February 9, 2012

The Iron Way - A Book Review

As a model railroader building a historically based layout I view myself as an applied historian. When I read a book or go to the archives, I am looking for facts, maps, drawings, data and information that I can apply to my railroad. But it is also useful to understand the big picture. That is where William G. Thomas’ book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America fits in.

Like Edgar Turner’s earlier book, Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War, Thomas' book takes a look at the role that railroads had in the making and shaping of the war and reconstruction. It is a fascinating look that combines traditional research with new techniques like word cloud analysis and web based interactive maps. As such it offers new insights.

The book has comparatively little detail on the tactical situation and the operations of the railroads during the struggle. Instead the book focuses on the overall economic and sociological environment of the U.S. and its railroads with an emphasis on the railroads of the south. In doing so he takes head-on the role that slavery had in railroad development, a topic that Turner and many others glossed over.

The first chapter of the book begins with the word “slavery" and then a description of Frederick Douglas' escape from slavery via the railroad.  He describes how the "Underground Railroad" was not just a figure of speech. There was a literal component as many slaves used the real railroads and or rail lines as escape routes.

He goes on to describe how the question of slavery affected every issue in the U.S. politics. Thomas spends a good portion of the text discussing the role that slavery had in the economy of the south. Later he discusses the effects of emancipation on railroads and reconstruction. There is also an interesting discussion of the role that foreign investment had in US railroad development and how slavery ultimately affected that.

Thomas focuses on the southern railroad view point. While Turner discusses how the northern trans-Appalachian  east-west trunk lines united the Midwest to the Northeast, Thomas discusses more how southern railroads both depended on slavery for construction and development while at the same time strengthening the importance of slavery in the southern economy. Thomas Kornweibel covers this in his book, Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey but Thomas takes the point further.
He states, “Southern railroads became some of the largest slave holding and slave employing entities in the south.” Thomas argues that Southern railroad development created a vicious cycle where slave-based railroad construction led to increased economic development that in turn needed slaves to operate. With both forces needing more slaves, the value of slaves inflated and slaves became the dominant asset of the southern economy. 

He also describes how southerners used railroads to help reconcile the seeming paradox of slavery's existence in a modern society, a point that David Blight covers more generally in his epic work, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. This passage from Thomas' companion web site summarizes the idea.
Railroads and telegraphs changed the ways white southerners thought about their region. These technologies altered the landscape of the South, linked cities and sub-regions into a rapidly expanding network, and brought the majority of white southerners into close access of the railroads. The modernizing influences of these developments came hand-in-hand with the expansion of slavery in the 1850s. White southerners increasingly saw their region as advanced, modern, and technologically sophisticated. Their adaptation of slavery to railroad construction and operation only encouraged a sense of confidence about the progress.
While Thomas argues that railroads made southerners more confident about their economic system and future, others argue that railroads made sectional conflict more likely. Senator William Seward made this remark about the role railroads would have in the coming war in his famous  "Irrepressible Conflict" Speech in 1858.

Hitherto, the two systems have existed in different States, but side by side within the American Union. This has happened because the Union is a confederation of States. But in another aspect the United States constitute only one nation. Increase of population, which is filling the States out to their very borders, together with a new and extended network of railroads and other avenues, and an internal commerce which daily becomes more intimate, is rapidly bringing the States into a higher and more perfect social unity or consolidation. Thus, these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact, and collision results.

When it comes to the actual conduct of the war, Thomas has  little discussion of individual battles of campaigns. Instead Thomas focuses on the overall strategy and tenor of the war and how it gradually became a total war with railroads as both the facilitator and target of operations.


Thomas maintains that the South initially made better strategic use of its railroads, offering the battles of First Manassas and Shiloh as two examples where southerners used railroads to implement the Napoleonic axiom of “interior lines” for strategic advantage. But as the war wore on attrition, lost territory, and a lack of railroad industrial capacity reduced the South’s ability to use its railroads. Meanwhile, the North expanded its own network including passing the transcontinental Pacific Railroad Act. It even absorbed and rebuilt parts of the South’s network for its own use under the aegis of the U.S. Military Railroad.

Thomas includes a more detailed analysis of Sherman’s Georgia campaign as he offers Sherman as an example of a leader that understood the true nature of “railroad strategy” and what it would take to win the war. Thomas states that Sherman, being a former surveyor, and Lincoln, experienced with many railroad law cases, were two of a small group of leaders that innately grasped the strategic importance of railroads - that railroads were not just important for supplying an army, but also in supplying the country and hence the rebellion. Thus the railroads network and its underlying economy became the target. Grant, Sherman and Sheridan launched campaigns in 1864 to implement the total railroad war strategy. These Union leaders were willing to abandon their dependence on their own rail lines in the short term to accomplish the overall goals of breaking the South’s rail network, its economy and by extension its ability to maintain the rebellion.

His discussion of how guerrilla warfare as practiced by raiders such as Morgan and Mosby and targeted against the railroads led to an increased level of savagery. He writes, “To be trapped in a burning railroad car, to be caught by a guerrilla unit, to be robbed and left for dead on the tracks became a different form of violence for Americans, distinct from the violence that led to death on the battlefield.”

He describes how, “the Union Army began clear-cutting and removing all timber within one mile of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad,” as one less extreme response, though other less restrained leaders suggested jailing and executions of families suspected of supporting guerrillas. These brought to mind parallels to the U.S. Army experience in Vietnam and Iraq.

The concluding chapter on reconstruction is also very interesting. Thomas points out that after the war, the USMRR rebuilt all the lines it operated and handed them over to the original owners. He states that some southern railroads where actually better off after the war than when they started except for the value lost to their emancipated slaves.

Finally, I found the footnotes extremely interesting. I have on my do-list a task to research several of the sources he noted, especially the ones that he cited related to the Aquia line.

Overall, I found this book to be a well researched and provocative look at the role of railroads in the Civil War. It definitely changed some of my perspective on how I view the subject. It is well worth reading.

If you want a sampling of Prof Thomas' writing, he recently published a piece in the NY Time Disunion series. You can find it at this link.


  1. Too many books, too little time!!!

  2. Too many books, too little money!!!