From the American Civil War to this present day, the railroad has played a role in the military not just in the United States but in other countries around the world. Do you know where the railroad was first used for military service? It was during the American Civil War, and it was used during the First Battle of Manassas although not on the battlefield itself. General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson did use the railroad to transport his troops between Delaplane, Virginia to the Manassas Junction (now Manassas) to march his troops to the battlefield, but there was a railroad built specifically for military use. Sadly, most of the railroad bed is gone, but there are a few markers at places where the train once ran.
It began north of the railroad junction (which is where Wellington Road crosses the tracks) past the old train station in what is now Old Town Manassas, and it went five and a half miles north from there. Where did it go? It went across Liberia Plantation (just the house and a cemetery remains today), and it sloped down towards Bull Run where it crossed on a long trestle bridge about a quarter mile south from Cub Run. It continued north through rocky cuts that were blasted with black powder. It entered into a field owned by James Murtaugh, a local farmer, and it terminated there. This spot today is off New Braddock Road across the street from Centre Ridge Elementary School. A monument marking the northern terminus is in a clump of trees next to a playground. There is also a sign on Route 28 at the north end of Old Centreville Road (just south of New Braddock Road).
Now some of you are saying, “That is very cool to see where the where the world’s first military railroad was, but Centreville, Virginia? Nothing happened there. Besides, the battlefield is miles west of here.”
When you visit Centreville, Virginia today, you see modern homes and shopping centers. You do not notice the historic sites which are hidden away from the major roads of Interstate 66, U.S. Route 29, Virginia Route 28 and the current routing of Braddock Road. You would have no idea that this was a very historic town, and although no battles were fought here, it was a strategic town in the battles of Manassas and Ox Hill. The Centreville Historic District is accessible from U.S. Route 29, and many of the old structures and old forts remain today. Braddock Road, which has been altered through the years and was split into three roads with the building of Interstate 66, was the main street that went from the mountains to the ports of Alexandria. The town is on high ground which made it a perfect spot to set up camps to watch for oncoming Union troops. The camp was set up on the south side of the town, and the railroad supplied the camp by way of the Alexandria and Orange Railroad. (That main line still passes through Manassas today and is operated by the Norfolk Southern Railroad.)
What happened to the first military railroad?
The Centerville Confederate Military Railroad, the name of America’s first military railroad that was constructed between December 1861 and January 1862, was strictly used for supplying the Confederate camps in and around Centreville and was never used as a passenger railroad. The Confederate Army departed from Centreville in March 1862, and they destroyed everything of military value to include the rolling stock and the bridge across Bull Run. The rails were taken up by Federal troops in July of the same year and were taken to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. That was the end of the short life of the first military railroad.
As the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area grew, some of the sites including the railroad bed was destroyed and replaced with houses. Through the years, archaeologist and historians tried to search for some of the sites using old maps from the Civil War area, and although they were able to find some sites, the other sites may be forever gone. As for the military railroad bed, most of it was destroyed, but some of it does remain although on private property. In the early 1970’s, archeologists and historians were able to find the northern terminus of the railroad and have marked it with a small monument. The monument is on public property and can be visited although you will not be able to see where the railroad went from there.
The next time you are driving through Centreville, Virginia, remember that you are driving through history, and that you are passing through the area of America’s first ever military railroad.