without railroads, would there have been a civil war? -- 11/14/17
Today's selection -- from The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar. Railroads made the Civil War possible. If the Southern states had seceded earlier, when there were no long-distance railroads, could the Unionists have been able to reclaim the South?:
"Far from being a catalyst for peace [as its early supporters had claimed], the [railroad] turned out to be one of the most effective weapons of war invented by man, helping create a far more intense, deadly, and lengthy type of warfare. Moreover, the American Civil War would prove to be a testing ground for the use of railroads to extend the scope and impact of warfare; as a result, the conflict exacted a terrible toll on the American people. The story of the American Civil War can, in fact, be told through the railroads. Only an understanding of the role that the railroads played in it can explain how the Civil War became bloodier and more intensely fought than any previous conflict. ...
"The scale of use of the railroads by the military demonstrates the vital role they played throughout the war. Not all railroad companies kept records, but the Pennsylvania alone carried nearly a million military personnel during the conflict and the Illinois Central more than half a million....
|Mortar technology being moved via rail near Petersburg, Virginia in 1864.|
"It was because of the railroads that the conflict was carried out over such a large area and continued for so long. A report by McCallum after the war demonstrates the scale of the railroad operations during the Civil War. He found that the United States Military Railroads, a government agency, was bigger than any private company of the age, operating 2,105 miles of line with 419 locomotives and 6,330 cars. The railroads afforded the armies unprecedented mobility, which, as the war progressed, they learned to exploit to the fullest. The scale of destruction and carnage can be directly attributed to the railroads. The official history of the war lists ten thousand military encounters, of which more than four hundred were deemed serious enough to be called battles, about one every four days. Not surprisingly, therefore, the war was far bloodier than its predecessors. The death toll of American soldiers, some 620,000 remains greater than in any conflict involving the United States and, remarkably, more than the total lost in all the nation's other wars before or since, including the two world wars and Vietnam. The railroads greatly increased the fighting power of the armies, allowed them to operate much farther from their supply depots than previously, and gave the side with the best railroad supply line a clear strategic advantage. The impact of the war was devastating to a vast swath of the country, and the railroads could be held responsible: 'A war strategy that relied on railroads spread the effects of war over a vast area and left hundreds of thousands of uprooted wanderers looking for a place to settle or earn a living.'
"Perhaps the most fascinating question concerning the relationship between the railroads and the war, however, is whether the conflict would have happened at all had it not been for the iron horse. Many historians suggest that had the Southern states seceded earlier, when there were no long-distance railroads, the Unionists would not have been able to reclaim the South. According to Franklin Garrett, a historian of the South, 'If the Southern states had seceded in 1832, when South Carolina was threatening to do so, nothing could have stopped them.' He also points out that Atlanta was created by the railroads, and that had it not enjoyed such efficient connections with the rest of the country, Sherman's long march through the hostile territory of the South would have been impossible. It was thanks to the railroad that 'Union forces were able to strike deep into the South without suffering Napoleon's fate in Russia.' Indeed, even as late as 1850, it would have been impossible to envisage that the war could have been conducted on such a wide front, as there was no quick way of traveling across the country. Secession 'might have succeeded in 1850 when over 40 per cent of the nation's inhabitants formed a truly "solid South" and the opposition 60 per cent was scattered from Skowhegan, Maine, to Mississippi with no completed means of transportation at either end.' "