Late on the bright, clear afternoon of September 12, 1862, Col. William Shepperd Ashe is supervising the saltworks on Masonboro Sound, east of Wilmington at the mouth of Whiskey Creek.
Late on the bright, clear afternoon of September 12, 1862, Col. William Shepperd Ashe is supervising the saltworks on Masonboro Sound, east of Wilmington at the mouth of Whiskey Creek. He is 49 years old, a large, active, cheerful man long in the habit of being in charge. A messenger arrives bearing an ominous telegram: Ashe’s youngest son, Samuel A’Court, has been captured at Manassas, Virginia.
Samuel is the spitting image of his father, even to the wry turn of his mouth, and he shares his temperament and zeal for efficient organization. Just weeks ago, Samuel was appointed adjutant general to Gen. William Dorsey Pender’s brigade at the rank of captain — responsible for all the myriad details of troop movements, logistics, and supplies. Pender considers him “A very nice modest young man.”
The day following his promotion, Pender’s brigade was engaged heavily. All Ashe knows is that his son has been captured, his fate otherwise unknown.
Ashe hurries to the depot of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad on the east bank of the Cape Fear River and commandeers a handcar and two men to help propel it. He can do such things — he is president of the line. He mounts the car, and they roll north through the balmy evening on a three-hour journey to his home in Rocky Point, a distance of just under 20 miles.
Ashe is dressed in his customary dark coat and waistcoat, a stylish cravat at the collar. He is a little heavy, in the fashion of successful businessmen, which makes him somewhat slow and hulking in his movements. His thick brown hair is combed back, his long whiskers razor-cut at his jawline, his face bare of beard or mustache.
His countenance can appear stern, but friends and employees find him congenial and kindhearted. He has the politician’s instinctive gift for persuasion and good humor.
Ashe follows a route he knows well, almost exactly due north over his company’s tracks. The handcar is propelled by two men alternately pumping on horizontal bars running through a fulcrum at the center of the deck; it requires strenuous physical labor.
Though he could wait for news in the city, this impetuous drive to be in motion toward his goal is typical of Ashe. He is a man who gets things done: a dynamo with a vision, the grandson of Gov. Samuel Ashe, and a former state senator and congressman who became president of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad line in 1854.
As a state senator, Ashe championed the expansion of railroads to connect the far-flung regions of his own state with one another and with the lucrative world of commerce beyond. He envisions a fully integrated system of Southern railroads, depots, ports, and shipping.
Some of that vision has already come true: In just a dozen years, the state’s railroads have grown from 283 miles to nearly a thousand. The Wilmington and Weldon alone now runs 26 locomotives and 182 coaches and freight cars. Still, Ashe has not been able to secure funds to build a bridge across the Cape Fear River. A steam ferry connects his railroad to the Wilmington and Manchester line on the other side — a bottleneck that is costly and inconvenient in peacetime, and in wartime, downright dangerous.
From the moment in the summer of 1861 when Gen. Thomas Jackson entrains his troops in the Shenandoah Valley and delivers them right onto the battlefield at Manassas — a rail junction — it becomes apparent that this is a new kind of war. Troops and guns can shift positions in days, rather than marching for weeks.
Already in the North the federal government has established the U.S. Military Railroad system, a unified web of more than 20,000 miles of track, hundreds of locomotives, and thousands of boxcars, flatcars, and passenger coaches.
Ashe was an ardent supporter of secession, but like many of those who favored disunion, he did not really expect war. He imagined a new Southern nation, irresistibly — but peacefully — pulling away from the Union to command its own destiny, united in purpose and culture and bonded by efficient railroads.
President Jefferson Davis himself enlisted Ashe: “By direction of the President you are assigned to the duty of superintending the transportation of Troops and Military stores on all the Rail Roads, north and south, in the Confederate States. . . .”
A full year ago, in order to speed supplies to troops in Virginia, Ashe attempted to commandeer locomotives and boxcars from Georgia. Gov. Joe Brown reacted with furious threats. “If you seize our cars or engines,” he declared, “I will, by military force if necessary, make counter seizures.” Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin backed the governor — on the grounds of states’ rights.
