Thursday, October 27, 2011

William G. Thomas's "The Iron Way"

William G. Thomas is professor of history and the John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Iron Way, you will find a 3/4 page map of the Shenandoah Valley in 1862. The map features the Virginia Central Railroad and its Blue Ridge Tunnel. This is startlingly appropriate as it turns out. The book explains the rise of railroads in the U.S. in the 1850s and the simultaneous effects they had in the North and the South. The Iron Way considers how the Civil War and the railroads were "twin engines in the development of modern America, operating with independent causes and effects but simultaneously and in relation to one another." It is the story of technology, war, and modern nation making.

Amazingly enough, page 99, through this map, signals the original point of my departure for researching this book. I was one of the co-editors for "The Valley of the Shadow Project" at the University of Virginia. This digital project compares two communities in the coming, fighting, and aftermath of the Civil War--one in the North, one in the South. In the course of that research ten years ago, I was struck by finding repeated references in the U.S. Slaveowners Census to railroad companies employing slaves. In fact, we were studying Augusta County and my initial foray into this question surrounded the Virginia Central Railroad. "Mrs. Rhodes" and "Mrs. Lindsay" each sent two enslaved men to work on the Virginia Central in 1860. One of the wealthiest men in Augusta, C. R. Mason, had 18 enslaved men working on an "unnamed R.R." that same year in the mountains of Allegheny County.

I wanted to know more about railroads in the South and their ownership of slaves, and I started by investigating the building of the Virginia Central and the Blue Ridge Tunnel using the records of Virginia Board of Public Works in the Library of Virginia. The Blue Ridge Tunnel became symbolic for me of the South's 1850s push to enhance its slavery-based society with railroads. The tunnel was built by slave laborers working on one side of the mountain and Irish laborers on the other. Gradually, the chief engineer, Claudius Crozet, dispensed with Irish labor and turned exclusively to slave labor wherever possible. At the time of its completion, the Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest in the United States and an engineering achievement of great consequence. The white South gained confidence in the 1850s from these public works, as the region laid thousands of miles of railroad track with slave labor and broke through the mountain barriers, uniting cities and states for the first time. Although abandoned, and difficult to find today, the Blue Ridge Tunnel marked at the center of the map on page 99 stands in many ways at the center of the book and I think it figures prominently in the story of Confederate nation-making.

This map also hints at the methods of analysis I used for some of the book's main arguments--Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I wanted to recreate the year-by-year building of the rail network and worked with the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska and with my collaborator at the University of Portsmouth Department of Geography, Richard Healey. We tried to build a network GIS of the growth of the railroads over the period 1840 to 1861, and our historical GIS includes depots and line segments for the entire South and large parts of the North. Although the map on page 99 does not show the depots, it does show the principal junctions. Figuring out where all of the junctions, depots, and end points of railroad building exactly where at any point in time proved especially difficult. This map hides much of that painful process. But the map on page 99 indicates how central mapping is to the analysis behind the book.

Finally, I think page 99 encompasses some of the main themes of the book--that railroads were symbolic technologies for Americans, that the period was one of massive technological transformation, that the South, in particular, heavily participated in adopting these new technologies, and that the Civil War unfolded on and around the "second nature" system of rail and telegraph. In 1861 the geography of rail became almost overnight the geography of war. Although the focus of page 99 is Stonewall Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign, northern commanders eventually came to understand that to defeat the South they would need to master its nature, to dominate, control, and comprehend its landscapes, its systems, its networks, and its people. They would need to capture the Blue Ridge Tunnel, the Virginia Central Railroad, and the whole "nervous system" of the Confederacy's modern infrastructure--what I call its "second nature" borrowing the term from William Cronon. In this way the Civil War was a modern conflict, one between contending nation states, one structured around symbolic technologies, one in which both sides exuded confidence, and one with important ideas at stake. Slavery's apparent adaptability to modern institutions and technologies, such as the railroads, suggested that it would not die out naturally, gradually, or non-violently.
Learn more about The Iron Way at the Yale University Press website and the Railroads and the Making of Modern America website.

--Marshal Zeringue