Herman Haupt

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Colonel Herman Haupt was very tired and very angry. On this night of August 22, 1862, the second battle of Bull Run was shaping up nearby, General Pope needed troops, and it was up to Haupt, who had command of every U.S. military railroad in the Eastern theater, to see that he got them. Four trains had simply disappeared. Haupt fumed and worried until midnight, when a conductor arrived with word that Gen. Samuel Sturgis had seized them.

Captured trains were likely enough, since Robert E. Lee was known to be in the area. But Sturgis was a Union general. Haupt sent a message to Henry Halleck, the general in chief, and then hurried four miles up the line to Sturgis’s headquarters. “Well!” the general greeted him, “I am glad you have come, for I have just sent a guard to your office to put you in arrest for disobedience of orders in failing to transport my command.” Haupt said fine: as far as he was concerned, he would be only too happy to crawl into a corner and get some sleep, but Sturgis must “understand that he was assuming a very grave responsibility; the trains were loaded with wounded; the surgeons with ambulances were waiting for them at the depot; the engines would soon be out of wood and water, and serious delays would be caused in the forwarding of troops to General Pope.”

Sturgis thought this over. “I don’t care for John Pope a pinch of owl dung!”

An orderly appeared bearing a dispatch from Halleck, amazingly strong for that most vacillant man: “No military officer has any authority to interfere with your control over railroads. Show this to General Sturgis, and if he attempts to interfere, I will arrest him.”

Haupt read this to Sturgis, but the general had become so enamored of his phrase that he was oblivious to all else. “I don’t,” he began again, “care for John Pope a pinch————.” At last the chief of staff got him to understand. “Well, then,” said the general, “take your damned railroad!”

This contretemps had kept ten thousand men out of action. Haupt went off into the night to get them moving. He did not like the military much—he had begged to serve without rank or uniform —but Halleck had backed the right man. Almost alone among Union officers, Haupt knew how to keep the trains running. A year and a half of war had taught the high command the importance of the railroads but not how they worked. And so Herman Haupt was in a position roughly analogous to being the only American in 1941 who knew how to use airnlanes in warfare.

He knew railroads. At the start of the Civil War, this was like being the only American in 1941 who knew how to use airplanes in warfare.

Born in Philadelphia in 1817, Haupt graduated from West Point in 1835 and spent just three months as an infantry lieutenant before resigning his commission to become a railroad surveyor. The next year he was an engineer of a line that ran from the Potomac to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a town that would figure in his life for a few busy days a quarter-century later and which also was the home of Ann Keller, who became his wife and bore him eleven children.

In 1840, at work on the York & Wrightsville, he grew suspicious of the design of the road’s latticework bridges and found to his astonishment that there was not a single engineer in the United States who had ever tried to calculate the strain of any even slightly complex bridge truss. He put a decade into the subject and produced his General Theory of Bridge Construction , which publishers at first shunned because they could find no engineer qualified to review it. But when the book finally appeared in 1851, it was an instant success and established its author as an authority in the field.

Haupt went on to serve as the Pennsylvania Railroad’s chief engineer before going north to Massachusetts in 1856 to take over the building of the Hoosac Tunnel near North Adams. This nightmarish project, which had begun in 1848 and would drag on until 1875, gave him a foretaste of the sort of frustration he would experience in the army. By the time the Civil War broke out, he was in litigation with the tunnel authorities, who refused to repay money he had spent to keep the work going after state funds had dried up. During what he called “this exciting contest,” he received an urgent summons from the War Department: Would he come serve as chief of construction and transportation on the United States military railroads? It was the worst possible time for Haupt to neglect his Massachusetts dispute, but he went.

His first job was to open up the Aquia Creek road out of Fredericksburg, a ravaged line whose bridges all were destroyed. The toughest problem was the wide Potomac Creek. Haupt had to bridge it with too few tools, wielded by some hundred soldiers who were deeply reluctant, he said, “to climb about on ropes and poles at an elevation of 80 feet.” But despite “scarcity of food and with several days of wet weather, the work was … advanced so rapidly that in nine days the bridge was crossed on foot.” The one it replaced had taken nine months to build.