Reflections Of A Civil War Locomotive Engineer, A Ghost-Written Memoir

Last revised: December 30, 2021

By: Adam Burns

As the name implies, Reflections Of A Civil War Locomotive Engineer, A Ghost-Written Memoir looks upon the life of Diana Bailey Harris' relative, John Bailey who worked in the railroad industry for nearly a half-century.

While the book is, indeed, written by Mrs. Harris you will sometimes find yourself forgetting this as it is presented from the first person angle and it truly seems like you are reading John's own words.

In any event, while the book generally reflects upon Mr. Bailey's life both inside and away from railroading it also provides a fascinating look at what it was like to work within the industry from the late 1850s through the turn of the century when safety was more of an afterthought and there was little government oversight.

You will also read about what life was like to work on the United States Military Railroad during the Civil War. For these reasons I would very much recommend reading Mrs. Harris' memoir.

The idea behind Diana putting together a posthumous memoir of her relative was thanks to her father who had an entire treasure-trove of old letters from John as well as his brother Francis, along with other members of the family.

You will read about this in the book (in the prologue, entitled "A Literary Abduction") and thanks to these old letters, Reflections Of A Civil War Locomotive Engineer, A Ghost-Written Memoir was born.

The book opens by giving readers a background of the Bailey family and how they made it to North America, coming from Ireland and settling in Toronto, Canada. This is where the story of John Bailey begins, living with his father after his mother passed away when he was young.

As you will learn, John's early years were quite turbulent with an unforgiving father and young step mother that was not much older than himself.

It is here where he first enters the railroad industry, working at just the age of 13 in the Grand Trunk Railroad's Northern Shops located in Toronto.

At first he took on insignificant tasks such as painting railroad cars. However, with aspirations to get away from such monotonous work, John eventually took a position cleaning steam locomotives hoping to get into the cab.

While he would learn how to not only properly clean steam locomotives but also how to fire them the Grand Trunk was not hiring at the time and the future on the line looked bleak.

As such, he began to look elsewhere for better and more staple employment, and thus began John's entry into the Civil War conflict.

In 1864, John traveled to Alexandria, Virginia and there he would land a job with the United States Military Railroad as a fireman, and later learned the full skills of a locomotive engineer.

While the book does not go into immense detail about rail service during the war you are able to learn just what it was like for a railroad employee to try and do his job while artillery shots landed nearby.

John's service during the war, as a civilian (the USMRR hired civilian employees to move troops and material), last just over a year and is highlighted in detail over about four different chapters.

After the war and all work was completed with the USMRR (which continued for some time after the conflict ended) he was not able to obtain full-time employment as an engineer but did have the necessary skills to do so nonetheless.

In the succeeding chapters you will read about John's attempt to finally land a permanent position with a railroad, which took some time surprisingly for a man with his skill level.

He would eventually get on intermittently with the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana Railroad om 1866 and a few years later became the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, which many years foreword became part of the New York Central.

In any event, from this point the book discusses John's life working as a civilian engineering in Michigan and his eventual marriage to his wife, Fanny.

While the second-half of Reflections Of A Civil War Locomotive Engineer, A Ghost-Written Memoir tends to get away a bit from the railroad aspect of John's life, as mentioned above, it still gives a reader a vivid understanding of being an employee within the industry.

As the book moves forward it also sheds light on new technologies coming into practice such as George Westinghouse's new air-brake system, larger steam locomotives (including 2-8-0 Consolidations), and so forth.

Throughout the book you read about John's life including his kids and as they grow, the difficult relationship with his father, and his close relationship with his older brother Francis.

Sadly, the book ends on a rather somber note. Just as it describes and details the dangers of work in the industry at that time it discusses John's death in March, 1900 when he was badly injured upon falling off of his locomotive during a nighttime run while attempting to lubricate and cool a hot crank pin.

It is in the epilogue where you not only learn about John's fate but also that of his family after his death and what became of his wife and kids.

Essentially, this concludes Reflections Of A Civil War Locomotive Engineer, A Ghost-Written Memoir.

However, there is also a final Afterword where Diana discusses the time it took to read and research all of the material that went into the book, a process that dated back as far as 1988 when she first learned about the letters.

Overall, some railfans out there or those interested in trains may not find the book very interesting because of its personal nature.

However, if you are interested in railroad history, particularly dating prior to the 20th century I believe you will be pleasantly surprised with just how much you will learn.

Wes Barris's is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives. 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website. 

It is quite staggering and a must visit!