'A terrible accident' in 1862
Soldiering was dangerous, not always from gunfire

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Civil War Train Wreck (Harper's Weekly)

Soldiering in the Civil War was dangerous business. If a man was lucky enough to survive the myriad diseases that infected campsites and dodge the enemy's bullets on the battlefield, he might well fall victim to a simple accident. Railroads, in particular, were notoriously unsafe. Transporting thousands of soldiers over hundreds of miles of rickety track was a recipe for disaster.

What may have been the deadliest railroad accident in American History at the time occurred on February 27, 1862, near Ponchatoula, Louisiana. Early that morning, two trains collided head-on, killing and maiming dozens of soldiers in the Seventh Mississippi regiment. Several newspapers covered in detail what was described as "a terrible accident."

The Seventh Mississippi was raised in southern Mississippi and was stationed on the Gulf Coast in February 1862 when it received orders to proceed by train to Tennessee to reinforce the Confederate army there. After making its way to New Orleans by steamboats, the regiment boarded a twelve-car train of the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad and departed at 4:00 a.m., February 27, for Columbus, Mississippi.

Most of the soldiers drifted off to sleep as the train rumbled along through a dense fog, unaware that another train hauling lumber was bearing down on them. At about 7:00 a.m., the two trains collided one mile south of Ponchatoula.

The impact was catastrophic. Both of the locomotives' boilers exploded in a cloud of scalding steam, and the first two passenger cars of the troop train were crushed together. One newspaper reported that the dead and dying soldiers in those cars were piled up "in one horrible heap."

As soon as they had recovered from the shock of the accident, the dazed survivors began pulling the dead and injured from the twisted wreckage. Fortunately, there were two physicians onboard and they began treating the injured the best they could even though one doctor suffered a broken rib. The dead were simply laid aside and covered with a blanket.

Upon learning of the accident, the railroad company dispatched another train to the scene with additional medical support and it later returned to New Orleans with the injured soldiers. A number of them died soon afterwards while others had shattered arms and legs amputated.

William D. Foster, the lumber train's engineer or conductor (sources disagree as to which) survived the crash but quickly ran away from the scene. A rumor spread among the soldiers that Foster was a Yankee who had deliberately rammed the troop train to kill the Mississippians. Sergeant William Bass wrote in his diary that the lumber train was driven by "an unknown party intending to knock us off into [Lake Pontchartrain] and only missed their plan a few moments. Some of the boys spent the next day looking for the rascal that caused the collision, but to no effect."

As it turned out, Foster did not run away because he was a saboteur but because his train was "off the timetable." He had recklessly entered the track without authorization and fled because he feared the Mississippians' wrath. Foster was arrested about a week later and charged with manslaughter but, incredibly, was cleared of the charges.

To the men of the Seventh Mississippi it mattered little whether the wreck was deliberate or an accident. Sergeant Bass wrote, "The collision was awful killing a great many and wounding many more which for a time almost demoralized our entire regiment, 21 of our dead were brought up to the Depot at Ponchatoula Station crushed and mangled some beyond recognition. The wounded were carried back to New Orleans La of which many died."

Sources conflict as to the exact number of the dead and mortally injured, but it appears the wreck claimed at least 28 lives. Another 18 men were hurt, several so badly that they were discharged from the army. The Seventh Mississippi would go on to fight in some of the war's bloodiest battles, but no single engagement resulted in as many dead as the Ponchatoula train wreck.

Incredibly, the men of the Seventh Mississippi were involved in two more train wrecks over the next six months. On August 1, 1862, while traveling on the Mobile & Ohio railroad near Greenville, Alabama, their train crashed into some parked cars. Two men were killed and several others were injured. The other accident occurred in northwest Georgia, but no particulars are known except that several men were injured.

Civil War Train Wreck (Harper's Weekly)
Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.