly thereafter, “also one daily freight train—from all of which you will perceive that the U.S. Military Routes are progressing towards the P.R.R. [Pennsylvania Railroad] standard.”3
As the railroads struggled with their new roles, the nation as a whole—both blue and gray—found that there would be no quick end to the war. Cries of “On to Richmond!” aside, General Irvin McDowell’s neophyte Union army smacked into the stone wall of Jackson and his compatriots at a creek called Bull Run and was sent fleeing back to Washington. Realization sunk in that this would not be a short family quarrel but rather the testing piece of a generation.
William Jackson Palmer reluctantly put aside his Quaker upbringing and recruited a special troop of cavalry from among the gentlemen class of Pennsylvania. And who better to identify with than that hero of Fort Sumter, Major Anderson? Thus was born the Anderson Troop. Palmer wrote to his circle of friends throughout Pennsylvania and to business associates of J. Edgar Thomson, urging them to nominate suitable young men for the outfit. While he originally disclaimed interest in the position, Palmer, to no one’s surprise, was elected captain of the troop.4
Their first battle came soon enough. Early in 1862, Ulysses S. Grant began a concerted drive south up the Tennessee River. Fort Henry fell to him, and the capture of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River earned him the sobriquet “Unconditional Surrender.” With the lower Cumberland in Union hands, Palmer and the Anderson Troop went with General Don Carlos Buell’s headquarters staff to Nashville.
As Grant plunged onward toward the critical rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi, Buell’s Army of the Ohio moved south from Nashville to protect his left flank. The climax came on April 6 at a little church called Shiloh, a stone’s throw from Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. While Palmer’s cavalry saw no direct action, Palmer averred as to how “Buell has undoubtedly saved Grant’s army,” albeit with frightful losses on both sides.5
Until Shiloh, the horror of what the war would become had not yet sunk into the national consciousness. Despite the war—both boldly and perhaps a little naively—the United States Congress resolved to do in war what it had been unable to do in peace.
Old-line Whigs and new Republicans in the North had long advocated the expenditure of federal dollars for what were characterized as “internal improvements”: roads, canals, and river and harbor facilities. The Republican Party platforms of 1856 and 1860 added railroads to this category and not only called for a railroad to the Pacific but also urged government aid in its construction. In 1860 Democrats also supported a railroad to the Pacific, but the party maintained its longstanding opposition to the direct use of federal dollars for the effort, particularly if the route was to be one of the more northerly choices.
Now, relieved of southern Democrats, the remaining Republican majority in Congress once again considered the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Colonel John J. Abert’s 1849 assertion that the “integrity of the Union” demanded such a road was trumpeted anew with an increased sense of urgency.
Aaron Sargent, a freshman congressman from California assigned to the House Pacific Railroad Committee, unabashedly made the case. “I now conceive it my duty … to arouse this House from its inaction, and convince it, if I am able, that this railroad is a necessity of the times—a great war measure—to be inaugurated now, if regard is to be paid to the most vital interests of the country.”6
Indeed, the remaining northern regional rivalries were diminished, although certainly not extinguished, by the argument of “military necessity.” There was jockeying for position by real and paper railroads alike, but three companies seemed to enjoy a leg up on their competition.
Chartered in 1852, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad had taken halting steps to build along the eastern leg of Stephen Douglas’s favored transcontinental route from Chicago to South Pass. Connected to Chicago by the Rock Island Railroad, the Mississippi and Missouri ran west across Iowa from Davenport, bound for Council Bluffs. In the spring of 1862, with its railhead some 50 miles west of Iowa City, the line was experiencing one of its frequent halts due to financial problems.
The Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western Railroad had been chartered in 1855 to run from Leavenworth, Kansas, on the Missouri River, west past Cyrus Holliday’s Topeka, for a total of about 100 miles to Fort Riley, Kansas. This was more or less along the transcontinental line intended by Thomas Hart Benton. Seven years later, a survey had been run but not a single mile of track laid. That, however, did not stop Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western lobbyists from making the rounds of Congress and wildly distributing stock certificates in anticipation of major land grants.7
But a third contender appeared out of the West. Railroad proponents Douglas and Benton were both now dead, but they must have stirred in their graves when it was announced that the clerk of the newly created House subcommittee charged with drafting one railroad bill from among the various contenders was to be none other than Theodore Judah of California.
