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

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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 Way revises 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

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Editorial Reviews

Civil War Monitor
"A tour-de-force, and offers a series of bracing insights about the origins, shape and outcome of the Civil War...Because it integrates military and social history so imaginatively, The Iron Way is a must-read for students, scholars and enthusiasts alike."—Civil War Monitor
New York Book Festival

Winner of the 2012 New York Book Festival History category, sponsored by the New York Book Festival

— History Winner

Vernon Burton
“William Thomas has written a remarkably nuanced and brilliant interpretation of railroads and the Civil War. . . . The Iron Way is truly path-breaking.”—Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln
T.J. Stiles
"In this provocative and deeply researched book, William G. Thomas follows the railroad into virtually every aspect of Civil War history, showing how it influenced everything from slavery's antebellum expansion to emancipation and segregation—from guerrilla warfare to grand strategy. At every step, Thomas challenges old assumptions and finds new connections on this much-traveled historical landscape."—T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Edward Ayers
“At once bold and elegant, this powerful book sweeps across slavery and secession, the Civil War and its aftermath. Thomas masterfully integrates one of the most complicated eras in American history, making familiar subjects new and compelling.”—Edward Ayers, Bancroft Prize-winning author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America
New York Book Festival - History Winner
Winner of the 2012 New York Book Festival History category, sponsored by the New York Book Festival
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300141078
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/11/2011
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

William G. Thomas is professor of history and the John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He taught history at the University of Virginia, and, as director of the Virginia Center for Digital History, created digital projects on slavery, the Civil War, segregation, and civil rights. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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Read an Excerpt

The Iron Way

Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America
By William G. Thomas


Copyright © 2011 William G. Thomas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14107-8

Chapter One

Slavery, the South, and "Every Bar of Railroad Iron"

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 train at any point along the way. To disguise himself, Douglass dressed as a sailor, and he carried false papers that indicated he was a free black. The tactic was bold, but its success depended on Douglass's self-confidence. He had to be convincing, act naturally, and not call attention to himself.

Instead of purchasing his ticket in the Baltimore station, where he might be noticed, Douglass decided to board the train quickly and buy his ticket once on board to avoid any unnecessary waiting. Using the railroad's elaborately printed timetable as his guide, Douglass timed his arrival at the station just as the train was pulling out. He "jumped upon the car ... when the train was already in motion." Later, Douglass reflected on the precision of his escape and its consequences: "In choosing this plan upon which to act, I considered the jostle of the train, and the natural haste of the conductor, in a train crowded with passengers, and relied upon my skill and address in playing the sailor as described in my protection, to do the rest." When the conductor came into his car to collect the tickets, Douglass later admitted, "This was a critical moment in the drama. My whole future depended upon the decision of this conductor." Douglass felt agitated on the inside but outwardly he was calm and "self-possessed." The conductor asked him for his papers, Douglass obliged, and the conductor moved on.

But another danger lurked. More than anything, Douglass feared that someone might recognize him on the train. "The train was moving at a very high rate of speed for that time of railroad travel," Douglass recalled, "but to my anxious mind, it was moving far too slowly. Minutes were hours, and hours were days during this part of my flight." He tried to keep to himself, but it seemed that at every stage of his trip someone he knew boarded the train. With each new passenger he recognized, Douglass's heart pounded furiously like the heart of a "fox or deer, with hungry hounds on his trail, in full chase."

First he encountered "a young colored man named Nichols" on the railroad's ferry across the Susquehanna River. Because there were no bridges yet over the river, the railroad company ferried passengers across, a common practice on the nation's rail system. Unfortunately for Douglass, in the transfer of passengers there was even more opportunity for him to be seen and perhaps recognized. Nichols approached Douglass and asked "dangerous questions," and Douglass had to move to another part of the boat to avoid him.

