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Civil War Loyalty Tests on the Railroads

On July 12, 1864 an anonymous letter was forwarded to the military commander of the Union forces around Nashville, Tennessee, and then on to Colonel A. Anderson, the General Superintendent of the United States Military Railroad (U.S.M.R.R.) in that district. Because the U.S.M.R.R. was such an important link to General William T. Sherman’s army as it fought its way south and east toward Atlanta, and because southern guerrillas were constantly endangering the vulnerable rail lines, Anderson and his superiors could take no chances. He was directed to “have the loyalty of all his employees tested.”

Loyalty to the Union was declared through an oath and the swearer simply signed a statement, but the idea that loyalties were not only tested but also monitored in the Ciivl War is one that we have sometimes lost sight of. The boundaries between North and South seem to us so clear and incontrovertible that such measures would appear unnecessary. Yet, in the Civil War, especially in East Tennessee, the boundaries were blurred. Huge armies fought in the war, but at the local level the conflict was more personal.

The anonymous letter seemed to include plans for spying on the Union Army, and outlined the “best way to get to the rebels news.” Specifically, the recipient was directed to go to the “Huntsville Depot” and contact the letter writer’s mother. Because the Union  Provost Marshall boarded with her, she had never been denied a pass–or one for her friends. From there the spy was directed to go 7 miles where there “lives a woman who permits the rebels to go to and from her house at will.” 

He also provided directions on “how to save self when the guerrillas shoot into the Rail Road trains.” The man worked on the railroad and generally “knows when they [the guerrillas] are about.” Through signals and some advance warning, he knew when the attacks would occur. So, his protocol was to fill the engine furnace full of wood then lay down “behind the wood in such a way as to be safe.” Whenever he saw a guerrilla he recognized but does “not want to speak” for fear he would be exposed, he would shake his head.

Angry and tired of working on the railroad for the Union forces, this man expected to run off and join a Confederate cavalry unit. He cheered the work of the guerrillas, especially John Hunt Morgan, and was pleased to report that “there is scarce a nightbut what there are more less union men killed along the railroad.” As for the woman who provided the safe house for spies: “Mrs. Holman is a true woman of the Confederacy,” the man noted.  

The Union Army faced a significant counterinsurgency challenge in large parts of the Confederacy. The railroads, however, because of their size and complexity were run by thousands of civilians rather than controlled directly by military commanders. The railroads were quasi-military operations, necessary to control and manage but beyond the capacity or expertise of any given regimental officer. Few men in the Union Army needed loyalty testing, but the civilians associated with the railroads were another matter. So, the response to this intercepted communique to test the loyalty of the employees on the railroad was not unexpected, but the use of the rail system in war brought a new dimension of scale, reach, and vulnerability and made the conflict a more modern one. 

[The letter is from: National Archives and Records Administration, Letters Received by A. Anderson, Gen. Sup.  Record Group 92 subgroup 1674 Box 2.]

On Terrorism, Guerrillas, and the American Civil War

When United Flight 93 crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, the battle for control of the plane’s cockpit became almost immediately an iconic scene for Americans. The bravery of the passengers prompted widespread sympathy, awe, and appreciation. The story of their close confrontation with the terrorists, their grasp of the wider situation developing on that day, and their patriotic rush to overpower the hijackers defined what appeared to be a new form of warfare, one in which citizens might play major roles in meeting the enemy, one where civilians stood on the front lines.

The roots of this type of warfare and the widely felt terror that accompanied it can be found in the American Civil War when southern guerrillas and partisans struck fear in the Northern public. Significantly, the setting for this citizens’ form of warfare was, and continues to be, an important aspect of the encounter with terror. After 9/11, of course, the setting for this violence seemed to be the confined quarters of an airplane. In the Civil War the setting was the cramped cars of the railroad. Both settings have inspired fear in large part because the machine had the potential to become the instrument of war, a hurtling bomb, incredibly dangerous and shockingly terrifying to its passengers. These spaces made people feel anonymous and the violence appear random, as well as starkly opposed to the order and efficiency of the machinery.

