General Haupt’s Economic Legacy

Today’s guest blogger is Mark C. Mollan, a reference archivist specializing in records of the U.S. Navy and Maritime agencies at Archives I.

When Herman Haupt reluctantly left the war on September 14, 1863 (150 years ago this week), he was not technically in the Army. Although addressed as General, Haupt rarely wore the full uniform, never received an officer’s commission, and also never accepted military pay. However, Haupt’s strongest legacy lay in his innovations of the U.S. Military Railroad Division of the War Department during America’s Civil War. Well known and researched are Haupt’s development of the trained Army corps and the techniques they would employ to repair damaged railroads and bridges seemingly as quickly as the Confederates could lay them to waste. Of greater testament to Haupt’s abilities (and even more well-known), he fully realized the potential of the railroad for scheduled delivery of supplies, equipment, and personnel that would ultimately overwhelm the resource bereft Confederate States. Equally as important, ever more far-reaching, and almost completely overlooked by historians, Haupt also developed the idea that would streamline shipping, leading to our current global economy and ushering in the box-store era.

By November 11, 1862, Major General Ambrose Burnside had been in command of the Army of the Potomac for three days after the final sacking of his predecessor Gen. George B. McClellan.  In preparation for an attack on Fredericksburg, Burnside would need a fully operational Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad (RFP) to supply his army, and his chief railroad authority General Herman H.  Haupt immediately set to repairing the rail line between Aquia and Falmouth, Virginia, as well as the wharf at Aquia. Haupt preliminarily kept the Army of the Potomac supplied through the Alexandria and Orange Railroad, but its single track and poor repair would greatly hamper Haupt’s ability to keep the Army supplied at Fredericksburg. Burnside, Haupt and Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army Montgomery C. Meigs agreed supplies would run on the RFP, after repairs could be completed. Haupt sent his best engineer to Aquia Harbor to repair the damage that Burnside himself had inflicted only months before to deprive oncoming Rebel forces of the potentially important port facilities.  It was also on this day that Haupt put in an order to Meigs for 25 Schuylkill barges for immediate delivery, which Meigs ordered personally to ensure it was swiftly done.

aquia barge 1

“Transportation on the Potomac”, ca. 1862 or 1863.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.  See full citation at the end of the blog.

Haupt knew from his efforts after the failed Peninsula Campaign that funneling war materiel through Aquia Harbor would require chartering scores of all types of domestic shipping vessels to transport supplies from Alexandria to Aquia then on to Falmouth, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. Haupt was also fully aware the costly delays in transferring goods from ship to rail at Aquia would expend invaluable time and resources. To ease the shipping transfer, when Haupt received his barges on November 17, he had them lashed together and rigged with railroad tracks allowing 8 railroad cars to traverse the breadth of two barges, comprising up to a half train of supplies, without break of bulk. In the following report to QMG Meigs, Haupt recounts the success of the initiative and advocates for its widespread use citing a savings of $1,352,000 for the Quartermaster’s coffers per year (see image of page one below).


RG 92 (Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General); Consolidated Correspondence File, 1794-1915 (NARA Online Identifier 300350); File: Alexandria to Aquia Creek–Transportation; Document: Letter from Haupt to Meigs, Nov 29, 1862.  For pages 2 through 4, see thumbnails at the end of this blog.

Haupt would continue to use this operation through June with the pulling out from Chancellorsville to run supplies through Virginia to meet General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. For nearly 8 months, Haupt would run supplies on these barges, employing the first documented example in world history of continuous and successful application of roll-on/roll-off cargo, without break of bulk. And the idea would remain far ahead of its time. The U.S. military would not try the tactic again until World War II with the purchase of several train-bearing vessels at the behest of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. And commercial application would not come until the 1930s with the advent of Sea Train running goods to and from Cuba via railcars lashed on ships. But it would not be until the 1950s, and the advent of the US interstate highway system and developments in interstate transportation that Malcom McLean would again apply the idea experimenting with trucking to give rise to today’s container shipping.

Although differences between the War Department and himself, and an on-going legal battle back in Boston, compelled Haupt to resign before the end of the war, Haupt’s innovations in military railroad applications secured Union victory, and informed the use of railroads in wartime for decades and many conflicts to come. Haupt also proved ahead of his time applying the first large-scale use of “non-break of bulk” cargo; the principle force behind our current system of transporting nearly all the commercial goods the world population produces, buys, and consumes; no less than the foundation of today’s global economy.

**Photograph from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC;  Title: Transportation on the Potomac. Cars loaded at Alexandria can be carried on barges or arks to Aquia Creek, and sent to stations where the Army of the Potomac is supplied without break of bulk; Creator: Andrew J. Russell, Photographer.