Then, once back on the train going north through Maryland into Delaware, Douglass saw one of his most recent white employers at a depot stop. Although the man was in a southbound train, the two trains pulled into the depot at the same time, and the two men could see one another through the windows "very distinctly." Douglass froze, but in the space of a few seconds the trains parted and he had escaped recognition a second time. Later, still another man, a German blacksmith whom Douglass "knew well," seemed to recognize him even in his sailor disguise. The man stared "very intently" and tried to place Douglass in his mind. Douglass was convinced that the German immigrant "had no heart to betray me" and "saw me escaping slavery and held his peace."

Despite these narrow escapes, Douglass achieved his freedom and arrived in New York City less than twenty-four hours after he had begun his journey. The trip, which covered over 200 miles, would have taken two weeks ten years earlier. Douglass's experience illustrates that all sorts of people could be found on the railroad cars and in the depots. Personal mobility was more possible than ever before and indicated much of what Americans thought was modern about their society. Yet in an address delivered in New York City nearly fifteen years later, in May 1853, Douglass claimed that slavery "has an enemy in every bar of railroad iron, in every electric wire, in every improvement in navigation."

A popular idea in the North was that modern communication and transportation would break down slavery and, conversely, that slavery could not survive amid the new technologies. America in the 1850s, after all, was a nation in motion. Mobility brought social mixing and enhanced the possibilities for equality and opportunity.

Frederick Douglass kept his exact means of escape secret for over forty years largely because he thought the railroad and its possibilities were too important to reveal to slaveholders. In his 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass wrote that it was his "intention to withhold a part of the facts connected with my escape from slavery." Seventeen years after his escape, Douglass thought, slaveholders would parse his narrative for clues and hints and for "a train of events and circumstances." So he controlled and manipulated the account of his railroad escape, aware that the timetables, depots, and conductors in the nation's railroad system could be turned to enforce slavery. Only later, in his 1881 autobiography, did Douglass reveal how he managed to arrive in New York. "My means of escape," he wrote, "were provided for me by the very men who were making laws to hold and bind me more securely in slavery."

But railroads could extend slavery in the South just as easily as they could enable Douglass to escape. The South in the 1850s, moreover, was alive with the idea that railroads and slavery together could transform the region, possibly affirm the South's place in the advanced societies of the world and secure its political future. Indeed, as leading white Southerners attempted to fold slavery into the modern society they were busy creating, they began to resolve what seemed like a paradox—whether slavery and modernity could coexist. White Southerners, like their counterparts in the North, placed great faith in the railroads, but they turned to slave labor to build, operate, and maintain these enterprises. The railroads purchased and hired thousands of slaves, transformed the slave trade market, and played a significant role in the rapidly increasing price of slaves. By the end of the 1850s slavery and railroads were joined in double harness, propelling the South's economy and society forward.

Although African Americans used the railroads to strike out for freedom, southern railroads became some of the largest slaveholding and slave employing entities in the South. Slavery, it seemed to many white Southerners, was perfectly compatible with the most modern technologies. De Bow's Review, the South's journal of industry and business, aggressively promoted railroad development and hailed the new technology because it "destroyed space, lengthened time, and created a new world." All of these changes, De Bow's argued, would surely benefit the South and its system of slavery.

The numbers of slaves working on the railroads in the 1850s confirm that this sentiment was widely shared. On the North Carolina Railroad in 1852 there were 1,493 black men and 425 black boys working to lay track and construct the line. They lived in shanties or camps along the road, spread out in smaller divisions or sections. By 1860 the Atlantic & Gulf Railroad had 1,200 slaves cutting its line through the woods of south Georgia. According to one accurate estimate, based on figures drawn from railroad annual reports, over 14,000 slaves worked on the railroads in 1860 across the South. Since no single southern plantation used more than 1,200 slaves, the railroads in the 1850s stood out as some of the largest users of slave labor in the region. Women were not exempt from this work either. They too were forced to toil in the grading camps, wielding picks and shovels and pushing wheelbarrows. Some slaveholders leased women to the railroads as often as they did men, especially in the railroad building boom in the 1830s. Women also worked in the camps, cooking and washing. But by the 1850s the railroads mostly worked large crews of men and boys, some of them exclusively so.

