Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 200-201
[Access article in PDF]
Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat. By John E. Clark, Jr. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. Pp. 275. Cloth $34.95.)
Railroads in the Civil War consists of two quite different parts: a detailed description of the rail movements of Confederate and Union forces from Virginia to Tennessee in the autumn of 1863, and an extended essay arguing that the Confederacy might have won the Civil War with better management of its railroads and the war effort as a whole. The result is an ambitious, highly readable book, but Clark's conclusion that "With moderately competent management of its war effort, the Confederacy might very well have succeeded" is more an interesting conjecture but ultimately not a persuasive thesis (233).
The description of the rail movements of 1863 is the strongest part of the work. Combing the diaries and papers of government officials, railroad executives, and ordinary soldiers, Clark skillfully weaves his archival research into a readable narrative. Readers get a clear sense of how both Confederate and Union decision-makers conceived of these massive troop movements and how well the two respective railroad systems worked to transfer thousands of troops from Virginia to Tennessee. For Clark, the lesson from these troop movements is clear: the inferior management of the Confederacy's railroads hindered the mass movement of troops and [End Page 200] resources. He blames poor Confederate rail management for the inability of thousands of James Longstreet's troops to reach the critical battle of Chickamauga, while he extols the decisive leadership that quickly sent Union reinforcements to lift the siege of Chattanooga.
On one level, Clark's argument makes sense. Southern railroads, composed of shorter lines serving smaller cities and towns, had great difficulty converting local enterprises into coherent systems. The developing trunk line system of the North—composed of massive systems such as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad—not only gave the Union far more track mileage and rolling stock, but also executives with the talent and experience to better manage far-flung networks.
Clark has an important point here, but he goes too far in blaming railroad management for Confederate defeat. In the first place, it is never quite clear exactly what "war management" means. Clark implicitly defines war management to include everything from grand strategy to battlefield decisions to the daily operation of railroads and factories, making it difficult to precisely pinpoint the role of railroads. If more of Longstreet's troops had reached the battle, for example, the Confederacy might have won a more decisive victory at Chickamauga. Yet as Clark himself points out, one could easily blame the delay on Jefferson Davis, who waited weeks before sending the reinforcements (87). Even if all of Longstreet's troops had reached the battle, the overcautious Confederate general Braxton Bragg might still have failed to deliver the knockout blow (229). In what sense, then, can historians single out poor railroad management as the root cause of Confederate defeat?
Clark is also ambiguous in explaining the root causes of the Confederacy's managerial failures. He cites "Southern disdain for commerce and manufacturing" (217), but never squares such statements with his earlier indictment of southern railroad executives, who supposedly practiced "outrageously unfettered capitalism" during the war (41). Nor does Clark adequately explain why Southerners developed a centralized bureaucracy to enforce conscription and collect taxes, yet failed to centralize railroad management out of respect for state rights and local control.
The most troubling element of Clark's thesis, though, is that he fails to distinguish between the resources each side could devote to the war, and how they managed those resources. Clark frequently praises Northern managers, but he sometimes ignores the fundamental fact that they could call upon the Union's factories and foundries to quickly produce more rails, more locomotives, and more rolling stock. Confederate managers, on the other hand, faced debilitating shortages of raw materials, finished goods, and skilled workers. The erosion of slavery—...