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The Railroad and the State: War, Politics, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America

Author(s):Angevine, Robert G.
Reviewer(s):Surdam, David

Published by EH.NET (March 2005)

Robert G. Angevine, The Railroad and the State: War, Politics, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. xviii + 351 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8047-4239-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Surdam, Department of Economics, University of Northern Iowa.

Angevine, a Research Analyst for the Strategic Assessment Center and Adjunct Assistant Professor at George Mason University and the American University, has written an exhaustive discussion of the evolving relationship between the United States government and railroads. He draws upon an impressive base of archival materials, Congressional papers and reports, and military records. Surprisingly, he does not draw much upon contemporary business periodicals, such as DeBow’s Review and Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review or railroad annual reports.

As he states in the introduction, his book differs from previous works as it offers, “a critical examination of the interaction between the army and the railroads in the United States throughout the nineteenth century (p. xv).” Indeed, he succeeds in doing so.

Angevine capably describes the well-know tension between the Federalist and Republican philosophies in the emerging nation: state militias versus a standing army for defense; state and local versus centrally-planned, integrated system of internal improvements; and free-market or government-subsidized private enterprise. The first two arguments clearly affected the army, and he skillfully blends in the third debate.

Although not made explicit, the army’s relationship with railroads was typically marked by self-interest. West Point-trained engineering officers assisted internal improvements well before the advent of railroads. The army and private or state-owned companies cooperated in surveying and building roads and canals. The army recognized the need for improved transportation networks, given the horrendous logistical problems experienced in the War of Independence, wars with tribes in the Old Northwest, and the War of 1812. In addition, its engineers’ efforts earned goodwill.

Conversely, the very success of West Point training led to private and public transportation companies’ “depredations” upon the small cadre of engineers. Although higher pay undoubtedly created a “pull,” the stultifying conditions at small isolated army posts exerted a “push” on young officers that led to widespread resignations. New engineering professors at West Point eventually inculcated military professionalism as the desideratum of its cadets. The new professors adjusted engineering classes to be more war-like and geared towards building fortifications. These made nascent officers less susceptible to blandishments from civilian projects.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, even the Jeffersonian Republicans grew to recognize the need for some national internal improvements. Later, even staunch states’ rights advocate John C. Calhoun advocated Federal assistance to such projects. Most of the advocates of internal improvement projects used the “military necessity” argument promulgated by laissez-faire adherent Jefferson Davis. Davis opposed federal aid, unless the project was imbued with military necessity, a concept whose elasticity was every bit as supple in his times as it is in ours.

Angevin believes the army distanced itself from the railroads during the waning days of the antebellum period. The Corps of Engineers practically eschewed civil engineering, preferring to build forts. Some railroad enthusiasts had claimed that rails would enable the nation to rely upon state militias to repel invaders, unruly tribes, or rebelling slaves. In addition, such rapid movement of troops would supposedly obviate the need for fortifications. Both arguments were anathema to the army. The topographical engineers continued to make surveys of potential trans-continental railroad routes, but otherwise, the army’s involvement with railroads ebbed. The Mexican-American war seemingly justified the military professionalism imbued at West Point, making the army even less willing to incur good will from cooperating with civilians on projects.

Thus, by the time of the Civil War, there was a growing disconnect between the army and the railroads. The war abruptly changed the relationship. Eventually, such Union generals as U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Philip H. Sheridan became adroit users (and destroyers) of railroads. Angevin notes that each had temporarily taken civilian jobs and had more regard for railroads than their career-officer brethren. He does not make it explicit, except in an endnote, that key Confederate generals, such as Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston, lacked such civilian experience. The latter merited a recent book designating him as “The Destroyer of the Iron Horse,” but not in a Shermanesque way.

Angevin believes there were three models for government/railroad relationships: laissez-faire, usurpation and domination, and cooperation. The Lincoln administration relied upon the latter two methods. With most northern lines, the government cooperated and only occasionally relied upon implicit or explicit coercion. With captured southern lines, the northern government exerted domination. The northern railroads succeeded in reliably supplying Union armies at reasonable expense throughout the war. Union generals often relied upon recruited civilian railroad managers to help organize and operate the railroads near the front lines or captured lines. The author does not sufficiently emphasize the North’s advantage of having a pool of civilians used to handling large, complex rail systems unlike the South. In his tables showing engineering officers who resigned, an interesting question arises: Were these men predominantly northerners or southerners? Given his belief that Confederate reliance upon laissez-faire policies with regards to railroads was a mistake, I think he might have asked whether there were men capable of undertaking a centralized control of southern roads.

Certainly the Confederate government displayed no outstanding understanding of how to run a railroad. Somewhere in the vastness of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion is Jefferson Davis’ admission that a government knows less about running railroads than do railroad men. More likely, inherent deficiencies doomed the southern railroads’ ability to supply troops. Southern railroads were not designed to ship supplies and troops across regions, as most were built to only reach nearby cotton ports. The government paid the railroads in ever-diminishing currency or government bonds. Military officers abused and misused rolling stock. The blockade and the Confederate government’s monopolization of what heavy industry existed combined to starve the railroads of supplies and equipment. Southern railroad owners must have cringed at the thought of greater Confederate control, not that they were averse to subsidies and other support. Thus, Angevin needs more and better arguments to assert that Confederate control of southern railroads would have proven beneficial.

After the war, the army, recognizing the value of railroads, cooperated fully with the trans-continental railroads. The army hoped for reduced transportation costs and the ability to concentrate its troops, while the railroads desired army protection. The author ably describes the experiences of the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific railroads, with their close ties to the army. In the event, the army was not only protector but also the best customer for many years.

However, the army grew used to dealing with private enterprise and lost much of its former ability to organize and use railroads for large-scale operations, such as occurred during the Spanish-American War. As in the case of southern railroads during the Civil War, Angevin devotes only a few pages to this episode, which is a pity since the episode might have shed light upon his assertion that laissez-faire policies could be disastrous.

This book is useful for students of military-industrial relations, whether they be political scientists, historians, or economists. The author presents a wealth of information clearly and enjoyably.

David G. Surdam resumes being an Assistant Professor of Economics, this time at the University of Northern Iowa. He is currently shopping his manuscript, The Postwar New York Yankees and America: A Revisionist View of Baseball’s “Golden Age,” for publication.

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