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Such tactics included filling a train with wood, lighting fire to it and letting it run into a tunnel that was crucial to the usefulness of the line. That collapsed infrastructure would be down for three months.

Ultimately, Lincoln fired McClellan over the latter’s incompetence, and the Union’s victory was due in no small part to the railroads. Nonetheless, the railroad operations had helped form the South as a unified region.

Public opinion that slavery was wrong strengthened in the ensuing years, although other states’ rights issues (of which segregation was only one) persisted.

Mr. Thomas ends his narrative with a focus on the transcontinental railroad authorized in legislation signed by Lincoln in 1862. The book cites a joyous 1866 celebration of VIPs aboard Pullman luxury cars at the end of the Union Pacific line (then under construction) at North Platte, Neb., making its way west to meet up with the Central Pacific, which was laying track eastward from Sacramento.

America had begun to replace the divisions of the 31-year transformative period. The time for healing was at hand.

Wes Vernon is a columnist for Railfan and Railroad magazine. His online column appears regularly at