Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society

by Aaron Marrs

The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Dr. Owen Brown and Dr. Gale E. Gibson

The railroads occupy an iconic place in the historiography of America’s development, from a predominantly agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse. The construction of railroads across America played an integral role in moving goods and people, and in the process, revolutionized inter and intra-state commerce. Additionally, it reduced the social distance between the cities of the Northeast and the emerging cities along the Mississippi River, such as St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.

It provided a powerful impetus for white homesteaders to populate the West in search of arable land, contributing to the last phase of the Indian wars and the marginalization of indigenous people. In the South, the “iron horse” united whites that were hitherto separated by vast commercial agricultural holdings that were built on the perpetuation of slave labor.

It may be difficult for many Americans, who grew up in a time where air travel and automobiles have eroded the dominance and glamour of travel by rails, to believe that once upon a time a ride on a coal driven locomotive constituted a special occasion that the young and old looked forward to with great anticipation; and for states such as Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee, the arrival of the railway was a cause for celebration and a powerful indication that your community was in the orbit of the technological revolution that was transforming the world.

In great contrast to today, where Amtrak is struggling to implement a viable business model amidst the record decline in ridership on American railroads since the 1950s, it may be difficult to believe that our nation’s industrial might was once intricately connected to its railroad networks. Aaron Marr’s (2009) recently published Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society is an attempt to re-acquaint readers with the majesty and grandeur that once characterized America’s railroads.

Marr is an archivist by training, and Railroads in the Old South began its journey to publication as the author’s doctoral dissertation. Marrs’ subject matter is the development of railroads in the American South, and the book’s temporal boundaries are the mid-1820s to the American Civil War. Railroads represents an ambitious endeavor to recreate the social and economic context in the Antebellum South that embraced and integrated this new technology in a society that many writers have erroneously characterized as economically backwards vis-à-vis its northern counterpart. Despite the utilization of slave labor, the southern region of America in the first half of the nineteenth century was an important region of the evolving capitalist world economy. As such, the arrival of the railroad and its integration into the social fabric of southern society should not be viewed as an anomaly, but rather as a process of social transformation driven by innovation and opportunities for financial profits. While the author’s exposition fails to illustrate this point, it succeeds in describing in intricate details the technical, financial, and social challenges that accompanied the building of the railroads in the Old South.

Methodologically, in delineating the stories behind the building of railroads in the Antebellum South, the author organizes his narrative chronologically into seven chapters. Each chapter addresses important aspects of the building of the southern railroad system. Chapter one, entitled Dreams, is primarily concerned with retelling the challenges that proponents of this new technology had in convincing an often skeptical public that the railroad was the way to the future. As such, it delineates the fact that while the railway represented the leading edge of the technological revolution during the mid-1820’s, its victory in the South was by no means assured. It faced formidable challenges from other modes of transportation, such as riverboats and canals. Moreover, the dearth of private investors with the requisite capital to finance such large construction projects as building a railroad, led its advocates to turn to state governments as viable funding sources.

Some landowners, astutely aware of the potential financial windfall, attempted to secure the largest prices for the sale of their land to railroad companies, while others attempted to stymie progress by their refusal to relinquish their land holdings. According to Marrs, railroad advocates addressed these challenges with a three-pronged attack. First, they argued that railroads were technologically superior to other forms of transportation. Second, they popularized the idea that Southerners would benefit from the increase in commercial activities associated with this technology. Third, they believed that railroads would “bind the union together.” Ultimately, this approach was efficacious in winning support for this nascent and unproven technology.

Knowledge is the title of Chapter two, and it familiarizes the reader with the newly emerging occupation of civil engineers. Civil engineers were the men charged with building railroads. They gave physical form to railroad advocates’ dreams of constructing a remarkable series of railroads by the eve of the Civil War. As Marrs correctly observed, “These engineers supplement book learning by creating an intellectual community whose body of knowledge and expertise was built on experimentation, lessons learnt from failures in an era where institutional training programs were in an embryonic state of development.”