Railroads worked the largest numbers of slaves, moving them into isolated and diverse regions of the South, presenting scenes of the most brutal treatment, yet at the same time initiating a ripple effect of increased mobility, opportunity, and imagined space and time. In The Emancipator, for example, a narrative by an anonymous "Runaway Slave" described the dangerous work of railroad construction. This individual was hired out to the contractors for the Hamburg and Charleston Rail Road, which was "cutting and slashing" its way through the pine forest of South Carolina. "Every hour in the day we could hear the whip going," he explained. He found himself working alongside women who were pushing the heavy wheelbarrows up the embankments on high "skids," fifteen or twenty feet off the ground. When the workers fell or slipped, "it was very dangerous business." Boys and girls were forced to go behind and throw all the large chunks of earth up onto the roadbed. "There was hardly a day that some of the slaves did not get crippled or killed."

Furthermore, railroads were a primary reason for the rise in slave prices throughout the region in the two decades before the Civil War. The massive public investment in railroads across the South had recursive effects on slave prices. Railroad construction increased the demand for slave labor because contractors scoured the South to hire and buy slaves wherever a new railroad was built. Competition for labor drove prices up. But thousands of miles of new railroad lines also opened up the interior South to plantation agriculture, dramatically lowering transportation costs to ship cotton to market as well as to ship supplies back into the plantation districts. Railroads extended the opportunities for cotton production and made the crop even more profitable. As new lands were brought under cultivation, planters needed more and more labor. As railroads were built, they increased the demand for slave labor. Slave prices shot up.

The most recent economic analysis of slave prices has shown that the southern states' public subsidies to build railroads totaled hundreds of millions of dollars and created an intensified "boom in railroad construction." Slave prices, therefore, were a product not only of the coldhearted market efficiency of cotton, but also of public policy decisions. The investment in railroads stimulated the South's slave based economy in ways that seemed to confirm for white Southerners the very basis of their society—slavery.

Infused with cash from investors, profits, and state subsidies, railroad companies began buying hundreds of male slaves. The Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Railroad, for example, at its first stockholder's meeting in 1841 passed a resolution that the board of directors was "authorized as soon as the means and credit of the Company will permit, to purchase for the service of the rail-road, from fifty to sixty male slaves between the ages of sixteen and thirty." It was adopted unanimously and without argument or discussion.

By the mid 1850s the benefits of slave labor seemed almost too obvious to state. The president of the Mississippi Central Railroad explained to his stockholders in 1855: "I am led to the irresistible conclusion, that in ease of management, in economy of maintenance, in certainty of execution of work—in amount of labor performed—in absence of disturbance of riotous outbreaks, the slave is preferable to free labor, and far better adapted to the construction of railways in the south."

Although hundreds of railroad companies hired slaves from local slaveholders, railroad account books reveal a startling story—the extent and scale of corporate slave ownership. The meticulous entries on the balance sheets show how boards and presidents used their positions to sell, finance, and market slaves. Often when a railroad switched from hiring slaves (see below) to purchasing, the company bought quickly and spent lavishly. In May 1857 the Vicksburg and Mississippi Railroad purchased three slaves for $7,000, then one month later spent another $4,000. A year later the company sold several slaves for $6,000, and then bought fifteen more slaves in 1859 for $20,000. Later, the company president loaned the company some of his slaves, valued at $6,000, and the entry was marked on a separate ledger account. The ledgers included stark entries for "Negroes Sold" and "Negroes Purchased" and presented carefully entered line items such as "negro boy Bill Sailor 1,400." The railroad bought and sold women, children, and men, and the name and amount for each one were recorded for the balance sheet.

By 1860 many southern railroads were deeply invested in slaves and increasingly reliant upon them for operating their trains. The South Carolina Rail Road Company held 90 slaves and was among the top 200 slaveholders in the city of Charleston (out of over 2,800 total slaveholders). In rural Autauwga County, Alabama, the South and North Railroad, with 121 slaves, was the largest slaveholder in the county. In Baldwin County, Alabama, the Northern Railroad held 41 slaves and ranked among the top twenty-five slaveholders in that county. Although many slaveholders in the South held similarly large numbers of slaves, and some planters held many more than these companies, the railroad companies as a group in the 1850s put to work over 10,000 slaves a year in the South and individually amassed holdings in slaves that rivaled the largest planters in the region.

