- Feb 16, 2019
Locomotives Up the Turnpike: The Civil War Career of Captain Thomas R. Sharp, C.S.A.
By David L. Bright, with maps and illustrations by Andrew H. Hall
Locomotives Up the Turnpike is the story of a young, energetic and remarkably competent man who salvaged, repaired, built, and managed railroads for the Confederacy. It is well known that the Confederacy started the war well behind the Union in terms of manufacturing and transportation: iron works, machine shops, production of ammunition, ordnance, warships, train track, locomotives and rolling stock—in all of these areas the Confederacy struggled from the first to meet the needs of the war. Bright’s book tells the story of Captain Thomas Sharp, a fascinating man involved in the effort to remedy the Confederacy’s rail deficiencies. Using letters, memoirs, government records, newspapers, annual reports and more, the author builds, day by day and month by month, the history of Sharp’s monumental effort to make the South’s inadequately supplied railroads run.
The book begins with the Haul, the amazing task of packing up locomotives, cars, and rails taken in Jackson’s Locomotive Raid, hauling them south on dirt or gravel roads, over bridges, and through small towns. Twenty-three tons of steam engine, rolled over inadequate roads and teetering bridges, sometimes uphill, pulled by up to forty horses. What a sight! And thanks to the wonderful, colorful renderings of these locomotives by illustrator Andy Hall, we know what some of these engines looked like in their glory—well, at least what they looked like after Sharp had repaired and repainted them, for they had been partially destroyed in the raid and then were further dismantled by Sharp in order to move them.
The book goes on to tell about Sharp’s other labors: repairing the engines; building freight cars; laying track; salvaging scrap iron; untangling complicated train schedules; triaging the transportation of ordnance, engines, commissary goods, and quartermaster supplies; balancing the needs of the populace for goods and transportation against the needs of the army… Laws! Sharp’s labors go on and on. The reader is left with a tremendous admiration for Sharp, and an appreciation for just how much a determined person can accomplish.
The book is scrupulously researched, with a clean line between documented certainty and conjecture: a precise, thorough, and scholarly read. It is written for serious students of the war, for those who want supported facts—with the occasional soft spot for Civil War minutia. (My soft spot was hit by the description of Sharp marching with Stonewall Jackson during his Winter campaign in 1862. That was one wickedly rough campaign, and Sharp went along as quartermaster when the famously foul-mouthed Harman was ill. Ah!—I love discovering that sort of thing.) And in such a detailed read, there are delightful Ah! moments everywhere for the Civil War enthusiast.
Though the author is concerned with fact, between the lines there are hints of romance—a wife who uprooted again and again, following Sharp down muddy and difficult roads, even giving birth near a war zone. In the end, they die two years apart. And at the close of the book the reader gets a strong flavor for the chaos and desperation as the Confederacy was torn asunder: the fleeing, the salvaging, the last hopeless efforts to escape a grinding defeat.
In all, a highly recommended read for those who want to understand the Confederacy’s railroads, for those who like to identify the exact trees in the vast forest of making war, and for lovers of civil war biography—Sharp was an admirable man. A book for those seeking a unique and fascinating angle on the South’s struggle.
About the Author:
Lisa C. Murphy is the author of two published novels of magical realism (The Turkish Mirror and The Wyrmstone) and an editor for Denny Creek Press. The daughter of a historian, she became interested in the Civil War and is writing a four volume series of historical fiction that begins in 1832 in New York City and carries through the North/South conflict into 1865. She is a retired physician after 30 years of general practice, and lives with her husband in the Pacific Northwest.