Ashe has strenuously advocated for an interconnected railroad system, but President Davis has demurred, allowing each state to set priorities.
Therein lies the conundrum of trying to unify a band of states whose guiding principle is the sovereignty of the individual state over the national government.
Ashe bore the weight of awesome responsibility without the means to carry it out.
Even now, depot managers and station managers are constantly harangued by nagging officials representing various arms of the Richmond government, all demanding that their particular freight or contingent of troops be given priority.
Only two reliable routes connect the Deep South with Virginia, where much of the heaviest fighting occurs and hundreds of thousands of troops need to be supplied with everything: Enfield rifle-muskets from England; pork and corn from the Piedmont; powder from the works at Augusta, Georgia; tents, uniforms, haversacks, and a myriad of other camp equipment; even gold and whiskey. Both routes run through North Carolina.
From Augusta, trains can travel to Manchester, South Carolina, and thence on the Wilmington and Manchester line through Florence, South Carolina, to Wilmington. From Wilmington, trains run to Goldsboro junction, then to either Weldon to join with the Richmond and Petersburg line or to Raleigh. From Raleigh, troops and freight arriving from either Charlotte or Wilmington can move north on the North Carolina Railroad through Greensboro toward Danville, Virginia — but the last 40 miles of track connecting the line to Danville have never been laid.
Gov. Zebulon Vance agrees to allow construction of the final leg connecting Danville in 1862, but he does little to make it a priority. He engages in a feud with the Richmond government to provide troops and guns to defend the eastern part of the state, where Union forces have made inroads since spring of 1862, and, periodically, stage raids on the Wilmington and Weldon line. Vance fears that if an alternate line is finished, Richmond will devote even fewer troops to defending the coastal railroad.
Meanwhile, the scarce supplies of pig iron are being diverted to construct ironclad warships at Wilmington and White Hall, upriver of Kinston. By the time the last 40 miles of track are laid two years later, it’s too late to change the outcome of the war.
Worse, there is no standard gauge for railroads. The Wilmington and Weldon’s gauge matches the emerging national standard of 4 feet 8½ inches, inherited from the old English measurement between wagon wheels. So does the North Carolina Railroad’s. But two crucial connecting lines, the Richmond and Danville Railroad and the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad, run on a five-foot gauge. President Davis urges Governor Vance to retool the North Carolina Railroad tracks to the Virginia gauge, but Vance refuses such an impractical request.
And the heavy military usage was never planned for. Running more and more trains loaded with troops, ammunition, and other essentials is wearing out the track.
Even manpower is a problem. Most of the rail corridors were laid by slaves, who still maintain them, working in gangs housed at various junctions along the line. But owners who contract the slaves to the railroad have had to loan many of their best workers to build coastal forts. White supervisors and engineers find themselves conscripted for military duty.
Frustrated at the lack of cooperation among state governments, Richmond, and the railroads, Ashe steps down as quartermaster and devotes himself to his own railroad. In addition, he oversees the saltworks, a multimillion-dollar operation that is vital to the war effort.
But this evening, Ashe is preoccupied with another worry. Tomorrow young Captain Ashe will celebrate his 22nd birthday — but where? And in what condition?
Now William Ashe wheels his way home through the gathering gloom of the forested track, hoping that some further word awaits him there. And he must comfort his invalid wife, Sarah Ann. The sun has been down for nearly an hour. The three men cross the river trestle and labor on through the tree-tunneled low-country forest. Inside the narrow right-of-way, hemmed in by dense thicket and tall longleaf pines, the darkness is dense as water.
Ashe is aware that the southbound mail train from Goldsboro to Wilmington will pass the Northeast Cape Fear River turnout near Castle Hayne at 7:30 p.m., barreling head-on down the same track, but he has made the trip often enough to time his passage. And in any case, he thinks, he will see the towering locomotive headlamp coming for miles.
In his haste to leave, he brought no lamp for the handcar. But he can’t get lost: The track runs only one way.