Judah had completed the preliminary survey that Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker, Stanford, and others had authorized, and the result had been the incorporation of the Central Pacific Railroad on June 28, 1861. Leland Stanford—to Huntington’s undying dismay—was elected president, while Huntington settled for vice president. Mark Hopkins was elected treasurer, and Judah was named chief engineer. Clearly, the Central Pacific Railroad would be a major player in any ensuing legislation.8
Determined to avoid the geographic debates of the past, Judah’s committee reported a bill that was very specific both about who would build the Pacific railroad and the route it would take. Principally, the Central Pacific got the nod in the West from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevada to Nevada. Cries in California of nepotism were futile because in business, politics, or railroads, there were fewer and fewer people who could challenge the muscle of the quartet of Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker, and Stanford. On the eastern end, thanks in no small measure to those free-flowing stock certificates, the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western secured the major franchise.
Along the broad middle ground of the Rockies, the exact route was still to be determined. Here a new entity was to be incorporated to build between the eastern border of Nevada and the presumed terminus of the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western at the western border of Kansas. The new entity would be called the Union Pacific Railroad.
But Iowa was not pleased with this decision, and those with a stake in the future of the Mississippi and Missouri scurried to do something about it. By the time the Pacific Railroad bill passed the House of Representatives, a coalition of interests along the line eastward from Iowa to Chicago, New York, and Boston had succeeded in amending the route. The eastern terminal was now placed at an unnamed location somewhere on Iowa’s western border—presumably, the western terminal of the unfinished Mississippi and Missouri—rather than the Kansas terminus of the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western.9
Over in the Senate, a similar coalition prevailed. The result was that the first transcontinental corridor would have its axis through Council Bluffs, Davenport, Chicago, and New York rather than Topeka, Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. The Senate bill also authorized the Union Pacific to build between the western boundary of Kansas and the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad at the Missouri River. After the Senate version passed, the House concurred, and President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 into law on July 1, 1862.
Collis Huntington, who had spent much of the previous winter in Washington lobbying its passage, was elated. Decades later, he told historians that he cabled his partners with the news: “We have drawn the elephant. Now let us see if we can harness him up.”
Colorful though it was in hindsight, this quote was also attributed to Theodore Judah. In truth, Huntington was in Sacramento with his partners when Aaron Sargent telegraphed a more perfunctory sentiment: “The President has signed the Railroad Bill. Let California rejoice.”
Perhaps most significant about this show of national resolve in the face of the Civil War was the fact that cloaking the railroad enterprise in cries of “military necessity” led Congress to extraordinary extremes. To support the venture, it set aside twenty million acres of public domain for land grants and provided a $60 million loan. Then Congress entrusted both to comparatively obscure businessmen who had yet to prove themselves or, in some cases, lay a single mile of track.10
As the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 slowly wound its way through Congress, George B. McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac ground to a halt on Virginia’s James-York Peninsula. McClellan, now a major general, got within spitting distance of the gates of Richmond but proved as timid there as he had once been as a young captain surveying railroad routes across snowy mountain passes in the Cascades. It was going to be a long summer.
Out in the West, William Jackson Palmer and the Anderson Troop were at Huntsville, Alabama, with General Buell, whose Army of the Ohio was ostensibly advancing on the pivotal southern rail junction of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Quite pleased with the performance of the Anderson Troop, Buell asked Palmer to raise three additional companies for what would become the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry. Palmer went east to recruit, and when he returned, the army was still advancing on Chattanooga, but it had a new commander, Major General William S. Rosecrans.
On September 9, 1863, Rosecrans finally entered Chattanooga unopposed. Buoyed by this success, the general quickly pushed southeast into Georgia before realizing that far from fleeing before him, the Confederates were massing to counterattack. Soon thereafter, all hell broke loose along a creek called Chickamauga.
Rosecrans hastily gathered his army along the western bank of Chickamauga Creek and established his headquarters at the Widow Glenn’s cabin, Palmer and elements of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania with him. The battle opened on the morning of September 19, with General Braxton Bragg and his Confederates determined to turn Rosecrans’s left flank and push the Union army into Missionary Ridge. These attacks faltered, but by the morning of the following day, the reason for Bragg’s newfound tenacity became evident.
