The Railroad and the State

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Robert G. Angevine. The Railroad and the State: War, Politics, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2004. Pp. xvii, 351. Cloth $65.00.

Summary

Contents:

1: internal Improvements, the State, and the Military in the Early National Period, 1800-1827

2: The U.S. Military Academy and Engineering Expertise, 1802-1832

3. Railroads and the Rhetoric of National Defense, 1827-1838

4. Surveying the Railroads and the Military Approach to Industrial Development, 1827-1838

5. Railroads, Resignations, and the Rise of Military Professionalism, 1832-1848

6. A New Phase in the Relationship Between the Army and the Railroads, 1848-1861

7. The Civil War and the Beginning of Army-Railroad Cooperation, 1861-1865

8. Civilization, Concentration, and the Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, 1865-1870

9: The Fruits of Symbiotic Exchange, 1870-1898


Robert Angevine argues that a critical aspect of the creation of the modern American state was the role of the military in defining national infrastructure. His goal is to connect the struggle for identity within the community of military engineers with the need for nationalized transportation infrastructure. The tension between traditionalist military engineers who pursued coastal fortification as the key objective of defense infrastructure and a new class of engineer enthusiastic for the creation of dual military-civil transportation infrastructure sets the background for yet another statement on why the Civil War was so critical in defining the bounds of national authority. He also seeks to chart the creation of an early military-corporate symbiosis that was highly instrumental in defining the application of military power to western native populations. In his estimation, war is critical to the state’s definition of relationship between government, commerce and national policy.

Commentary

Roger D. Connor, Spring, 2012

Angevine’s narrative portrays regional railroads benefitting materially from a cadre of West Point graduates who provide the technical basis for railroad construction at a time when civil engineering was not taught outside of West Point. The struggle for limited resources between internal improvements and fortification made for a minimal impact on railroad expansion beyond providing a cadre of engineers who were easily enticed away from military service in the antebellum years.

The Civil War constituted a major shift by placing railroads in a critical role in mobility, which required national administration for coordination and efficiency. This necessitated federal interference into private enterprise resulting in a symbiotic, if occasionally contentious, partnership between government and industry. However, Angevine’s principal interest in Civil War railroading is not the North’s successful strategic use or the South’s inability to capitalize on their railroads, but rather the impetus to implement transcontinental railroads for strategic goals and the establishment of a cadre of Army leaders, namely Grant, Sherman and Sheridan who were convinced of the strategic value of railroads over fortifications and who themselves fostered close (perhaps inappropriately close) relationships with the railroads.

Angevine’s most engaging section is the use of the transcontinental railroad efforts (principally the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific) which he argues were at the center of another symbiotic relationship between corporate interests and the military. The military, mainly under the direction of Sherman and Sheridan, utilized the transcontinental construction through the heart of native lands as provocation to force military confrontations that would force a resolution of the “indian problem.” In exchange, the railroads gained protection for their survey and construction crews while simultaneously receiving a steady supply of revenue for transporting troops and supplies at a moment in time when the trunk lines did not have the commercial revenue to be self-sustaining.

Angevine’s mapping of this early military-industrial complex that so shaped the cultural geography and racist legacies of the nineteenth century is highly useful. However, it raises some unanswered questions. While he argues that the failure to formally codify symbiotic relationships led to a failure of execution in the Spanish American War, he does not draw this experience out to its larger conclusion, instead being satisfied to cut off his narrative arbitrarily at the end of the nineteenth century. The extensive expansion of the Army Railway Service in the First and Second World Wars would hint that perhaps the experience was not a symbiotic as he portrayed, otherwise, why did the military bypass contract services in both conflicts and instead construct their own railroads and rolling stock operated with their own crews? An even more interesting parallel went unmentioned – the Berlin Airlift and the creation of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which seemed to adhere to a model very similar to what Angevine was implying should have been done in the interim before 1898.

Another concern is that Angevine makes the sweeping statement that “the sophistication of the military organizational model prompted railroads to incorporate the army’s detailed operating regulations, hierarchical authority and regularized accounting and to adapt them for their own uses.” [229] Beyond simply being an over-reach of evidence that he does not provide, the effectiveness of military accounting and managerial procedures has been called into question far too many times over the centuries to allow such a flip statement. There is also the concern that he attributes too much deterministic agency to the railroad itself, by noting that “railroads would bring settlement” and thus suppression of native populations. Given that the land grant policies of Congress towards railroads are what brought settlers, Angevine is lax in strictly defining the limits of influence inherent in railroads. Access to markets was clearly a consideration in some aspects of western movement, but he overplays it in the context of the early 1870s.

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