Sweat, which is the title of Chapter three, documents the abundant use of slave labor in the construction of southern railroads. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the utilization of slave labor was not limited to agricultural production, but was also employed in industrial production. As Marrs illustrates in Sweat, engineers and contractors employed slave laborers extensively in the construction of railroad networks throughout the South. The use of slave labor in railway construction rivaled that of agriculture. Marrs cites the following evidence to illustrate this point:

“The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad’s force of 435 hired slaves in 1856 outpaced every Virginia plantation in 1850 save one and would have ranked sixth in 1860. Compared to Tennessee plantations, the company’s slave force would have ranked second in both 1850 and 1860. The Southwestern Railroad’s 498 hands in 1850 made it larger than all but two Georgia slaveholdings that same year. While railroad workers were not necessarily concentrated in a single area as they would be on plantations, railroads involved some of the largest mobilizations of manpower in southern states before the Civil War. Projects of this scale were unprecedented.”

Despite its importance and applicability beyond agriculture, slave labors’ potential role in industrial production have received scant attention in the historiography of this period. As Stephen Steinberg observed in Occupational Opportunities and Race, “if the perception of black laborers was not held captive by the passions and erroneous cultural beliefs of a race biased society, then there may not have been a need for the Civil Rights movement and the socio-economic status of African Americans in contemporary American society, arguably, may have been vastly improved.”

Chapter four, titled Structure, reveals that southern railways were exposed to the same market pressures as their northern counterparts. As such, they had to implement similar managerial structures and organizational techniques that would in turn ensure the commercial success of the large financial investment inherent in railroad production and operation. These managerial methods of control resulted in the introduction of train schedules, rules and regulations designed to dictate employees’ on-the-job performance, and the introduction of equipment and services tailored to the needs of railways riders and other commercial end-users. These managerial and organizational practices were consistent with the practices of northern railways that in Marrs’ words “…valued efficiency, time management, and bureaucratic accountability.”

In short, southern railroads were not immune to market pressures, and while sentimentalities may have buttressed the argument of those whom pointed to the uniqueness of a “southern way of life,” ultimately what mattered most to those responsible for operating and maintaining the southern railroads was the return on the initial investment. It’s here we can see market calculations in its naked form, devoid of southern sentimentality, with its need for uniformity and predictability as illustrated by the striking similarity in managerial organization and control of northern and southern railways.

Chapter five, titled Motion, addresses three important aspects of railways’ operations. These three aspects are the demand of freight, conflict with nature, and accidents. Marrs examines how these three factors impacted railroads operations and the strategies and procedures that were designed to deal with these challenges. Here Marrs highlighted the central feature of railroads as mechanisms that facilitated market exchange between buyers and sellers.

Trains were used to transport items ranging from artificial manures to wood. They were utilized to transport slaves as well as cotton, which constituted its primary freight. The list of items for which freight rates were established, along with the growing income derived by the Central Railroad of Georgia from 1845-1860, points to the fact that the railroads of the South were linked to regional markets, which in turn were linked to national and international markets, which ultimately made the income derived from commercial activities viable.

These local, regional, and national profit centers were linked to an international market whose epicenter was Western Europe, in general, and England, in particular. This Eurocentric dominated world economy was characterized by multiple political centers and one evolving world economy. Goods and services flowed across political boundaries and people and regions played different roles in the emerging world wide division of labor. In the South, the utilization of the railroads, slave labor, and a system of belief which Eugene Genovese termed the “Political Economy of Slavery,” may well have served to obfuscate this reality. Nevertheless, a close examination of freight records and the annual incomes of southern railroad companies revealed commercial considerations that are very well known to today’s businessmen and women. Specifically, the need to charge competitive prices for your services; to control the impact of nature on business operations and to minimize the liabilities associated with accidents.

Chapters six and seven are titled Passages and Communities, respectively. These Chapters address the different constituencies that utilized this new technology and the appeal that travel by rail held for Antebellum travelers. Specifically, the people of the South did not view the railroads as a purely economic engine for social transformation. Marrs illustrates that railroads held a powerful social meaning, as well, in that they “were not simply faceless corporations, but were vital parts of the communities that they served.” The arrival of the railroads brought tangible benefits to communities in which they were built and as such were cause for celebrations. In short, they linked communities and gave residents a sense of pride.

