Workin’ on the Railroad


railroad handsafrican american railroad workers manassas

The picture to the far left reminds me of a poem I used to know and can’t find called Hands.  The poem talks about all the things hands do that we often take for granted.  Here, African American hands build railroads in Virginia during the Civil War.

“Slavery is often thought of as a primarily agricultural phenomenon, but thousands of enslaved blacks worked on the railroads right up to and during the Civil War, grading lines, building bridges and blasting tunnels. They hauled timber, cut wood and shoveled dirt and stone. Skilled slaves, especially blacksmiths, stone masons and carpenters, worked on the railroads too.” (William G. Thomas, New York Times, online edition, February 10, 2012)

railroad workers

manassas railroad map

Above is a map of the major railroad lines of Virginia in 1862.  AL&H in purple, O&A in green, Manassas Gap in blue, and RF&P in white. (Source: Library of Congress)  When the war started many slaveholders sent their “property” to work on the lines.  In addition, railroad companies bought or hired thousands of enslaved people (paying the slaveholders) to serve as section hands.  Finally, during the war thousands of African American self-emancipators used the railroad lines to guide them north.


In August 1862, when the Union forces retreated back up the line toward Washington, black families went with them. Col. W.W. Wright, the engineer and superintendent of the United States Military Railroads, witnessed the evacuation: “The contrabands fairly swarmed about the Fredericksburg and Falmouth stations, and there was a continuous black line of men, women and children moving north along the [rail] road, carrying all their worldly goods on their heads. Every train running to Aquia was crowded with them.” According to Mrs. B.B. Wright, a slave-owner, well over 10,000 contrabands walked or rode on the tracks north toward freedom in one week.

(William G. Thomas, New York Times, online edition, February 10, 2012)










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