During the Civil War something about the tight space of the railroad car and the possibility of attacks instilled fear among the Northern public. When southern guerrillas attacked railroad cars, stripped the passengers of valuables, set fire to the trains, or shot captured men, Northern civilians all along the border appeared at risk in a new way. Soldiers too might be caught in these circumstances.

Ephraim C. Dawes, a 1st Lt., went into the South with the 53rd Ohio Infantry, fought at Shiloh in 1862, and guarded the Memphis and Chattanooga Railroad in 1863. His unit tracked southern guerrillas in Tennessee and Mississippi during these years. The destruction his army produced was something he tried to convey to his family members back in Ohio: “you don’t know what war is. You can’t appreciate it. Wait till an army overruns the country. till all the male population are in arms till your fences are all burned orchards and barns and chicken roosts robbed, Houses entered and valuables stolen–gardens wantonly destroyed and all manner of excesses committed–not so much by the army as by loose craracters [sic] taking advantage of the unsettled condition of affairs to enrich themselves at everybody else’ expense. It may be the worse picture but it is very like things in the West. Tenn. District.”

Dawes’ family in Ohio, however, seemed unconcerned about the escalating chaos afflicting southern civilians and instead worried much more about the mounting threat of guerrilla raids into Ohio and on unsuspecting Northern soldiers and civilians. Dawes tried to calm their fears: “you need not go crazy or trouble yourself at all if I should be captured by guerrillas as they were never known to hurt anybody. All they do is to capture a man, steal all he’s got about him, make him ride a mule bareback 40 or 50 miles parole him and let him make his way afoot to the nearest civilization.”

But the Northern fear of guerrillas could not be so easily set aside. We might consider the role of the new technology of the railroad and the telegraph in structuring those fears. When Confederate partisan rangers brought telegraphic signaling boxes on raids and took control of Northern-run trains and stations, the sophisticated machinery appeared vulnerable in a surprisingly new way.

Moreover, the modern, refined, and enclosed space of the railroad car was also especially important in shaping these fears. The campaign to counter the insurgency of the southern partisans and guerrillas took the Union army years to organize and understand, and it played out differently in Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, and Virginia. By October 1864, however, the guerrilla warfare and the counterinsurgency efforts of the Union Army had taken an unexpected turn. Union forces were using local Confederate civilians as human shields on the trains in Northern Virginia to prevent John S. Mosby’s men from attacking them. In Richmond the Confederacy’s leading newspaper editors were confident that Mosby would attack the trains anyway, even if he “knew that all who were dear to him were on a train.” They believed Mosby would not hesitate for a second “provided he were assured that the good of his country demanded the sacrifice.”

Such self-sacrifice and, indeed, the sacrifice of family, friends, and fellow citizens was tolerable, it seemed, in the service of the national cause. Northern newspapers routinely disparaged the Confederate guerrillas and partisans as lawless banditti, but Confederate newspapers just as vigorously defended them as legitimate forces in a modern struggle. Of course, the terms encompass a wide range of characters–from the elite and educated but ruthless Mosby to the vindictive and bloodthirsty William Quantrill whose raid on Lawrence, Kansas, indicated to many Northerners the madness and terror of guerrilla warfare.

Their actions, and especially the quite modern setting of their violence (and the fear it sparked), give us a different picture of the Civil War. The war encompassed types of violence well beyond the large-scale set piece battles we are familiar with, such as Gettysburg, and included forms of terror, hostage taking, random violence, and recrimination we have largely forgotten.