While Marrs’ narrative is informative and well organized, it nevertheless suffers from some minor deficiencies. These deficiencies are its:

  • Failure to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Southern railroad;
  • Failure to provide a convincing narrative linking Southern culture, slavery, and progress, and
  • Failure to provide a convincing argument as to why railroads held a deeper meaning to Southern society than simply haulers of goods and people.

I will briefly discuss each of these points to illustrate the potential of Railways in the Old South and to deepen our understanding of the role of slave labor and capitalist agriculture in the Antebellum South. In so doing, it could serve to dispel the myth that slave labor was backwards and incompatible with capitalist labor arrangements, which is presumed to be modern and progressive.

First, the process of railroad construction and rationalization was not unique to the South. As Hobsbawn remarked, “The spread of railways and, to a lesser extent, steamships, now introduced mechanical power into all continents and into otherwise unindustrialized countries. The arrival of the railway was in itself a revolutionary symbol and achievement, since the forging of the globe into a single interacting economy was in many ways the most far reaching and certainly the most spectacular aspect of industrialization.” Given Hobsbawn and others’ remarks about the railway and its impact on travel and communications during the second half of the 19th century, I failed to understand Marrs’ argument about the uniqueness of the South.

Second, Marrs did not provide a convincing argument to support his argument about the links between Southern culture, slavery and progress. Borrowing from Eugene Genovese’s classic work, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South, Marrs attempts to convince the reader that Southern culture’s dependence on plantation and slave labor was a barrier to progress and development. In fact, Genovese does a better job of convincing readers of the uniqueness of Southern culture when he wrote, “The Pre-modern quality of the Southern world was imparted to it by its dominant slave-holding class…Slavery gave the South a special way of life because it provided the basis for a regional social order in which the slave labor system could dominate all others. Southern slavery was not ‘mere slavery’ … but the foundation on which rose a powerful and remarkable social class: a class constituting only a tiny portion of the white population and yet so powerful and remarkable as to try … to build a new, or rather to rebuild an old, civilization.”

While Genovese is correct in arguing that slavery and the cultural and legal arrangements that accompanied and supported it gave the South a distinctive character, this does not negate the fact that the South was an integral part of a larger worldwide division of labor. This division of labor is a distinctive feature of the modern world capitalist system. As Immanuel Wallerstein et al. have demonstrated, capitalism has utilized other forms of labor arrangements other than the wage labor relationship that we are accustomed to. The dominance of the slave owning class and the cultural and legal arrangements that perpetuated its dominance, does little to prove that slavery was a fetter to the further development and progress of the South.

Like the bubble, which covered the period from 1998-2001, railway during the middle of the 19th century was the latest innovation (with a tremendous profit potential) to capture the imagination and fancy of the American public. As Marrs acknowledges, “Rumors of an incredible machine had become a reality.” “Incredible” in that it reduced travel time between two distant points from days to hours. A “reality” in that as Hobsbawn observed, “that by the second half of the 19th century travel around the world in 80 days by railway and steamship had become a reality.” As early as 1842, this reality was a mere fantasy. In short, for people, governments, and the emerging middle classes of Western Europe, the railroad offered a new and more efficient means of satisfying old wants. While the railway was a “hauler of goods and people,” for those who profited from this technology and the implicit exploitative relationship embodied in this process, they experienced it as being able to employ large numbers of workers in factories in the English cities of Lancashire and Manchester, and as owners of vast tracks of land and slaves in the American South. On Wall Street, it was experienced as financiers that provided the liquid capital that underwrote this complex web of financial transactions.

In sum, while we would recommend Marrs’ book and the methodological approach to specialists in his field of archival research, it fails to realize its full potential by its inability to place Southern railroads in the context of a series of innovations rooted in the Industrial Revolution. This extraordinary period gave birth to processes that became the midwife of many technological innovations that have transformed the modern world. Contemporary scholars are apt to refer to these processes as globalization, but we would like to characterize these processes as a work in progress.

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