Monday, July 16, 2012

The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America by William G. Thomas

The course of every war is influenced by the technology of its age. In America's Civil War of 1861-1865, rapid developments in communication and transportation fostered the broadening of the battlefield over greater area, as the telegraph allowed the sending of intelligence and commands and rail travel allowed quick movement of troops. Historian William G. Thomas examines the role of the railroad particularly on the war in The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America.

Thomas starts his history with a look at the state of railroads in the South before the war began. He states that it is a common misconception to portray Souther rails as far behind those of the North. While it is true that many gauges had been used by the many rail lines, the same was actually true in the North. Also, while there were fewer miles of track, there was more track per capita. Southerns were confident in their modern system of transportation, as were important European investors. The advantage for the North was not obvious.

Thomas also describes in detail the state of slavery before the war. The common image is of slaves working on cotton and tobacco plantations. Few readers realize that Southern railroads were quickly becoming a major employer of slaves to lay track, build rail stock, and operate lines. Rail companies had driven the price of slaves higher by buying ande leasing them. Many slave owners were making record profits. Rail lines also used their slave holdings as collateral for loans, when not getting generous grants from the states. Slavery was not going away.

Thomas's account of the use of rails by the military, civilians, and slaves during the war is fascinating. Many campaigns moved along the rail lines, and held lines and stations became obvious targets for guerrilla attacks. The author recounts how efforts to protect rails led to the destruction of many farms and forests along them. The lines also became symbolic of the ties that held the states together.When the Union truly controlled the rails, the South was defeated. The author also explains how the rail lines that had been destroyed and rebuilt many times actually came out of the war expanded and modernized.  

Though not a long book, The Iron Way does require some devotion to read as every page has a wealth of details and stories. Serious Civil War history buffs will enjoy sinking their teeth into this account. 

Thomas, William G. The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America. Yale University Press, 2011. 281p. ISBN 9780300141078.

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