- Engines of Redemption: Railroads and the Reconstruction of Capitalism in the New South by R. Scott Huffard Jr.
For decades scholars have used the South to debate the nature of capitalism. R. Scott Huffard Jr.’s lively Engines of Redemption: Railroads and the Reconstruction of Capitalism in the New South offers a fresh take on this topic by using the railroad as a lens into the role of capitalism in transforming the New South. Railroads brought southerners into “the most direct contact imaginable” with the capitalist system while also serving as powerful symbols of capitalism, and Huffard skillfully shows that capitalism was “both an economic system and a culture” (pp. 2, 5).
Huffard deepens our understanding of the New South creed by demonstrating how railroad expansion underwrote its economic and cultural aspects. Rail lines highlighted the role of local company officials in rebuilding the region, while regional networks were deployed as evidence that the South had reconciled with the rest of the nation. Nowhere was this reconciliation more evident than the change to standard gauge in 1886, which reflected “how a decision that seemed strictly economic in nature could be influenced by culture” (p. 38).
Railroads also supported the racial vision of white boosters. Black southerners sought to take advantage of new opportunities for labor, mobility, and consumer activity. Yet they faced dangerous stereotypes deployed by white officials intended to keep them from enjoying the fruits of the railroad through segregation and violence, while also having their own role in building and working on railroads erased.
In Huffard’s telling, railroad companies did not reflect the corporate order described by Alfred Chandler so much as they served as “an agent of chaos” (p. 7). This chaos was a feature of capitalism, not a bug, and the core chapters of Engines of Redemption are focused on the “phantasmagoria” of the South’s railroads (chap. 2).
As yellow fever spread along rail corridors in the 1870s, for instance, it led communities to limit travel and impose quarantines—a process Huffard characterizes as “an upside-down version of the New South creed” (p. 134). The frequency of railroad wrecks exposed dangerous aspects of capitalism, but railroads deflected blame and limited their liability by mobilizing racially charged fears that Black wreckers were preying on trains. Even train wreck ballads glorified heroic individuals and ignored regional infrastructural deficiencies that caused wrecks. Train robbers like Rube Burrow and Railroad Bill [End Page 133] were not anticapitalists frustrated with the new order. By taking advantage of mobility and railroad standardization to accrue wealth, they also believed in “capitalism distilled to its purest and most violent form” (p. 197). Railroad officials also defused the most potent challenge to railroad capitalism—the Populist revolt of the 1890s—by installing and supporting politicians who would offset the firebrands challenging monopolies, securing the power of railroad corporations until well into the twentieth century.
Engines of Redemptions is deeply researched and makes significant contributions to southern history and the history of capitalism. Railroads have been a constant presence on the sidelines of many histories, but Huffard centers them and deepens our understanding of how these systems transformed lives and how southerners reacted to them. Huffard’s use of folktales and train songs as sources gives voice to those whose lives were changed in wrenching ways but have not been represented in past works. Huffard also moves beyond debates about how exploitative forms of labor squared with a capitalist ethos. By examining other features of capitalism, he concludes that the New South was not a capitalist “aberration, but . . . a function of untrammeled capitalism,” bringing needed attention to the destructive features embedded in the system (p. 5).
This excellent book will be the definitive account of New South railroads that pushes debates about capitalism in productive new directions. These contributions, combined with Huffard’s spirited narrative and the gripping new stories he...