Railroad directors and officers also personally held slaves. They pursued the new technological opportunities of railroading from within their position in the slaveholding elite. In Virginia, among the directors and corporate officers of the state's fifteen railroad companies in 1859, 87 out of 112 directors held slaves. Those who did not were head engineers or superintendents, men who worked directly for the companies, often at the start of their careers. The average number of slaves held by the Virginia corporate directors was twenty. Some held over ninety, and many held over fifty. The list of directors in Virginia, furthermore, included many of the top slaveholding families in the state with extensive, large-scale plantations. Virginia's fifteen railroad presidents, despite the demands of running these new systems, included eight slaveholders, four of whom held over thirty slaves. The lower officers held slaves too. D. S. Walton, the engineer on the Richmond and York River Railroad, held two slaves. Every class of company ownership and senior management, moreover, from engineer to president, secretary, treasurer, superintendent, and director, included slaveholders.

Northerners who traveled south on the railroads saw firsthand how slavery was being adapted to these modern settings. When one northern journalist arrived in Savannah, Georgia, the railroad station there stunned him. "To say that Savannah, Georgia, is likely to have the most complete and elegant railroad station in the country (besides being one of the very largest) may be a matter of some surprise to northern and western railroad men," he reported. The building was 800 feet long and 63 feet wide, designed in a modern style and rivaled only by the railroad stations in Boston and Baltimore. The road was equipped with engines shown at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition. The yards included six parallel tracks, with over three miles of railroad. It was by any measure a remarkably large and extensive facility. The shops held the best workbenches and lathes in the business, all in all "the best we've seen."

Each of these railroads, outfitted with the most up-to-date equipment, was worked and made possible by slave labor. According to the Advocate, southern railroads had achieved through slavery an extraordinary level of quality construction at half the cost of northern and western railroads—all because of slavery. At a cost of $15,000 per mile to construct, the southern railroad tracks prompted "astonishment in more northern communities." Northern and western tracks often cost twice as much to build, averaging by most estimates at the time between $30,000 and $35,000 per mile.

Some Northerners concluded that there was much to admire about these southern efficiencies: no contractors scamming the roads for high profits, no inflated costs and padding of contracts, no secret deals whereby promoters keep the public at arm's length while they engineer a boondoggle. In the North great consternation followed the railroads. George Perkins Marsh, a prominent Vermont railroad commissioner, issued a detailed report meant to expose the "sorcery by which [northern railroad managers] turned corporate misfortune into individual gain." Marsh wrote, "I loathe with all my soul" railroad management. He considered nearly all of them "rogues" and "thieves."

By the late 1850s the South's railroads therefore appeared to be quite a contrast. The "best engineering talent ... in the world" was in the South building railroads. Led by its public men, the white South seemed to have sidestepped the financial scheming and shenanigans that afflicted some northern lines.

All over the South railroad companies used slave labor to battle the region's many natural barriers. Impassable swamps, dense forests, and high mountains needed to be overcome. This demanding, physical work—grading, bridging, and tunneling—required hundreds of men spread out in camps along any projected railroad line.


Excerpted from The Iron Way by William G. Thomas Copyright © 2011 by William G. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Slavery, the South, and "Every Bar of Railroad Iron"....................17
Chapter 2: Railroads, the North, and "The Velocity of Progress"....................37
Chapter 3: Secession and a Modern War....................59
Chapter 4: Fighting the Confederate Landscapes....................79
Chapter 5: The Railroad War Zones....................105
Chapter 6: The Confederate Nation "Cut Off from the World"....................130
Chapter 7: The Railroad Strategy....................149
Chapter 8: After Emancipation....................177
EPILOGUE: The Road to Promontory Summit....................199
A Note on Sources....................225
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