Dennis Frye – the Great Train Robbery Harper’s Ferry May 23rd, 1861

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Dennis Frye – the Great Train Robbery TRT: 4:22

Dennis Frye

May 23rd, 1861 was the day Virginians cast their recorded voice vote on whether or not to back the decision, taken April 18th in a secret session of the Virginia Secession in Richmond to secede. Even though hostilities were breaking out before the referendum, Virginia’s secession was legally not official – until May 23rd. So when the results showed approval by adult white males that day for the secession, Jackson felt free to act as if there was really a war going on.

Colonel Jackson, of course, had the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad running through Harper’s Ferry. That’s a very, very important point of passage for the B&O, the railroad crosses the river there, over an 800-foot-span bridge – a covered wooden bridge that was built by the railroad during the late 1830s. The railroad crossed into Virginia, specifically because it was having a huge battle between the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the B&O Railroad – with respect to trying to stay along the Potomac and the narrow corridor along the Potomac. So, the B&O railroad finally said: “Enough of this. We’re going to cross the river at  Harper’s Ferry, go into Virginia, pass through Virginia and then we’ll return to Maryland near Cumberland. Ultimately, the B&O railroad would make it all the way to the Ohio River near Wheeling. Well, no one predicted civil war in the 1830s and now the B&O railroad is literally caught between the jaws – clamped between the jaws of north and south. Now, this presented a predicament for the president of the railroad John W. Garrett, based out of Baltimore. President Garrett wanted to keep both sides happy. I mean, his interest was money. His interest was to keep those locomotives moving and to keep those rail lines open. So, he is trying to be friend to both the union and confederate authorities, including Jackson at Harper’s Ferry, because he knows Jackson can strangle him in a moment. Well, traffic is continuing in a rather normal pace. Trains would be stopped at Harper’s Ferry by Jackson. On occasion, they would be searched. But there was a lot of railroad traffic. Well, Jackson knew that the confederacy needed locomotives and cars. What better place than the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to potentially have that become not being old property but Confederate States’ property. So, May the 23rd, 1861, Jackson hatches a scheme. He has sent confederate forces under Captain Turner Ashby to Point of Rocks. He sends confederate cavalry under J.E.B Stuart to Martinsburg and there they are, along about a 30-mile stretch of the B&O railroad with Harper’s Ferry, roughly in the middle between Point of Rocks and Martinsburg. He has informed Mr. Garrett that his trains can no longer operate at night, because it disturbs the sleep of his men. They can’t rest. Now, I’ve lived in Harper’s Ferry and I know that, when those trains come through there, it’s extremely noisy. So, Jackson has a legitimate point. So, no more night travel by the B&O and, of course, Mr. Garrett complies, knowing that Jackson really holds the key to the continuation of railroad travel across the river. Well, during the daylight hours, Jackson now complains again and says: “My men can’t hear the commands because there’s too much rail traffic and so I’m going to order you to restrict your traffic between 11 am in the morning and 1 pm in the afternoon.” Mr. Garrett said: “Well, yes sir Colonel Jackson, I’ll do whatever you say, just so we can keep those railroad lines open.” So, now we have the busiest railroad in the United States trying to cram all of its locomotives and cars all of its business through this funnel at Harper’s Ferry between 11 in the morning and 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Well, Jackson has now set the stage for his trap. On May the 23rd, he sends orders to Stuart and to Ashby to allow the trains to pass by them into this 30-mile stretch; but, Stuart blockades all trains going west, so you can’t go beyond Martinsburg and Ashby blocks all trains going east so they cannot continue to Baltimore, and on that day between 11 and 1 o’clock Jackson will bag 56 locomotives and some 300 freight cars that belong to the B&O Railroad. Now that is the great train robbery.