Railroads, Time Zones, and Interfaces

Our present time zones (Pacific, Mountain, Central, and Eastern Standard) descend from railroads and the need to coordinate traffic across vast systems that developed in the United States after the Civil War. The official date for the U.S. adoption of standard time zones was November 18, 1883. But the railroads changed the ways we thought about time before that.Time was difficult to measure and assess with its variation across so many new networks that railroads established. An early device for measuring time, a sort of time map, was developed to aid such calculations. Here is an early example from A. J. Johnson, Johnson’s New illustrated (steel plate) family atlas : with physical geography and with descriptions geographical, statistical, and historical… (New York: Johnson and Ward, 1864): 


With Washington, D.C., in the center of the time atlas, a series of concentric rings of time extend outward through the world. If the time in Washington was 12:00 noon, then the time in Dover, Delaware, was 12:06 p.m., London, England, 5:08 p.m., Vera Cruz, Mexico, 10:43 a.m. All sorts of U.S. places appeared on this time atlas side by side with Paris, London, Berlin, Calcutta, Constantinople, Rome, and the Cape of Good Hope: including Little Rock, Nashville, Galveston, Omaha, and Iowa City, among others. This diagram of time was also a statement on geography–these places were important. Of course, one could not travel on an American railroad from Dover, Del., to St. Petersburg, Russia. But the imagined space could be traversed and the network, however imperfect, was rapidly being assembled. If one could travel from Dover, Del., to Santa Fe or San Francisco, then the rapid expansion of the rail network had wider implications that Americans could easily conjure up in their projections of what lay ahead in the future. Railroads put out elaborate time tables in the 1850s to organize their schedules for passengers. At first for many lines under one hundred miles, the time tables were simple affairs–a list of a dozen depots and their stop times. On railroads running north and south, such as the Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore, there was little variation in time. But as railroads broke through the Allegheny Mountain barrier to the west, such as the Baltimore and Ohio, time tables became considerably more complex.

The 1850s marked a major shift. Americans had to read these tables and convert them as well into prices and financial costs. Here’s the rate table for the Baltimore and Ohio in 1858:


[National Archives, Record Group 92, U.S. Military Railroad Records]

Time tables were equally complex. With over two hundred miles of rail to the Pittsburgh, the B and O represented one of the first major arteries to the Ohio River and the west. The Pacific railroad, though not begun until 1864, was discussed in the 1850s as the logical next step. All sorts of implications flowed from the idea of proximity and time. “If it had been built ten years ago,” one supporter of the transcontinental railroad wrote to President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, “we should not have had a Southern Rebellion. If finished a year since, the whole road would have already been [used] in transporting troops and supplies.”  

Proponents of the transcontinental spoke also of the closing of distance and time as compelling in its own right. “In fifty hours this Capitol can be reached from the most remote parts of the country, east of the Rocky Mountains,” one Congressman explained in 1854. If the nation would construct the Pacific Railroad, the trip to San Francisco would take just six days and, he pointed out, the “entire circuit of the earth” could be traversed in 93 days. Indiana built 1,400 miles of railroad by 1856 and another 1,000 miles were projected before the close of the decade. Indiana’s Congressman cited the ingenuity of the people as the first reason for Indiana’s transformation from “an unbroken wilderness, inhabited only by the red man of the forest.” But closely and inextricably woven into his explanation was the railroad. The railroad made possible ingenuity’s promise. He was sure that “settlement and cultivation” would follow the railroad, and “civilization, enterprise, and wealth” would be the natural result. Such confidence came hand-in-glove with railroad expansion in these years and the widening sense that time could be mastered and controlled.

Long before time zones ordered and regularized the American landscape into discrete sections, the railroads actually created interfaces to their growing networks: elaborate time tables, rate tables, and time atlases for the public to visualize their place on the network and their relationship to others. These abstractions were an important break in how Americans thought of time and geography and of themselves.    

Southern Slavery and Modernity?

When The Railroad Advocate, a trade journal published out of New York, wanted to assess the state of southern railroads in 1855, the editor, Zerah Colburn, sent a special correspondent on a tour of the South. What’s surprising is just how different these reports were from the classic and well-known travel account of Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey In the Seaboard Slave States (1856). Olmstead’s view was that southern roads were poorly built and inefficiently run, a symbol of wastefulness that he thought characterized much of slavery-based southern society.

