April 30, 2011

Book Review: "Engines of War, How Wars were Won and Lost on the Railways"

Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the RailwaysI just finished reading the first couple of chapters of Christian Wolmar's new book, "Engines of War, How Wars were Won and Lost on the Railways."

Wolmar is a leading British railroad historian and commentator on current railroads. I got the book mostly for its chapter on the Crimean War and the rail line there. But I found the first three chapters taking the reader up to and through the ACW most interesting. I did not read the chapters dealing with the periods after the ACW, but they do look quite interesting. I hope to come back to then later when I have some more time.


A photo from the US Library of Congress Fenton Collection of Crimean War
salted paper images. This is one of the few photos that shows
the railroad. In this shot the line is under construction.

The Crimean Chapter was most enlightening to me as I did not know much about the rail line. It utilized both locomotives for the flat sections near the harbor, stationary steam engines and cables for the steep sections, horse drawn carts for the final delivery, and gravity to return the cars to the port. Now that would be an amazing RR to try to model.


The chapter on the civil war entitled, "Slavery Loses Out to the Iron Road" was good, but as a specialist in ACW RRs I could sense that a few things were just slightly off. I won't detail them here as they would mostly be in the category of nit picks. But I did find it curious that he attributes the development of "U" hooks to destroy rails to the confederate raiders that destroyed the RF&P in 1862. I had read that Smeed and Haupt had come up with that idea. Likewise he credits torpedos placed in holes drilled in bridge members to that same raid. Again, I thought Haupt came up with that in Alexandria.

His perspective on the origins of the war and the role RRs played was interesting. The title of the chapter alone is evidence of his outsider's slant. Some American historians downplay the role slavery had in the war, but Wolmar's British interpretation as evidenced in this book is not so nuanced, and tags slavery as the primary issue.

His analysis of the importance of railroads is quite good. He makes a distinction between the eastern and western theaters. He posits that the western theaters relied more on ships than railroads, due to the lack of railroad infrastructure there.

I found it interesting that he used Sherman's campaign as the best example of how railroads influenced the battle and war's outcome.

My own thinking is evolving on this subject, as I now am beginning to conclude that we as rail enthusiasts might be overstating the importance of railroads. Yes, railroads were important, but to win the war, Union Armies largely abandoned their railroad lines of supply to maneuver freely against the south and devastate the rebelling states. Sherman's campaign after Atlanta, Sheridan's campaign in the Shenandoah, and Grant's Vicksburg and Overland campaign were done largely without railroad support.


Wolmar makes the point that Sherman stockpiled supplies sent by rail to Atlanta before embarking on his March to the Sea. I wonder how many days of supply he actually took with him compared to how much they foraged. And yes Grant built the City Point line to supply his army in the siege, but he chose the Overland approach hugging the Potomac because of he did not want to rely on a long rail line through occupied territory.

Of course Lee's unsuccessful forays into Maryland and Pennsylvannia were limited  by lack of logistic support without railroads or riverine support. I would categorize them more as raids.

Wolmar does discuss the role of railroads in strategically moving troops as both north and south did that rather effectively.

Overall, I'd recommend Wolmar's book to rail enthusiasts interested in military history.

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