- - Tuesday, May 8, 2012


By William G. Thomas
Yale University Press, $30, 296 pages

It was apparent early on in the Civil War that the newly emerging railroads, suddenly “annihilating” time and distance, would be pivotal to victory or defeat.

Some historians have relegated the railroads to secondary importance in the war. Not William G. Thomas. In “The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America,” he offers a detailed analysis of how it transpired that “[f]or both Confederates and Unionists … much of what they needed to fight the war could be found in their experiences with the railroads.”

But the history professor goes beyond that. The book encompasses a 31-year period that began long before the war started and did not end until a few years after hostilities had ceased.

The author covers the entire transformational period from 1838, when Frederick Douglass hopped aboard a B&O train to become a fugitive from slavery, to 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed with the driving of the spike at Promontory Point, Utah, thus forever binding the states of the Atlantic and Pacific into one nation.

As the book affirms, the war helped settle the question of whether America’s Industrial Revolution in succeeding years would be shared more evenly with the Southern states rather than reposing predominantly in the Northeast, as turned out to be the case for many decades.

In the 1850s, investors had envisioned a railroad through the South into Mexico and then on out to the Western United States. Mexico actually had granted the charter to run the trains through its territory, including Mexico City.

But secession and the war intervened, and in the end, the momentum shifted northward to the victors, where the Union Pacific saw to it that the eastern starting point for the transcontinental railroad was Omaha, not New Orleans.

One can forever speculate as to how or if a Southern rail route would have affected 21st-century issues (immigration and illicit drug imports) or even the early-20th-century Mexican Revolution.

The geography of the railroads became the geography of the war. As one example, Union forces were able to outrun the Confederates by sending troop trains quickly to various theaters of the conflict.

Despite this and multiple other advantages, President Lincoln had a hard time convincing one of his generals, George McClellan, that the railroads held strategic value in the war. In its letters and telegrams, the McClellan camp mentioned railroads less frequently than “river” or “enemy” or “fort.”

In military terms, Lincoln concurred with Frederick Douglass’ assertion, in the civilian sense, that Southern slavery “has an enemy in every bar of railroad iron.” The train had enabled the fugitive slave to reach New York in less than 24 hours on a trip that just 10 years earlier would have required two weeks.

But there again, Lincoln and McClellan were talking past each other. The general lectured the president that “military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude,” meaning slavery.

“The Iron Way” records that as McClellan hunkered down on the James River and Confederate generals Jackson and Lee used the railroads effectively in pursuit of their goals, “the Union’s war in the East, however bloody and destructive, would not change until a new strategy could be aimed at seizing and controlling, as Lincoln so wished, the Confederate … systems of railroad lines and junctions.”

Ultimately, the North did seize control of some of the South’s rail property and used it to Unionist advantage. That prompted the South’s forces and its unorganized but aggressive guerrillas to destroy much of the very same railroad infrastructure in which the Confederacy previously had taken no small amount of pride.

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 RenewAmerica.com.



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