Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society

Article excerpt

Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society · Aaron W. Marrs * Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009 * xx, 268 pp. $55.00

The appearance of railroads in the early nineteenth century affected many areas of American life. Not surprisingly, there is a large scholarly literature dealing with a wide range of railroad-related topics. Still, the history of southern railroads before the Civil War has received relatively little attention. Scholars have generally compared southern rail lines unfavorably to their northern counterparts and have pictured the inadequate railroads in the South as the product of a social order reluctant to embrace innovation. In this fine book Aaron W. Marrs challenges the prevailing view of an antebellum South slow to adopt enterprise, and he argues that in many respects southern railroads had much in common with those in northern states. In so doing, he questions the notion that antebellum southern society was premodern in nature and resisted economic progress.

Marrs disputes those who insist that railroad developments in the antebellum South were exceptional. He maintains, instead, that the experience of railroads in the region largely paralleled that of the North. Rail boosters used similar arguments in both sections. Likewise, engineering problems, bureaucratic organizations, operating practices, and opposition to railroads showed little difference between the regions.

Notwithstanding these similarities between northern and southern railroads, there were also some significant differences. The most notable was the reliance on slave labor in the South. Marrs skillfully tackles the relationship between slavery and railroading, casting doubt on the contention that a slave regime was necessarily inconsistent with technological development. Railroads everywhere required a large workforce, and southern lines, in an effort to hold down cost, relied heavily on slave labor. Marrs stresses that slaves were integral to building and operating railroads in the South. According to the audior, southerners sought to link their unique social order with emerging economic forces. Indeed, the positive railroad experience with the use of slave labor speaks to a larger issue in southern history - the extent to which slaves could be successfully utilized in non-agricultural pursuits. …