Handcars

Handcars and pole cars were employed extensively across the railroads of antebellum America, and were pressed into military use in great numbers. Both types were human-powered; the handcar featured a gearing mechanism that had to be pumped or cranked, while the simpler pole car was literally "punted" along the tracks with a long pole. The little double-axle cars could cost anywhere from one-sixth to one-twelfth as much as a standard freight car, and owing to their lightness and method of propulsion they were in many ways more versatile. Used as maintenance vehicles before and during the war, they were frequently sent out to investigate and repair downed telegraph wires - a dangerous mission in a contested area. One Confederate crew in Louisiana barely escaped with their telegraph equipment and handcar when a Federal raiding party came upon them while demolishing the Vicksburg, Shreveport, & Texas Railroad.

Apart from burning, another way of deliberately sabotaging a locomotive that could not be saved from the enemy was to send it crashing off a bridge. This Federal ordnance train at Savage's Station in late June 1862 was set on fire and plunged into the Chickahominy River over what was left of Bottom's Bridge. Note the six-wheel tender - rather unusual for this period. (LC)]

Chickahominy Bottoms Bridge

Burnside used shipped-in handcars to haul supplies during his North Carolina operation, and they were also carried aboard trains, being used to carry messengers when the telegraph lines were inoperable or sent in emergencies to warn incoming trains of danger. During and after battles any available handcars were used for medical evacuation. On August 27, 1862, during the Second Manassas campaign, BrigGen George W. Taylor's New Jersey Brigade was cut to pieces. Taylor himself suffered a serious leg wound, and his men rolled him by handcar to Burke's Station; thence he went by train to Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, where surgeons carried out an amputation, but he died on September 1.

Senior officers and important civilian officials used handcars for personal transport. The president of the Richmond & Danville Railroad, Lewis Harvey, sustained a variety of injuries when he and the black employees working his handcar crashed into the back of a stationary passenger car. On September 12, 1862, a freight train on the Wilmington & Weldon plowed into the handcar carrying William S. Ashe, the former head of the Confederate Railroad Bureau; mangled beyond recognition, he died two days later. Both of these accidents happened at night, and the freight train that mortally injured Ashe did not have a working headlamp.

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