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Harpers Ferry

May 23, 1861

When 37 year old Thomas J. Jackson arrived at Harpers Ferry, Va., on April 30, 1861, he had not yet become famous as “Stonewall.” He was known only as an eccentric Virginia Military Institute (VMI) professor. The town had just recently been taken over by Confederate state forces, and Jackson had been sent to organize and command the new recruits. He found the double tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that ran through Harpers Ferry were still being heavily used, transporting thousands of tons of coal and supplies daily between the Union East Coast and the Midwest.

A few weeks after taking command, Jackson informed the president of the railroad that he would have to stop running trains through Harpers Ferry at night because it disturbed his soldiers’ sleep. The schedules were changed so the trains passed through town only during the day. But Jackson was not satisfied, saying the trains interfered with his men’s drill. The railroad and Jackson then reached a compromise: the trains would pass through town only between 11:00 A.M. and 1:00 P.M. But during those two hours the traffic was very heavy–going in both directions.

On May 21 at 11:00 A.M., Jackson had opposite ends of each side of the 31 mile stretch of double tracks barricaded; trains could enter a section of track, but they could not leave. At 1:00 P.M., he had the tracks at both ends torn up so that 42 locomotives and 386 cars were now the property of the Confederacy.

From Harpers Ferry, however, there was only a spur track that ended at Winchester, Va., still 20 miles from Staunton–the closest track connecting with the Southern rails. Undaunted, Jackson had his men haul 14 of the locomotives and many of the cars overland to Staunton, causing one observer to write: “As I looked out of the window just now, I saw a railroad car traveling up the turnpike, showing what war can do.”

Fascinating Fact: Jackson purchased from the quartermaster a runty horse that was found in a captured car, intending it as a gift for his wife. But Jackson grew fond of the nag, named it “Little Sorrel,” and rode it faithfully during the war. He was riding Little Sorrel when he received his mortal wound.