In Ellicott City, 'The War Came by Train' arrives for Civil War weekend

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was, without doubt, the most important rail system in the Civil War's Eastern theater. There's hardly a pivotal battle or event during the four-year conflict in which the B&O didn't play at least some role.

Civil War historian and Linthicum resident Daniel Toomey, author of "The War Came by Train: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad During the Civil War" and curator of war-themed exhibit at Baltimore's B&O Railroad Museum, goes a step further.


"The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was truly the first front of the Civil War," Toomey writes in his book. "Who controlled the B&O directly affected the loyalty of Maryland, the statehood of West Virginia, and the preservation of Washington as the nation's capital."

Toomey will make that case and delve into the rail history of the Civil War in a presentation June 8 at the B&O Railroad Museum's historic Ellicott City station. The talk is part of the station's Civil War Weekend, which will include a re-enactor encampment and other activities.

Toomey has written 10 other books about Maryland in the Civil War and said this latest effort is based on the research he did while designing and creating "The Civil War Came by Train" exhibit at the B&O museum's main facility in Baltimore. The exhibit commemorates the war's 150th anniversary.

The Ellicott City branch of the B&O Museum does not contain the Civil War exhibit, but Toomey said he'll use his lecture to bring the book's Civil War theme to Howard County and elaborate on what he calls the war's "first-front theory."

"Rather than try to focus on the entire war, I'll show how the major events that occurred in Baltimore, Martinsburg and Grafton [all important stops on the B&O line] kind of set the stage for what would come," Toomey said.

"All these crucial questions were undecided in those first 90 days: Would Maryland stay in the Union? Would West Virginia become a state? Would the B&O be broken? There's just so much to be told."

During the earliest weeks of the war, the B&O was often front and center in matters of both military and political strategy, including the Pratt Street Riot of April 1861, the Baltimore plot to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln and Gen. Benjamin "Beast" Butler's subsequent military occupation of the city

The railroad was also key to the Battle of Monocacy in July 1864 — and of course it was via the B&O that Lincoln arrived in Washington on Feb. 23, 1861, and on the B&O that his funeral car departed the capital April 21, 1865.

While the B&O Museum exhibit in Baltimore encompasses the broader sweep of the war, it also highlights period-piece oddities — such as the emerging technology of armored trains, which the B&O began building in 1863 as a security measure.

"Believe it or not, during the Gettysburg campaign, 2nd Lt. John Rogers Meigs, the son of Union Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs, suggested that armored cars be built to defend the railroad," Toomey said.

"John Work Garrett [president of the B&O] seized on the idea immediately," Toomey said. And in one week, at the B&O's Mount Clare Shops in Baltimore, it built five armored cars that resembled the Confederate ironclad ship, the Merrimack. "They were sheathed armored cars mounted with cannons, and they ran them out to Harpers Ferry in July 1863 and they helped drive the Confederates off Maryland Heights during Gen. Robert E. Lee's retreat from Gettysburg," he said.

"After all my research was done for the exhibit, I started writing the book in February of last year. I wrote nonstop for nine months, and I do mean nonstop, seven days a week," Toomey said. "So between the research for the exhibit and writing the book, it was three years of constant work.

"It was a great learning process for me," he said. "And that part of it continues. I don't ever give a tour at the museum or give a speech somewhere that somebody doesn't ask me a question that I have to go look up the answer."

Those interested in a peek at the Baltimore B&O exhibit can take a virtual tour with Toomey via a half-hour-long segment that C-Span3 recorded as part of its "American Artifacts" series — Photos and additional information can be found on the B&O Railroad Museum website,


"This whole project has been like an incredible joy ride," Toomey said. "When somebody gives you a blank check to play in one of the world's most famous railroad museums, it doesn't get much better than that. And I couldn't be more pleased with the way the public has reacted to the whole thing."

If you go ...

Dan Toomey, guest curator of the B&O Railroad Museum and author of "The War Came by Train," will speak and sign copies of his book at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 8, as part of the Civil War Weekend at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum's Ellicott City station. He will also discuss the role that the railroads played in the 1863 Gettysburg campaign.

Civil War Weekend activities at the station, which are part of the B&O's continuing observance of the war's sesquicentennial, will also include Civil War re-enactments and demonstrations by the 138th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Co. B, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 8 and 9. The soldiers will depict the life and duties of Union soldiers during the war

The station is located at 2711 Maryland Ave., Ellicott City. Phone: 410-461-1945. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children 2-12 years old. B&O members get in free. Directions and additional information are available at