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  • Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society
  • Angela Lakwete (bio)

Railroads, South, Race

Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society. By Aaron W. Marrs. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2009. Pp. xi, 268. Cloth, $55.00.)

Driving a nail into the coffin of southern exceptionalism, Aaron Marrs argues that southerners differed little from their northern counterparts in their embrace of the railroad. He confronts a historiography that has overemphasized the faults and downplayed the achievements of southern railroads. With evidence ranging from annual reports of railroad companies to interviews of former slaves, Marrs finds that while southerners laid fewer miles and invested less capital than northern lines, they anticipated the modern firm structure, attracted competent civil engineers, and effectively integrated slave labor. With rolling stock built in the South and North, they shipped out cotton, shipped in an array of consumer goods, and sped passengers, free and enslaved, to their destinations. In 1833 and again in 1845 the world’s longest lines ran on southern soil. Far from spurning the new technology and the modernity it signified, southerners, Marrs concludes, pursued both while sustaining the institution of slavery. [End Page 165]

The analysis begins in a stagnating Charleston in the late 1820s. Boosters imagined that a railroad to Hamburg, across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, would reinvigorate the city. Others across the South joined them in appealing to state legislatures to charter railroads. Idealistically, they claimed that railroads would unify the fledgling nation. Realistically, they sought an alternative to existing turnpikes and steamboats, increasingly perceived as slow, unreliable, and politically entrenched. Marrs measures enthusiasm by the few lawsuits from planters who lost land under the law of eminent domain, concern by the complaints of citizens fearful for the safety of their property, and caution by the warnings of fiscal conservatives like William Gregg and James Henry Hammond. State legislatures listened to enthusiasts and invested in private railroad companies at twice the national average.

Boosters imagined and legislators chartered but civil engineers and enslaved men built southern railroads. With few schools of engineering in the United States, ambitious men traveled south for on-the-job experience, undeterred by slavery. Marrs tracks John Edgar Thomson, chief engineer on the Georgia Railroad, better known for his association with the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Pennsylvania-born Thomson routinely bought men for the Georgia Railroad in 1830s. That he purchased instead of hiring the men reflected a vacillating position of southern companies on slavery. Companies debated not the use of slaves but rather the profitability of owning against hiring them, Marrs explains. Whether they were hired or purchased, enslaved railroad workers constituted a labor force larger than the largest plantations. While some white workers occupied management positions, most worked alongside enslaved men on the track and in the machine shop. Particularly valuable is his analysis of wage rates. Using an 1845 payroll from a Virginia line, Marrs shows that the wages the company paid to a slave owner and to the slave for overwork totaled less than the wages it paid to an equivalent white worker. The arrangement rendered white labor expensive and less employable. In a brief but effective section Marrs describes the work the men did. In the South as in the North, men prepared the roadbed, laid timber and crossties, and drove in strap-iron rail for hundreds of miles.

Marrs reveals that the southern railroad company anticipated the bureaucratic structure that would define the modern business enterprise. Using the letterbooks of civil engineer John McRae, Marrs unfolds the administrative apparatus and technical changes that led to greater efficiencies in moving passengers and transporting goods and crops. Arguing [End Page 166] forcefully against what he coins the “U.B. Phillips Model,” he demonstrates that few southern trains relied exclusively on cotton shipments. Marrs pulls data from the freight rate tables of five railroads to illustrate the array of goods shipped to the interior and the income derived. He charts the value of noncotton shipments against the value of cotton shipments, showing that even when cotton production increased over the antebellum period noncotton shipments climbed. Laying to rest the fiction of the...


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