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Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat

Author(s):Clark Jr., John E.
Reviewer(s):Adams, Sean Patrick

Published by EH.NET (May 2004)

John E. Clark, Jr., Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. xv + 275 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-2726-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sean Patrick Adams, Department of History, University of Central Florida.

The American Civil War suffers more scrutiny than any other event in the history of the United States. Such a massive literature is bound to produce different schools of opinion, and in Civil War circles, one of the most contentious struggles concerns the respective roles of home and battle fronts in the outcome of the war. Many scholars, and this includes most economic historians, maintain that the material advantages enjoyed by the Union combined with a lack of will in the South to spell doom for the Confederacy. Others place the outcome of the war squarely upon the battlefield. “Contrary to what much recent literature proclaims,” Gary Gallagher asserts, “defeat in the military sphere, rather than dissolution behind the lines, brought the collapse of the Confederacy” [1]. One way to test the relative merits of the “home front” and the “battle front” theses would be to find an element of the Civil War that combined these two perspectives.

John E. Clark, who teaches history at MPACT Academy and Garrett Morgan Transportation Academy in New Jersey, attempts to place railroads at the center of this debate in Railroads in the Civil War. By blending general overviews of the significance of railroads with more detailed case studies of troop movements, Clark asserts that the Confederate war effort suffered immensely because of the leadership’s mismanagement of railroad policy. In support of his argument, he examines the use of railroads for troop transport in 1863. More specifically, Clark presents a comparison of the Confederate transfer of troops under General James Longstreet from the Army of Northern Virginia to the Battle of Chickamauga and the movement of the Union’s 11th and 12th Corps to reinforce the assault on Chattanooga. Just as the Union successfully melded industrial efficiency and military precision to “fight and win what some call a modern war,” the Confederacy’s failure to use its railroads wisely “condemned it to fight and lose a war of the past” (p. 25).

In his overviews, Clark synthesizes the extant literature very well and provides a compelling case for the significance of railroads in the Civil War. But the real heart of this book lies in the case studies of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga troop movements. A thick description of the logistical challenges faced by nineteenth-century armies is backed up with ample evidence from published and archival sources. Clark follows Union soldiers from the Army of the Potomac, for example, as they cut across Ohio, swing down through Kentucky and Tennessee, and finally arrive the heart of the Confederacy. Although the trip took a bit more than three weeks, by nineteenth-century standards these troops moved at blinding speed. Not only does Clark demonstrate the “superb managerial flexibility, sense of urgency, and excellent spirit” (p. 188) of those who operated the railroads; he also conveys the harsh conditions of the trip as well as the reaction of both pro-Union and Copperhead residents as the troop trains passed. He describes intense planning needed to undertake the movement of twenty-three thousand soldiers across eight different railroad lines as well as the reaction of the men stuffed into makeshift troop cars in clear and penetrating prose. In this sense, Railroads in the Civil War offers a fine blend of military, social, and economic history.

The depiction of Longstreet’s movement from Virginia to northwestern Georgia is less convincing in supporting Clark’s overall argument about the significance of railroad policy in Confederate defeat. If the appearance of Longstreet’s troops from the East played a pivotal role in the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, then why is this a particularly strong example of mismanagement? Clark argues that the “Longstreet movement rudely exposed the distressed condition of the southern railroads in the late summer of 1863″ (p. 125) and proved that the Confederacy could not take advantage of interior lines to meet Union invasions with equal force. But half of the troops did make it and ultimately contributed to a significant Confederate victory. One wonders why this is the best example of the decrepit state of the South’s railroad system. There is no doubt that the Union Army profited from superior lines of communication, supply, and transport because of the North’s massive railway network and that the Confederacy’s modest rail lines paled in comparison. The South’s population base, industrial capacity, and resource management were also clearly wanting in comparison with the North, so perhaps the South’s railroads should not bear the brunt of blame for the Confederacy’s material inadequacies. The counterfactual tendencies of Clark’s line of reasoning — that the Confederate war effort would have been more successful with a more effective blend of public and private interests in railroad policy — require a level of ceteris paribus that even the most reductionist scholars of the Civil War would find unacceptable and a wider look at the situation simply doesn’t support.

Although Railroads in the Civil War is a scholarly monograph, there are several efforts to widen the appeal of the book, as Clark seems intent upon relating his subject matter to modern sensibilities. Self-interested antebellum railroad directors, for example, “encouraged behavior that would horrify observers of today’s supposedly modest business ethics” (p. 33) and engaged in practices that “would make today’s most unprincipled businessmen blush” (p. 41). This suggests that Clark had a wider audience in mind for his work, which is something that economic historians should keep in mind as they approach this book. Its readership will be mainly composed of Civil War historians and Clark specifically seems to write for those interested in the military aspects of the period.

All in all, Railroads in the Civil War provides a well-crafted overview of the importance of railroads in nineteenth-century warfare and a very accessible account of the emergence of railroad policy as a major factor in the outcome of the Civil War. Although it sometimes falls short of its intended purpose, the comparison of troop movements offers a compelling case study of the significance of home front trends such as railroad management and cooperation between public and private officials upon the military fortunes of the North and the South. It also contributes to an important aspect of the literature, namely the interaction of civilian and military authorities during the Civil War. For this reason, it is a valuable addition to the massive historiography on this critical period in history of the United States.

[1] Gary Gallagher, The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave off Defeat (Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 11.

Sean Patrick Adams is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and author of the forthcoming book Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

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Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century