A railway gun used during the the siege of Petersburg. Library of Congress photo, No. 0395.

In June 1862, Major General George B. McClellan’s army retreated from General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates toward the James River.

Francis M. Poore and his rebel comrades came out from behind their earthworks to join in the pursuit. They caught up with nearly half of McClellan’s army at Savage Station on June 29.

Then they retraced their steps until they were south of Grapevine Bridge and waited for reinforcements that never arrived.

Late that afternoon while he waited, Francis may have witnessed a first in the history of warfare: railroad artillery.

General Lee had a locomotive push an armored flatcar with a siege gun mounted on it down the tracks and within range of the federals.

Soon shells from the railroad gun and two other batteries slammed into bluecoat lines. McClellan eventually pulled his forces back to a base on the James River.

With the advent of airplanes in World War I, railroad guns became obsolete. But in the Civil War, they were an innovation. Dangers never seen before on battlefields often confronted soldiers on both sides.

Look around the battlefields on which your ancestors fought. Are there new engines of destruction that threatened their lives?