by Eugene Alvarez
Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 222.
Illus., map, diagr., appends, notes, biblio., index. $24.95 paper. ISBN: 0817354832
Riding the Southern Rails
Originally published in 1974, this is a surprisingly neglected work, but a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in the Civil War. Prof. Alvarez (Emeritus Georgia), does much more than just give us a very readable treatment of the origins and evolution of “rail roads” in the Southern states.
Railroading came early to the South, with some lines being among the first in the United States. Alvarez of course gives us a good account of the planning, financing, construction, technology, and operation of the various rail lines in the South. He gives us a look at the political and social aspects of the origins and expansion of the Southern rail net; Charleston, for example, was among the first Southern cities to back rail road construction, primarily out of a desire to one-up Savannah as a cotton port.
Alvarez also shows how the social customs of the day affected and were affected by the new form of transportation. Railroading even had complex effects on the institution of slavery; On some lines engineers or track bosses or mechanics were often slaves, and their technical expertise forced adjustments to racial norms.
Although Alvarez’s account ends in 1860, he offers considerable material on how prewar developments played an important role in how the war unfolded, such as the multiplicity of track gauges and the lack of connectivity between lines. A great read for railroad buffs, with some amusing technical information, Travel on Southern Antebellum Railroads is also of great value for military historians in helping explain why the South’s rail net ultimately failed.
Note: Travel on Southern Antebellum Railroads is also available in several e-editions.
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