THOMAS: The Iron Way (2011)

Posted: 10/26/2011
Reviewed By: Elizabeth Varon

The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America by William G. Thomas. Yale University Press, 2011. Cloth, ISBN: 0300141076. $30.00.

William G. Thomas’s The Iron Way is a tour-de-force, and offers a series of bracing insights about the origins, shape and outcome of the Civil War. Thomas argues that the railroads were sites and symbols of contested modernity in antebellum America. They did not simply symbolize northern industrial might and progress, but also the South’s determination to have modernity on its own terms: to harness the power of steam to the expansion of the slave system. Railroads symbolized too the aspirations of African Americans for freedom, mobility and citizenship.
 
Thomas’s case is both unimpeachable and compelling. He marshals statistics establishing the deep investment of both North and South in railroad building, and conjures the heady competition of the 1850s, when the South was determined to close the gap between its railroad expansion and the North’s. And close the gap it did:  mobilizing slave labor, the South in the 1850s constructed “one of the most extensive rail networks in the world” (26). This network, by promoting the westward spread of slavery and connecting far-flung parts of the region, made it possible for southerners to imagine an independent Confederacy, and to imagine for that new nation a future of prosperity and economic growth. This vision of modernity was not only trumpeted by such heralds of Southern commercial expansion such as J.B. De Bow, but also by southern railroad company directors, who, Thomas notes, were overwhelmingly secessionist in sentiment.

The railroads of course also fostered unity, confidence and optimism within the North, and Thomas leavens this more familiar story with telling details that connect technology and politics—we learn, for example, that the B & O Railroad not only connected Maryland and western Virginia with Ohio and Pennsylvania economically, but also served as a conduit for free labor practices and Republican party principles. And we learn that fugitive slaves such as Frederick Douglass not only used the rail system to flee slavery but also invoked it rhetorically to press the claim that modernity itself was at war with system of human bondage.
 
Having established the centrality of the railroads to antebellum sectional politics, Thomas then builds the case that railroads were the “architecture of the war’s violence and destruction.” Union and Confederacy first relied on the railroads for recruitment and mobilization, and then maneuvered, tactically and strategically, to control the vital rail networks transecting the South. In his chapters on the war, Thomas provides a new frame of reference for understanding the success of Confederate commanders such as Stonewell Jackson, who cannily used rail networks in the Valley to enhance his army’s legendary speed of movement, and of raiders such as John Hunt Morgan, whose own directed severity targeted the railroads and supply lines being used by the Union army.

By 1864, the Union had found its own masters of “railroad generalship” in Sheridan and Sherman; Sherman’s dismantling of Confederate rail networks during his Atlanta campaign and March to the Sea aimed at nothing less than denying the Confederacy its “claims to progress, civilization, and modernity” (149). It is in the discussion of Sherman that Thomas’s methodology of digital history—whereby primary sources are digitized and then analyzed using new technologies—has the biggest payoff. For example, he is able both to establish exactly how often Sherman focused in on railroads in the correspondence laying out his strategy, and then to provide a graphic image of Sherman’s language in which keywords—those used most often—appear in bold relief (155).
 
The postwar period, Thomas goes on to argue, saw two striking developments: the systematic, and costly, rebuilding of the southern rail system by the very U.S. government that had presided over its destruction, and the emergence of racial strife along the rail lines, as African Americans contested the swift advent of segregation, and white supremacists targeted black railroad workers and the northern-sponsored projects that hired them. Thomas deftly dramatizes the desegregation struggle through the story of black washwoman Catherine Brown of Virginia, who filed a lawsuit against the Alexandria & Washington Railroad in 1868 for dragging her out of the “ladies’ car,” but was unable to turn back the tide of racial proscription. One year later, Americans celebrated the completion of the transcontinental Union Pacific railroad, as the “Golden Spike” was driven down at Promontory Point, Utah. The moment was widely hailed as “an achievement of the war generation” and as a symbol of sectional reunion; the new railroad was a marvel, Thomas concludes in a nifty phrase, of “technological unification” (207).

The Iron Way calls to mind Mark Grimsley’s pioneering The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (1995), as it shares that book’s broad scope, erudite tone, and interpretive ambition. Like all ambitious books, Thomas’s raises promising questions for further research. One concerns Southern ambivalence over modernity—Thomas stresses southern optimism and confidence but one might also ask how the railroads and technology figured in southern nationalists’ more pessimistic and even dystopian rhetoric about the kind of grim new world a Yankee conquest might bring.

From Fitzhugh’s antebellum defenses of slavery to Lee’s 1865 “Farewell Address” and beyond, southerners invoked Northern technological and industrial might to indict Northern society as rapacious.  And one might ask about how the imagery of the “underground railroad”—the term was widely used in the press in the 1850s to refer to the fugitive slave network—represented both black dreams of an unfulfilled Union and white southern fears of northern infiltration.

Precisely because it integrates military and social history so imaginatively, The Iron Way is a must-read for students, scholars and enthusiasts alike.


Elizabeth R. Varon is a Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the author of Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859.
 

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