But Colburn’s correspondent reported a different story. On the Seaboard and Roanoke, a road Olmstead traveled too, he found it “well managed” and “well constructed.” The locomotives were built by the nation’s finest manufacturer, the shops were equipped with “the best tools.” The entire enterprise was impressive. On the North Carolina Central, a road over 200 miles long and without a grade exceeding 50 feet and laid with the best 60 pound iron rails available, he discovered “one of the best constructed [roads] in the country” running locomotives from the very best manufacturers. Indeed, they were the most “beautiful machines in the country.”

When he arrived in Savannah, Georgia, moreover, the railroad station there stunned and surprised him. “To say that Savannah, Georgia, is likely to have the most complete and elegant railroad station in the country (besides being one of the very largest) may be a matter of some surprise to northern and western railroad men.” The building was 800 feet long and 63 feet wide, designed in a modern style and rivaled only by a few stations in the nation, the ones in Boston and Baltimore. The road was equipped with engines exhibited at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition. The yards included 6 parallel tracks, with over three miles of railroad, a remarkably large and extensive facility. The shops held the best work benches and lathes in the business, “the best we’ve seen.”

All of these railroads were both worked and made possible by slave labor. According to Colburn’s journal, Southern railroads had achieved through slavery an extraordinary level of quality construction at half the cost of northern and western railroads. And the low cost of construction through the use of slaves prompted “astonishment in more northern communities.” There was much to admire about these southern efficiencies, Colburn wrote: no contractors scamming the roads for high profits, no inflated costs and padding of contracts, no secretive promoters keeping the public at arms length while they engineered a boondoggle.

In 1855 then the South’s railroads appeared the envy of the nation, built at a level of efficiency no northern line could manage and equipped at the very highest levels of quality. Although Olmstead was critical of southern trains, the rates of delay and inconvenience were not so different from travel in the North.

Historian Mark Smith (Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the Antebellum South, University of North Carolina Press, 1997) has examined the ways that slaveholders adopted modern technology and time keeping techniques for their bound labor. In every respect Smith argues that the South was adapting these devices at the same rates and with the same effects as the North.

So, we need to revise our view of the South as a place resistant to modernity because in many ways it makes it too easy to dismiss the antebellum South as doomed to extinction or incompatible with modern America. The South wanted modern progress, was complicit in it, and embraced it. That it did so with slavery at the core of its economic and social structure should give us pause. Slavery probably would not have died out on its own in the South, at least not because of modernity and its progress in the form of railroads, telegraphs, and cities.

Although we must consider more evidence than Colburn’s The Railroad Advocate and recognize the biases of these pro-railroad development journals, we should at least understand that southern modernity appeared quite differently to Americans in 1855. When the best engines in the world were outfitted on Southern lines, when the longest tunnels in the world were excavated with slave labor, when the greatest and most modern architectural designs were drafted for Southern railroad stations, few observers probably missed their significance for the way the white South understood itself. We should try to recover this lost sensibility of the South’s commitment to modernity, because among other reasons it will make us see the Civil War, when it did come, in a different light.

Moby Dick and the Problem of Slavery

Deep in the midsection of Moby Dick (1851), in chapter 55 to be precise, on “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales,” Herman Melville takes his readers on a little tour of the various blunders that scientists, painters, and sign makers have made in attempting to represent the whale accurately. They have all erred, Melville suggests, because the “living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait.” In fact, to see a whale out of the water accurately enough to represent it would be impossible. “Mortal man” can’t lift the whale out of the water “so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations.” The only way for men to hoist the whale out and to get a look at him is to kill him first, and, of course, then all of the whales “undulations” are lost.

In a startling summation, Melville tells you that “there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.”

So, what does this whale symbolize? Is it the modernity of capitalism and industry, which we can only glimpse in parts? Is Captain Ahab’s ship the United States heading toward sectional break up in the pursuit of wealth, power, and violence? Is Ahab John C. Calhoun, bent on taking the U.S. down in a twisted quest of revenge, pride, or self-loathing?