In an amazing display of mobility, a patchwork network of southern railroads had transported upward of ten thousand men from General James Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia over 700 circuitous miles via a dozen railroads and deposited them at Catoosa Station, Georgia, just south of the Chickamauga battlefield. It was the longest and most extensive troop movement by rail ever undertaken by the Confederates, and it proved a testament to the growing military power of railroads.11
On the morning of the second day, as Bragg again pressured Rosecrans’s left, Longstreet’s troops poured into a hole in the middle of the Union line. By afternoon, as Union troops fled toward Chattanooga through gaps in Missionary Ridge, General Rosecrans and what was left of his staff came to a crossroads. One road led northwest to Chattanooga, a route most of the army seemed to be taking. The other struck east toward General George Thomas’s stand atop Snodgrass Hill. Initially, Rosecrans ordered his chief of staff to take the road to Chattanooga and rally a defensive perimeter while he, Rosecrans, rode toward the sound of the guns.
Somehow at the intersection of two dusty roads, those roles became reversed. It was Rosecrans who rode in an ever-deepening stupor toward Chattanooga while his chief of staff, Brigadier General James A. Garfield, turned east and reached Thomas after a wild ride. Reputations are made or lost on much less. Rosecrans became the general who had deserted his army; Garfield continued his ride all the way to the White House.12
When the remains of Rosecrans’s army were besieged in Chattanooga, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton prevailed upon Thomas A. Scott to once more take a leave of absence from the Pennsylvania Railroad and hurry to Louisville, Kentucky, to coordinate the movement of troops south by rail to Rosecrans’s relief.
It was Grant who lifted the siege at Chattanooga and was soon called east to show similar resolve against Robert E. Lee. As Grant plodded toward Richmond in the spring of 1864, Congress once again debated the Pacific railroad question. On July 1 it passed an amendment to the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862.
Some said that its measures were a necessary economic stimulus to prod the construction of the line despite the continuing uncertainties of the war. Others, like Illinois congressman E. B. Washburne, claimed that it was “the most monstrous and flagrant attempt to overreach the Government and the people that can be found in all the legislative annuals of the country,” brashly designed to fill further the pockets of a select and unproven few under the guise of national emergency.13
In essence, the 1864 amendment doubled the land grants and gave the fledgling Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads authority to float their own first-mortgage thirty-year construction bonds paying 6 percent in addition to the previously authorized government bonds, which were now subordinated to a second lien. These additional amounts were not to exceed the three issue levels—depending on terrain—spelled out in the original act. Across the prairies, the railroads could sell $16,000 of their own bonds per mile; on the high plains, $32,000 per mile; and in the mountains, $48,000 per mile, making the total indebtedness per mile double that.
Not only would the government guarantee the interest on these bonds but also it would pay the first year’s interest outright. Despite the rigors facing the Central Pacific in the Sierra Nevada and the endless sweep of prairie ahead of the Union Pacific, it was the sweetheart deal of the century.14
One other thing was certain. Such economic rewards were more than enough to fan the fires of friendly, nay, cutthroat, competition. When a Senate version of the 1864 amendments proposed to give the Central Pacific the authority to build only to the California-Nevada border and not Nevada’s eastern boundary, that railroad’s directors saw red. They were paying the price in California’s Sierras by doggedly blasting out some of the toughest miles of mountain railroads in the world, and they were not about to be left out of the financial prize that came with the easier miles across the Great Basin.
An irate Collis Huntington of the Central Pacific confronted the Union Pacific’s wily Dr. Thomas Durant in the backrooms of Washington. “How dare you try to hog all the continent?” exploded Huntington. “Well, how much do you want?” demanded Durant. “Give me Nevada,” Huntington supposedly replied. For the moment, the two compromised on 150 miles of it, but it was clear that when the war was finally over, the first of many races would be on.15
By the fall of 1864, much of the wartime uncertainty that had attended the passage of both the original Pacific Railroad Act and its 1864 amendment was past. Atlanta fell, Lincoln was reelected, Grant tightened the noose around Richmond, and Sherman went marching through Georgia. By April 1865, to all but the most diehard of Southerners, it was over. Confederate president Jefferson Davis fled his capital and was reported to be heading west for Texas with five hundred veteran cavalry to continue the fight.
Among those detailed to pursue Davis was a brigade of Union cavalry under the command of newly appointed Brevet Brigadier General William Jackson Palmer. Never mind that he was only a brevet brigadier general of volunteers, or that for all intents and purposes the war was over. Still shy of his twenty-ninth birthday, he would be General Palmer for the remainder of his life.
