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The Iron Way, By William G. Thomas


Last revised: May 9, 2023

The Iron Way, by William Thomas, looks at the role the railroads played both before the Civil War, during the conflict, and after Reconstruction took place.

It should be noted, however, that the book is not a historical documentation of the tactics in how trains decided the war.

While it does describe how each side, North and South, used their railroads Mr. Thomas also details their larger implications in shaping modern society and helping to find African Americans' place as free people (this latter topic is discussed at length through the book, particularly in the later chapters).

The immense amount of research and correct history covered in the The Iron Way is really quite fascinating and interesting as Mr. Thomas dispels some long-held myths about railroads during the war.

As such, whether you have an interest in railroads, the Civil War, or simply the history of the United States during those turbulent years this book is a must-read.

The book begins with the prologue, which highlights the topics to be discussed such as describing Asa Whitney's vision of seeing the United States connected by railroads as early as the 1840s.

Mr. Thomas also touches on the role trains played for enslaved African Americans and the idea of freedoms the new technology represented.

About mid-way through this section you learn the three central themes to be discussed; the new modern society trains allowed, personal mobility, and finally the idea of freedom this new form of transportation represented for all races (from Irish and Italian immigrants to African Americans).

The prologue concludes by looking at the role the U.S. Military Railroads played in shaping the outcome of the conflict, especially in the later years.

The Iron Way's opening chapter highlights slavery in the South and the region's railroads.

Interestingly, while the North had a strong manufacturing base the South was well-equipped with a modern railroad network which the book describes in great detail.

It was this network, built using to a greater extent slave-labor, that allowed the South to see itself as its own nation-state and resentment towards the North.

The rapid development of railroads in the South during the 1850s was, as mentioned above, due to slavery and it was so intertwined within its industry that it provided for collateral as well as much lower construction costs (both topics of which are covered in great detail).

The second chapter, in contracts, looks at railroads in the North and their use of paid labor, usually Irish, German, or Italian immigrants to complete new lines and related projects.

The title of chapter three, "Secession and a Modern War", frankly describes what is to be discussed.

The breaking up of the Union is presented and how each side staunchly believed in their ideals, the South for its independence and the North in keeping the country together. In the succeeding chapter the early conflicts are presented and how the railroads role was first employed.

Essentially, neither side utilized their railroads very well during the early years.

However, as time wore on both became much more efficient and effective particularly the North (this point is greatly emphasized in chapter five).

Other books have described this and The Iron Way only further reinforces the argument, which was particularly true after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson was killed in 1863 (he was quite adept in employing railroads for military use).

Much of the problem for the South was two-fold. First, the Confederate States could never move the war out its region and secondly, the Union continued to strangle its counterpart as its blockade became ever more effective over time.

Both of these subjects are also covered by Mr. Thomas, particularly in chapter six. During chapter seven the reader learns how effective the Union was becoming in adopting a strategy involving the railroads.

By 1864 the North finally had effective military leadership in general, something which President Lincoln had been searching for since the war had begun in 1861 and involved top commander Ulysses S. Grant as well as William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan.

In particular, Mr. Thomas highlights Sherman's southern campaign as he focused heavily on crippling the region's railroad network and dispensed with the idea of fighting the Confederate's large armies.

In the book's final chapter, Mr. Thomas discusses emancipation and life for African Americans after the war.

While they were, indeed, free in both the North and South it took nearly another century until they were given equal rights. In chapter eight you also learn one of the true misconceptions of the aftermath of the Civil War.

The South was not left in ruins as has often been described, at least its transportation network. For the U.S. Army's part and the U.S. Military Railroads both worked to rebuild the southern lines which they controlled during the war, and actually repaired them to a better state than ever before spending millions of dollars to do so.

As per President Lincoln's request, the railroads were simply handed back over to their same owners once the conflict ended.

The book concludes with an epilogue, which looks at the railroad industry following the Civil War as it expanded westward and completed the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

As Mr. Thomas describes in the book the completion of this route had a far greater impact than simply bridging the nation, it also was symbolic to many Americans as a return to modernity and a move past the long and bloody war that took place earlier that decade.

Overall, the review of the book I have provided here is a just a fraction of the topics discussed in The Iron Way and as mentioned before I would very much recommend purchasing it. 


Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives. 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website. 

It is quite staggering and a must visit!