Iron Confederates: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction

By Rachleff, Peter | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Iron Confederates: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction


Rachleff, Peter, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction. By ScoTT REYNOLDS NELSON. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. x, 257 pp. $39.95 cloth; $18.95 paper.

Iron Confederacies leaps immediately to the top of the pile of books written about nineteenth-century southern railroads. Scott Nelson has imaginatively run his train of thought over the trunk lines of other scholars, and laid new tracks of his own as well. The result is a volume that does not merely challenge long-held notions about railroads, development, and southern politics, but also offers a new perspective on North-South relations during the era of Redemption.

Indeed, Nelson's analysis runs so against the grain that he and his publisher might have employed the title of his concluding chapter, "Ironic Confederacies," to characterize the entire book. He demonstrates that, during the antebellum period, ideological proponents of "states' rights" and "private entrepreneurship" avidly secured government support for railroad development that followed regional contours.

Through a process called "hypothecation," southern states often functioned directly as entrepreneurs, borrowing or securing English capital in order to promote southern railroad growth. State subsidies and the detailing of slave labor provided additional support, although it took the military needs of the Confederacy to overcome the limitations on railroad construetion imposed by the realities of the southern economy-namely, that the plantation system blocked the creation of consumer markets sizable enough to encourage the two-way trade necessary to underwrite modern transportation development.

As Nelson's narrative moves forward in time, it continues to challenge received notions. During Reconstruction, he argues, regional railroads reshaped the southern economy while the federal government operated within a state-by-state framework. These railroads, particularly the Seaboard Inland Air Line, linked cotton and tobacco, agriculture and manufacturing, and northern capitalists with southern transport companies, over the heads-and interests-of southern planters and merchants. The key innovation, Nelson argues, was not physical (the laying of track and the running of equipment over it) but organizational. The bill of lading served as the key instrument of change. "Just as the transport company was a fictional railway company, a bill of lading for cotton was fictional cotton, a promise of delivery at a certain date and time" (p. 62). These bills of lading themselves became commodities, bought, sold, and stored up by wholesalers, bankers, and investors.

The process, then, did not just involve the movement of agricultural commodities from south to north, or the movement of northern manufactured goods into southern stores and markets, but became a means to transfer wealth from the South to the North. This wealth, produced by southern farmers, sharecroppers, and farm laborers, came to enrich northern merchants, manufacturers, bankers, and transportation moguls like Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad. …

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