But now the pursuit of Jefferson Davis—in whom, under different circumstances, Palmer might have found a railroad mentor to rival J. Edgar Thomson—became a frenzied game of cat and mouse. Davis was reported leaving Charlotte, North Carolina, with wagons loaded with Confederate gold. The purported amount of the treasure and the number of his cavalry grew with every mile that the Confederate president traveled—$2 million, $5 million, and eventually $10 million.
By vigorous marches, Palmer and his cavalry succeeded in gaining two days on Davis and his escort and then got ahead of them by crossing the Savannah River, effectively cutting off their line of escape to the West. Fearing that Davis might simply abandon his escort and try to slip through with a small party, perhaps via rail, Palmer ordered the line of the Georgia Railroad—one of J. Edgar Thomson’s early projects—cut at Madison, about 20 miles south of Athens, Georgia.16
Meanwhile, the net was growing tighter. The Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, to whom Palmer had once helped Thomson draft a letter urging a southern transcontinental route, had gone to his home in Crawfordville, just east of Madison. Here he waited for a detachment from Palmer’s brigade to ride into his yard.
But where were Davis and his reported treasure? On the morning of May 8, while searching for Davis near the forks of the Appalachee and Oconee rivers, the Fifteenth Pennsylvania came upon seven wagons hidden in the woods. They contained $188,000 in coin, $1,588,000 in negotiable paper, and about $4 million in Confederate money, the latter of dubious value. This treasure, however, was the property of the Georgia Central Railroad and Banking Company, spirited away from Macon in advance of Union troops. Reports of a Confederate treasure had been grossly exaggerated, and Davis’s coffers were as empty as his cause.
Two days later, on May 10, Davis himself was captured by elements of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry of General James H. Wilson’s corps at Irwinton, about 25 miles east of Macon. “General Wilson held the bag,” General George Thomas remarked to his staff, but “Palmer drove the game into it.”17
Now the war was really over. One day Palmer’s command was riding headlong after Jefferson Davis, and the next it was on its way home. “I was mustered out with my regiment on Wednesday last,” Palmer wrote his uncle, “and am consequently now in the full enjoyment of the beatitude of being a citizen … and I suppose, jobless for the first time in nearly four years.” But he would not remain so for long.18
The Civil War transformed American railroads just as World War I would later transform the airplane. When America looked up from the carnage of four bitter years, it found that railroads had dramatically increased its mobility, become the arteries of its growing industrial strength, and stood poised to replace covered wagons as the vessels of its western expansion, quickly making good prewar boasts of Manifest Destiny.
Between 1850 and 1860, the number of miles of railroads in the United States had more than tripled, from 9,000 to 30,000. While many railroads in the South now lay in ruins, most would be quickly rebuilt, and the number of miles of track in the United States would reach 53,000 by 1870.
This mileage would include the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, but as the guns fell silent, that line’s speedy completion was still not assured. And it soon became clear that while the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were the leading contenders to finish first, they would not have the field to themselves.
Prewar, regional fears that there would be only one transcontinental line were rapidly disappearing. For starters, with almost lightning speed in the weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War, there was a new breed of observer heading west. These were not the stalwart scientists of Colonel Abert’s Corps of Topographical Engineers but rather the vanguard of capitalism itself. These were people who either would bankroll the ventures or were in positions of political or media power to fan the fires and convince others to ante up for the cause.
No less a personage than Schuyler Colfax, ex-newspaperman from Indiana and lately Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, hopped a stagecoach with Samuel Bowles, a Massachusetts newspaper editor, and headed west. From the Missouri to Denver took less than five days. “It was a magnificent, uninterrupted stage ride of six hundred and fifty miles,” wrote Bowles, “much more endurable in its discomforts, much more exhilarating in its novelties, than I had anticipated.”
Colfax, who would soon have Denver’s main east-west street named for him, was transfixed by the railroad possibilities. By the time the party reached Virginia City, Nevada, the ex-Speaker told a crowd, “I believe the Pacific Railroad to be a national and political and military necessity.”19
In the depths of civil war, Secretary of State William Seward had strenuously agreed. Long a proponent of a transcontinental railroad, Seward saw its importance to national unity: “When this [railroad] shall have been done, disunion will be rendered forever after impossible. There will be no fulcrum for the lever of treason to rest upon.”20
Indeed, the first transcontinental railroad and the competing lines that raced to network the rest of the West would become the very fulcrum upon which the settlement of half a continent was based and the sanctity of the Union made secure. With an interruption of war, railroads had come of age, and now, so too would the country.