- The Railroad and the State: War, Politics, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America
In his revised Duke University Ph.D. dissertation, Robert G. Angevine offers a "more complete and more critical history of the relationship between the U.S. Army and the railroads throughout the nineteenth century" (p. xv). The vast literature on railroads and the military, he explains, leaves crucial subjects unexamined or only partially explored. Moreover, his approach allows him [End Page 243] to analyze the army's response to technological change, the evolution of military thought, the beginnings of military-industrial cooperation, American political development, and numerous related and subsidiary themes. The author bases his volume on substantial research in primary and secondary sources.
Angevine begins his study with the army's participation in advancing transportation through the construction of roads, canals, and other public works during the early years of the new republic. The intense and shifting debate over the government's proper role in internal improvements always limited what could be done. With railroads seriously under way in the 1830s, army activity rose to a new and important level. As the nation's first and, for many years, premier engineering school, the United States Military Academy provided much of the professional staff required for surveying, building, and managing the emerging system. Around the same time, however, under the leadership of Dennis Hart Mahan and others, West Point began a significant transition away from civil engineering to concentrate on promoting military professionalism and the training which would advance it. During the Mexican War, the army's performance highlighted the positive results of the redirection. Consequently, the army's part in the spectacular railroad growth of the 1850s was much reduced from earlier decades.
Nonetheless, during the Civil War Ulysses S. Grant and his chief lieutenants worked out cooperative relations between the railroads and the army to transform the conduct of war. Moving troops and supplies with great speed and reliability, Union armies simultaneously launched continuing and devastating attacks upon Confederate railroads and other transportation modes. The new partnership continued in the Gilded Age, based on mutual advantage. The army and War Department became avid and valued supporters of transcontinental railroads and provided them with badly needed supplies, police forces for railroad settlements, and security against Native American attacks. In return, railroad executives often turned to army officers for advice and the land forces benefitted from relatively cheap and reliable transportation which advanced the military mission in numerous ways. Additionally, key officers received lavish gifts and lucrative investment opportunities from the grateful railroads. Although working well in the trans-Mississippi west, the partnership broke down in anticipating and preparing for the Spanish-American War.
The author systematically pursues and elaborately documents familiar themes which others have examined in a more cursory or piecemeal way. The richness of his provided detail is only suggested in the summary above. At times, he appears to have difficulty in developing his material in a fully coherent manner, as is exemplified by Chapter 6, and a number of his generalizations are unclear or open to question. Overall, Angevine's contribution rests more with his narrative than his analysis. Criticism aside, the author has written a useful monograph.