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The Iron Way

The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America

William G. Thomas
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Iron Way
    Book Description:

    Beginning with Frederick Douglass's escape from slavery in 1838 on the railroad, and ending with the driving of the golden spike to link the transcontinental railroad in 1869, this book charts a critical period of American expansion and national formation, one largely dominated by the dynamic growth of railroads and telegraphs. William G. Thomas brings new evidence to bear on railroads, the Confederate South, slavery, and the Civil War era, based on groundbreaking research in digitized sources never available before.The Iron Wayrevises our ideas about the emergence of modern America and the role of the railroads in shaping the sectional conflict.

    Both the North and the South invested in railroads to serve their larger purposes, Thomas contends. Though railroads are often cited as a major factor in the Union's victory, he shows that they were also essential to the formation of "the South" as a unified region. He discusses the many-and sometimes unexpected-effects of railroad expansion and proposes that America's great railroads became an important symbolic touchstone for the nation's vision of itself.

    Please visit the Railroads and the Making of Modern America website at

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17168-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[xi])
  3. [Map]
    (pp. [xii]-[xii])
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-14)

    IN 1844 Asa Whitney took his first railroad trip, and the experience was simultaneously exhilarating and daunting. Seasoned as he was in business and politics, Whitney was not fully prepared for what happened to him that day on the train. A New England merchant and tireless railroad promoter, Whitney had become convinced that the nation needed to build a transcontinental railroad not only for reasons of military security but also as a means to capture, and even redirect, the flow of the world’s commerce onto American shores and across the U.S. interior. His first trip on a train through upstate...


    • Chapter 1 Slavery, the South, and “Every Bar of Railroad Iron”
      (pp. 17-36)

      THE day was Monday, September 3, 1838. Frederick Douglass arrived quietly at the railroad platform in Baltimore, Maryland. He was resolved to make his escape from slavery. His plan was simple but dangerous: to board a train to Philadelphia. He felt watched, as if he might be identified at any moment, seized, and taken into custody. His fears were not unrealistic—he had worked in trades all over Baltimore for white men who regularly rode the railroad, and he had met dozens of free blacks who might notice him. He could be questioned by the conductor and hauled off the...

    • Chapter 2 Railroads, the North, and “The Velocity of Progress”
      (pp. 37-56)

      WHEN Asa Whitney put his plans for a transcontinental railroad before the American public and the United States Congress in 1849, he placed a giant map in the front page of his treatise, “A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific.” At the center of the page, and of the world, stood the United States, strategically poised to link Asia with Europe. “The entire commerce of the world must be tributary” to the United States, Whitney asserted in his typically grandiose prose. “Nature” aligned the United States as the great middle nation of the world. However, forces were already in...


    • Chapter 3 Secession and a Modern War
      (pp. 59-78)

      FOR Ephraim C. Dawes, a young student from Ohio studying at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the fusion between the Republican Party’s free soil politics and the railroads’ frenetic expansion could not have been more obvious or personal. In 1856, as Bloody Kansas convulsed with violence and fraud, young Dawes followed the congressional campaign of his uncle William P. Cutler, who had served as president of the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad. Nearly every letter he wrote between 1855 and 1860 included an inquiry into the progress of railroads, their operations, and the fortunes of the Free Soil and Republican...

    • Chapter 4 Fighting the Confederate Landscapes
      (pp. 79-104)

      WRITING from the 53rd Ohio Infantry’s regimental training camp in October 1861, Ephraim C. Dawes asked his college friend William Stephenson to take the next train, visit his camp, and bring him all the newspapers he could buy. “We are fixed up so we can accommodate you first rate,” Dawes encouraged Stephenson. Dawes greeted the war with great enthusiasm, as if it were an invigorating adventure, an opportunity to put his Republican and his Union convictions to the test. When a new captain came into the regiment, Dawes was the man to give him a tour of the outfit, to...

    • Chapter 5 The Railroad War Zones
      (pp. 105-129)

      INCREASINGLY after 1862, the American Civil War became structured around the railroad network, centered on the boundaries made by junctions and rail lines. Northern generals directed whole campaigns at particular roads and their tributaries. The railroads became an imagined set of guideposts for where the war would be fought and how men and material would be collected and moved onto the battlefield, guiding the way commanders understood the landscape and managed their operations. The railroads were, therefore, the architecture of the war’s violence and destruction, a second nature no one could ignore. The setting for this violence, side by side...

    • Chapter 6 The Confederate Nation “Cut Off from the World”
      (pp. 130-148)

      WHEN the United States of America split into two competing nations in the winter of 1860–1861, many people in Britain, France, and Europe were surprised at the news. Months and weeks went by in 1860 without much comment on American affairs before the election of Abraham Lincoln. Then, when South Carolina and the cotton states began to secede, many Europeans were caught off guard. Few predicted the breakup of the Union over a presidential election, and almost nobody expected a bloody, long, and destructive war in America. The British businessman and statesman Richard Cobden, who had traveled through the...

    • Chapter 7 The Railroad Strategy
      (pp. 149-174)

      FOR the top northern commanders in 1864 the Civil War became a farreaching attempt to reshape the social and physical environment of the Confederacy—and to demonstrate the reach of the American nation-state. To defeat the South it was necessary to master its nature, to dominate, control, and comprehend its landscapes, its systems, its networks, and its people. No one did this more effectively or thoroughly than General William T. Sherman. His campaign for Atlanta, and then his subsequent march through Georgia and up the coast to Savannah, were the culmination of a northern railroad strategy to win the war....


    • Chapter 8 After Emancipation
      (pp. 177-198)

      MANY years after the Civil War ended, ex-slaves testified that the railroad delivered the Union army into the South. Often, they recalled seeing their first “Yankees” on the railroad. One day late in the war Dilly Yelladay’s mother and aunt were taking the cows to pasture on a North Carolina plantation. When they looked down the railroad tracks, “everything was blue.” At first, they stumbled in disbelief and fear because “the Yankees were ridin’ up de railroad just as thick as flies.” They quickly discovered, however, that the train was ringing the bell and blowing the whistle that signaled their...

  8. Epilogue: The Road to Promontory Summit
    (pp. 199-210)

    IT is one of the great ironies of American history that the Credit Mobilier Company would become the instrument of corruption in the building of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad—the Union Pacific. The Credit Mobilier ultimately became the construction company that handled the contracts to build the Union Pacific Railroad. Over several years it charged the Union Pacific enormous markups on labor and services for construction, and tens of millions of dollars were siphoned out of government grants into the pockets of Credit Mobilier’s stockholders. As the Union Pacific rushed to complete the railroad in 1868, its contractors ran...

  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 211-214)
  10. Appendix: Tables
    (pp. 215-224)
  11. A Note on Sources
    (pp. 225-230)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 231-274)
  13. Index
    (pp. 275-281)