historian, author, film producer

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.