The Richmond & York River Railroad was too young to go to war.

The 39-mile-long line of road from Richmond east to West Point on the York River had been open less than a month when Virginia's secession from the Union in April of 1861 made it fair game for ravaging.

When the tide of civil war finally flooded down upon it, what one side did not destroy the other did. The hapless little railroad was literally wiped from the face of the earth as along its right-of-way -now part of the Southern Railway System's Richmond division occurred some of the most decisive, and bloodiest, fighting in the war.

But in the process, the railroad made history.

It was upon the tracks of this Southern predecessor that the world first saw the use of mobile artillery mounted on railroad trucks.

Throughout the first year of the war, as was noted , in the annual report for the fiscal year ending September 30, 1861, the Richmond & York River was "chiefly employed in aid of the war of independence which the South is waging, by the transportation of troops and the various things necessary to equip and support them." The movement of Southern troops and supplies had given the railroad a claim against the Confederacy "which is estimated by the treasurer at certainly not less than $8,000."

War was still a not-unpleasant business.

But abruptly, in the spring of 1862, Union Gen. George B. McClellan came with 90,000 men to sit astraddle the railroad and put Richmond under siege.

The man in command of the Confederate forces facing McClellan was Gen. Robert E. Lee, and his position was not to be envied.

Threatened by Union invasion in eastern North Carolina, faced with the reality of Union penetration in Alabama, stymied on the Mississippi River by Union gunboats, the Confederacy seemed tottering. New Orleans had fallen, and now Richmond itself the very keystone of the Confederacy's tenacious perseverance -was a besieged capital.

In the Richmond yards of the Richmond & Danville Railroad ( another Southern predecessor) , an engine stood constantly under a full head of steam -able to move immediately to carry out its assigned mission of hauling the Confederate treasury to a safe place if Union troops finally entered the city.

Throughout the months of April and May, the R&D had been dismantling its Richmond shops and shipping the vital machinery to safety at Danville.

The situation demanded extraordinary talents. Exactly the sort which General Lee had. He knew the tools of war and how best to apply them. And high on the list of those tools 'which he considered well fitted were the railroads.

He had watched with interest the evacuation of the wounded from the battle of Fair Oaks on May 31 over the tracks of the Richmond & York River. He knew from the lesson of First Manassas that such an operation would test a railroad's capabilities severely.

The railroad in that case had been the Orange & Alexandria, also a predecessor line of the Southern Railway System. It had been the first railroad in history to remove wounded men from a battlefield.

There had been nothing fancy about the freight car "ambulances" used to do the job. The floors of box cars had been covered with hay and straw, and mattresses had been placed on top of this. The only openings for light and air had been the box car doors, and where properly only 10 to 20 men ( depending on the nature of their wounds) should have traveled in one car, they had been much more crowded.

Forced to sidetrack for northbound on trains carrying fresh troops and supplies to the front, the hospital trains had taken up to 16 hours to travel the 130 or so miles from Manassas to Richmond.

There was fault to be found, but the O&A's history making performance in removing the wounded to the rear had been the best that could be expected under the circumstances, and it had come to be the yardstick against which similar operations were subsequently judged. Lee felt the Richmond & York River measured up. It was a good road, capably run.

General Lee's armored railroad gun has gone as far as it can on these rails, typifying. Civil War destruction of trackage.

That was all he needed to know.

Four days after assuming command of the Confederate forces at Richmond, he wrote Col. Josiah Gorgas, chief of Confederate ordnance, with a novel proposal.

"Is there a possibility," he asked in a letter dated June 5, 1862, "of constructing an iron plated battery, mounting a heavy gun on a truck, the whole covered with iron, to move along the York River railroad. Please see what can be done," he urged. "If a proper one can be got up at once, it will be of immense advantage to us. ..

Dr. Angus J. Johnston in "Virginia Railroads in the Civil War" says: "Lee reasoned that the enemy, owing to the wretched condition of the wagon roads, could only advance along the railway line and . . . the railroad battery would be a powerful deterrent."

Also, the Union lines formed up before Richmond lay along both sides of the Richmond & York River. A large cannon placed on the road's tracks could thus be run right down the Yankees' throats as the wedge for a Confederate assault.

In a letter dated June 24, one day before the start of what was to be known as the Seven Days' battles, Lee was advised in a letter from Capt. George Minor of Confederate ordnance:

The Union's "Dictator," a l3-inch mortar used by Federal artillery around Petersburg during the closing months of the war. The mortar threw 200-pound shells three miles or more.

"The railroad iron plated battery designed by Lt. John M. Brooke, C.S. Navy, has been completed. The gun, a rifled and banded 32 pounder of 57 cwt [6,384 pounds], has been mounted and equipped by Lt. R. D. Minor, C.S. Navy, and with 200 rounds of ammunition, including 15-inch solid bolt shot, is now ready to be transferred to the army."

What historian Louis Manarin calls "the earliest railroad artillery of record" was ready to go, and five days later -June 29it was in action on the Richmond &York River tracks at Savage's Station, about 10 miles in front of Richmond. Those five days had seen the Union siege broken in a series of bloody battles that had sent the Federals reeling southward towards the James under the repeated blows of Lee's Confederate troops.

And now on June 29, General Lee's iron-plated railroad battery sent missiles screaming southward into the Union lines.

How effective was it? No one knows.

Historian Manarin has told Ties the report on the battery's part in the battle of Savage's Station was probably among the valuable documents burned when Union troops finally did march into Richmond nearly three years later .

But the battery was used, and the fact that the Federals were very much aware of its presence among them is indicated by the Union's introduction later of "The Dictator" and other heavy mortars weighing up to 17,000 pounds which were mounted on rail flatcars. These were capable of firing 200-pound shells a distance of three miles or more.

When the Seven Days' battles ended, the siege of Richmond had been lifted -at a cost of 20,000 Confederate and 16,000 Union casualties.

Lee was able to re-group his Army of Northern Virginia and turn north in a series of offensives that ended on a Pennsylvania field in July of 1863.

Perhaps had the Confederacy had such things available for use as the iron-plated railroad battery which made history on a Southern System predecessor line, that three-day battle at Gettysburg would have ended in a different way.