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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 366-367

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Book Review

Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction

Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction. By Scott Reynolds Nelson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Pp. x+228. $39.95/$18.95.

Scott Nelson's Iron Confederacies unravels the extremely tangled skein of railroad politics in the corridor between Richmond, Virginia, and Georgia during and after the Civil War. The story that emerges is as harrowing as the opening scene: the escape of Jefferson Davis and his family from Richmond by train in 1865. The reader is then taken back to the days of Confederacy, and the incompatibility of interstate railroads with states' rights--a problem that bogged down the movement of supplies, arms, and men throughout the war, and led to requisitioning supplies for railroads on naval department forms to disguise the real purposes of the executive branch to the Confederate Congress.

After Appomattox, the South was if anything even more divided in its goals than it had been during the war years. The story of railroad development south from Richmond involved financial and political manipulations reminiscent of "Chapters of Erie," as a group of Southern entrepreneurs created the Seaboard Inland Air Line, a corporation that had no physical [End Page 366] reality, to unify a series of slowpoke short lines. No sooner had they done so, however, than Northerner Tom Scott intruded with plans to rival the Southern-dominated route with one controlled through the Pennsylvania Railroad. African-Americans who worked on the railroads were but one casualty of this continuation of the Civil War by other means. The Ku Klux Klan sadistically attacked them for the intrusions of Northerners on the railroads and in the Reconstruction state legislatures.

This book may be controversial for the many themes it rests on this bed of evidence. The adaptation of railroad politics to the prevailing social norms of the region; the subordination of the states to the railroad corporations; the subordination of southern labor, especially black labor, and the consequent lack of a consumer economy to buy railroad freight; and the corruption that attended all these developments--these would seem to be among the most important themes, though not the only ones meriting further examination. But the price of this accomplishment is a lack of follow-through and orderliness in presenting the supporting material. One key omission is a legal or business standard by which the story is to be judged; it is difficult to understand how the reader should distinguish "chicanery" from enterprise, or the clash of Southern and Northern interests from any other business battling typical of the time period. For example, when Nelson tells us that the same families controlled multiple transport lines, banks, and newspapers, plus seats in the state legislature, why could he not be talking about Norwich, Connecticut, where all these things held true at least through the Civil War years? What, beyond the Klan violence, ties the reader to a peculiarly Southern tale? And when midnight deals are made to cut off rail service, are we to forget that the Vanderbilts did the same thing in New York? Historical context is also slighted with regard to the Panic of 1873, which receives almost no mention.

Stricter attention to chronology and more careful editing would have clarified the narrative. For example, the first mention of telegraphs concerns their lack in the South, the second refers to telegraphing freight orders, and only third do we find that telegraph lines were erected during the war. Finally, my review copy is missing half the bibliography and all of the index.

These points made, it is also true that the author took on the very difficult job of connecting the history of the railroad to the political and social environment of the day in a blow-by-blow manner. A grim and extremely useful picture emerges of the power struggle that ensued after Appomattox, and to some extent continues to this day.

Sarah Gordon

Dr. Gordon, author of Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed...


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