Academic journal article Military Review

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

Academic journal article Military Review

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

Article excerpt

THE IRON WAY: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, William G. Thomas, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2011, 296 pages, $30.00.

William G. Thomas's The Iron Way is a conceptually ambitious and methodologically innovative book about the role of the railroad before and after the Civil War. Drawing on a wealth of sources at the University of Nebraska's Digital History Project (http://railroads.unl.edu), Thomas casts the railroad as the antebellum era's "most visible indicator of modernity." Its emergence as a symbol of modernity, for southern slaveholders and northern abolitionists alike, rivaled its significance in revolutionizing industry, geography, and economic relationships.

The railroad's swift expansion between the 1840s and the 1850s deepened the sectional schism over slavery. Thomas's impressive statistical compilation shows that southern railroad construction and investment skyrocketed in the 1850s. The railroad's expansion, made possible by slave labor, perpetuated the plantation system by increasing the price of slaves, opening up interior lands for cultivation, and expanding cotton markets. All of these forces--economic growth, increased mobility, the synchronization of slave trading, and the linking of commercial hubs--convinced southerners that their region, despite its anachronistic economic system, merited recognition as a "modern" nation.

Northerners thought of the railroad on different terms. Decrying the incompatibility of modernity and slavery, they equated technological advancement with moral progress and slavery's inevitable obsolescence. Thomas shows that Midwestern railroad construction produced a class of laborers sympathetic to the new Republican Party. Workers flooded onto western prairies to build railroads such as the Illinois Central, which in 1850 received the nation's first federal land grant of 2. …

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