Early on in Moby Dick, we learn that the whale and the whaling industry has extended its network across the seas to distant lands. It has created wealth and power and shaped lives far beyond those who set out at sea to harpoon the creatures. “Nowhere in all America,” Melville’s narrator tells us, “will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? How planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country? Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

The wealth of America, then, was extracted, pulled out of the ocean, or the soil, or the forest, or the mine. Melville was up to something new here with his vision of the ships of the whaling fleet and the homes of New Bedford as part of a vast, complex, dark system, a network extending to the far corners of the earth.

While Melville was writing Moby Dick, a New England merchant born in Massachusetts, named Asa Whitney, was lobbying Congress to pass legislation to promote the building of a transcontinental railroad. In his detailed treatise on the subject, A Project for the Pacific published in 1849, Whitney emphasized the global networks of trade that seemed to him to be governed by Nature. To explain the “geographical division formed by nature” that kept the Pacific’s economy distant from the Atlantic’s, Whitney turned to whaling as his chief example.

Like Melville, Whitney sensed that whole economies were shifting in the wake of capitalism, but unlike Melville, Whitney had unbounded optimism in the modern changes all around him and in technological progress specifically. In fact, Whitney’s faith in the railroad and telegraph technology was so deep that he thought the transcontinental railroad would work exclusively to the United States’ advantage. Technology would fundamentally alter the dominant geographies that Nature determined–the flow of rivers, the aridity of certain zones, the mountainous barriers between regions.

Whitney saw Nature’s limitations all around him. With the opening of California as a base of operations, whaling as an industry, “that important branch of commerce,” would inevitably pick up and move to the Pacific coast. Whitney predicted the whaling fleet would shift wholesale from New Bedford to the Pacific for ease of access to the whales, and the East Coast would lose a powerful industry to the natural arrangement of geography and commerce. By 1849, he argued, the transition was already underway. Only through a planned and massive intervention–a transcontinental railroad–could Nature’s hold be broken and the flow of change be redirected, not just in whaling but in other industries as well.

Whitney’s brief mention of whaling, however, was less significant than his outright defense of free labor. Whitney thought that the railroad would create an independent class of free men, citizens who were not dependent on anyone or any institution–in other words, who were not enslaved. The railroad workers would be laborers for a transitional period only, as they would inevitably set up in homesteads along the railroad line. Working on the railroad would be a stepping stone for immigrants to move toward independence. Whitney’s long commentary to assuage any concerns about the problem of immigrant laborers, especially Irish and Germans, reveals just how widespread these concerns were. White Americans, especially Northerners, thought that racial difference, dependency, and destitution spawned slavery and threatened government.

The Pequod sets sail with a crew from all corners of the earth. With Captain Ahab at the helm the ship plunges forward into the seas with one overriding purpose, to hunt the one white whale in the ocean and exercise vengeance on it, casting aside all concerns for individuals who might alter this course. The crew includes Ishmael, the New England adventurer, his bunkmate Queequeg, a dark-skinned South Pacific islander, a man who came from a place “not down on any map.” As well as Pip, the young cabin boy, possibly born a slave, possibly free born.

“Who ain’t the slave,” Melville’s main narrator and protagonist Ishmael reminds us. Andrew Delbanco’s recent biography of Melville (Melville, His World and Work, Knopf 2005) stresses the importance of slavery for Melville’s outlook in the years he wrote Moby Dick. The Pequod’s labor system was not terribly different from slavery in its force, brutality, danger, and punishment. Delbanco compares it to the American army and the construction crews used to build the American railroads and canals of the 1850s and earlier. Melville in Moby Dick tells us of the terrible consequences of enslavement and power. What Ahab wants are tools, to do his work and to bend to his indomitable will. What he has on his ship are men, of course, but they are used in Ahab’s service nonetheless.

Like the leviathan, slavery proved remarkably difficult to render accurately. It was almost impossible to paint a portrait of such a diverse, global, exploitative, and complex institution. Killing it would lose its “undulations.” Nevertheless, the only way to get a fair picture of the whale–or perhaps slavery–was to go “a whaling yourself.”