But he has not counted on the mail train’s engine breaking down along the route. The mail train is towing a second, faster locomotive newly purchased from the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad. When the regular engine gives out, the Seaboard locomotive is moved to the front of the train to haul it down to Wilmington, making up lost time along the way.
The powerful Seaboard locomotive has no headlamp.
The mail train speeds south into the darkness. The handcar cranks its way north. Just a few hundred yards shy of the Northeast turnout, the blacked-out locomotive erupts out of the darkness and smashes into the handcar. Its enormous cowcatcher flips the handcar off the tracks. Ashe’s two companions are thrown clear, miraculously unhurt, but Ashe is catapulted onto the tracks right under the wheels of the onrushing locomotive. The Weekly Raleigh Register describes the “painful accident” in all its grisly particulars:
“We learn that last evening, about 7 1/2 o’clock, a most painful accident occurred on the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, a short distance this side of the North East Bridge, resulting in severe, if not fatal injuries to Hon. W. S. Ashe, President of the road, whose left thigh was broken — his right leg shattered below the knee, and his right foot almost crushed off, besides other injuries. The right leg has since been amputated just below the knee.”
Ashe is so mutilated that the crew of the mail train does not at first recognize him. He is carried to a doctor in Wilmington, but it is clear that his condition is dire.
The Wilmington Daily Journal reports on September 15, “He lingered, however, until last night about eight o’clock, when he passed off quietly and calmly, and apparently without pain, from sheer exhaustion of his system consequent upon the terrible stroke it had received.”
The Journal declares, “We shall seldom look upon his like again; nor can this community and the State . . . soon cease to mourn the loss of the noble, generous, big-hearted gentleman, the ardent patriot and the useful citizen.”
And in truth, the railroad has lost its fiercest advocate, the one man who understands that success on the battlefield is impossible without a reliable, unbroken railroad.
The Wilmington and Weldon continues without Ashe’s leadership, but his vision remains unfulfilled.
The war will be long over before the Cape Fear is spanned by a railroad bridge connecting the Wilmington and Weldon with the Wilmington and Manchester. Meantime, for the remainder of the war, each railroad in the state continues to operate independently, rather than under a central authority, and the result is continued — often heartbreaking — inefficiency. Stockpiles of food and clothing rot in warehouses or alongside depots, exposed to the elements, while troops in the field starve. Ammunition remains safely in the rear, where it cannot help beleaguered soldiers. Whole regiments elect to walk rather than surrender themselves to the uncertain timetables of the railroads.
In the North, the trains deliver troops, ammunition, and provisions with industrial precision. Hospital trains carry the wounded from battlefields such as Chancellorsville and Gettysburg to safe havens in Washington. Flatcars mount leviathan mortars that bombard Petersburg and other fortified Southern cities.
Nevertheless, by 1864, a single iron road, the Wilmington and Weldon, supplies Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with 60 percent of its supplies. As long as Wilmington holds out and the line is not cut, the Confederate Army remains unvanquished. But the rails are at last wearing out. Trains must creep along at speeds as slow as five miles per hour. On a good day, the single northbound track can deliver just 200 tons of supplies — not nearly enough to stave off disaster.
Repeated raids by Union troops cut the line, destroying vital bridges. The retreating Confederates themselves destroy portions of the railroad, trains, equipment, and depots, leaving the enterprise a shambles.
By war’s end, of 31 locomotives, just seven will be reported to Wilmington and Weldon stockholders as being “in good order.” Others will be written off as “Totally unfit for service,” and one “In the Roanoke River.”
Samuel A’Court Ashe languishes in Old Capitol Prison for two months after the calamitous death of his father. Then he is exchanged for a Union officer. When Gen. William T. Sherman invades North Carolina, Samuel Ashe is second in command of the Fayetteville Arsenal — one of Sherman’s prime targets.
He endures the humiliation of surrender and lives to be 97. When he dies in 1938, he is the last surviving commissioned officer of the Confederate States of America.
Philip Gerard is an author and chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
To view all stories from Our State’s Civil War Series, visit https://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series