Robert G. Angevine. The Railroad and the State: War, Politics, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. xvii + 351 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-4239-9.
Reviewed by Wayne Wei-Sang Hsieh (Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University)
Published on H-War (February, 2005)
Railroading and the New Military History
Robert G. Angevine's monograph on the nineteenth-century U.S. Army and railroads aims to use its topic as "a valuable prism through which to study the response of a military establishment to technological change, the development of American military thought, the origins of military-industrial cooperation, and the political evolution of the United States" (p. xiii). The wide scope of these topics makes the work historiographically diverse, although perhaps the most effective means of viewing Angevine's study within the existing scholarship is to see his work as first-and-foremost a representative of the "new military history." Angevine never refers to his work as such, but his study's forbearance with regards to operational or tactical history, his emphasis on the influence institutional and political culture had on the American military's relationship with railroads, as opposed to objective military and technological criteria, make such a classification analytically useful. This scholarly vantage point allows Angevine to connect a study that focuses on the American army and railroads with a wide variety of social institutions and phenomena, including but not limited to such wide-ranging topics as debates over internal improvements in the antebellum period to post- Civil War westward expansion and settlement. Military historians with a more operational bent, including the reviewer at hand, might prefer a fuller treatment of strictly military questions, but Angevine's study works well on its own terms.
The Railroad and the State covers the entire nineteenth century, beginning with debates over internal improvements in the early national period and ending with the Spanish American War. It covers the role played by the army during the first decades of the nineteenth century in providing technical assistance to internal improvements of, in the words of the General Survey Act of 1824, "national importance, in a commercial or military point of view, or necessary for the transportation of the public mail" (p. 18). These qualifications, especially in the wake of severe problems with military transportation during the War of 1812, made military assistance to internal improvements palatable to a public that still possessed republican suspicions of federal authority. The precedents leading up to the survey act, combined with the early monopoly of engineering expertise possessed by the United States Military Academy at West Point, made military assistance to the burgeoning railroad industry of antebellum America a natural fit.
Early American railroad developers in the late 1820s and 1830s frequently cited the military advantages of railroads in order to lobby for federal assistance. In their view, "railroads' rapid all-weather transport capabilities promised to solve the country's three primary security problems during the antebellum period: foreign invasion, Native American unrest, and slave rebellion" (p. 43). Angevine treats this rhetoric skeptically, arguing that "many of the claims made by railroads regarding the military value of their lines appear, in retrospect, to be no more than ploys to win funds and technical assistance from the national government" (p. 51). Furthermore, the later arguments of some railroad promoters that the new technology made large standing armies and seacoast fortifications unnecessary hardly endeared it to an increasingly professional and engineer-dominated regular army.
Nevertheless, the regular army did have a productive relationship with the nascent American railroad industry. Angevine cites the period between 1827 and 1838 as the peak of American military assistance to railroads, where West Point-trained officers brought the regular army's administrative sophistication and engineering expertise to them. However, this relationship focused for the most part on the commercial needs of railroads, as opposed to military requirements. Furthermore, "the true measure of a railroad's importance in the eyes of the War Department, however, was the political clout of its supporters rather than its national or military utility" (p. 75).
This relationship began to deteriorate, however, due to the army's increased commitment to a form of military professionalism that de-emphasized civil engineering in the West Point curriculum, increased opposition within the army to detaching officers on railroad duty at the expense of field service, and which emphasized seacoast fortifications rather than railroads as the first line of national defense. Railroads played no significant role during the Mexican War, and the regular army became for the most part indifferent to their possible military applications.
The Civil War changed matters of course, and railroads played a crucial role in Civil War strategy and logistics. Angevine focuses on broad-brush strategic, administrative, and logistical questions, but in line with his new-military-history approach, he devotes one chapter out of eight to both the Civil War and Reconstruction-era controversies over the disposition of captured southern lines. For Angevine's purposes, the railroads' significance did not lie so much in their influence on the war's operational ebb-and-flow, but in the precedent they set for a cooperative relationship between the U.S. Army and railroads where the latter remained under private ownership and control but worked in close conjunction with the military to fulfill mutually beneficial needs. This arrangement facilitated the construction of transcontinental railways and the complete pacification (in a military sense) of the Indian frontier, but it proved ill-suited for managing the mobilization needed for the Spanish-American War at the end of the century.
Angevine's treatment of the Civil War, more-than-adequate on its own terms, highlights some of the limitations of such an institutionally driven approach. Angevine is surely correct to write that "the persistent importance of organizations reveals the need to understand fully the institutional context when studying the history of technology or military history," but the importance of organizational culture and inertia cannot give a full explanation for historical events. For example, Angevine's treatment is quite subdued on how exactly his topic influenced nineteenth-century America's most spectacular armed conflict. He cites the increased logistical capacities of the railways, but he also recognizes their vulnerabilities and limitations (pp. 145-147). It is unclear how to measure the two. Furthermore, while Angevine argues that the Confederacy failed to manage adequately its railways, "contributing to Southern defeat in the war" (p. 151), one wonders if this is really more a consequence of the Confederacy's much more limited industrial base at the war's outset. Indeed, the exact relationship between railways and what is arguably the most vital historiographical question for military historians of the Civil War--why the Union won and the Confederacy lost--does not seem to concern Angevine a great deal.
Does Angevine, for example, see the war as a conflict of attrition, where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's army is forced into a siege to defend the crucial railway hub of Richmond and is defeated when crucial railways are cut, or does he subscribe to the predominant historiographical school of Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, who argue that the war was decided, on a military level at least, by Federal armies raiding and attacking Confederate economic resources? Presumably, he would concur with the former interpretation, as he refers to how "the Northern railroads, the War Department, and the army revolutionized the conduct of war" (p. 164), while the interpretation of Hattaway and Jones actually relies on the eventual emancipation of Federal armies from railways, as opposed to their utilization. Indeed, considering the railroad's vulnerability to disruption by guerillas and the continued need to use animal-drawn transport between railheads and actual troops in the field, one could also wonder exactly how revolutionary the railroad truly was to the conduct of the Civil War. This is a question Angevine does not see as sufficiently germane to his study to address directly, and in this sense, the monograph raises more than a few questions for those interested in more traditional questions of military historiography.
Of course, Angevine never claims to be fully comprehensive, and it is hardly fair to criticize a work for not conforming to a reviewer's own peculiar tastes. His interpretations seem more than plausible, his source base contains an appropriate mix of primary and secondary materials, and the work does fill an interesting lacuna in the current historical scholarship. For anyone interested in the relationship between the U.S. Army and railroads in the nineteenth century writ large, this is the place to start.
. Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 686-688.
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Wayne Wei-Sang Hsieh. Review of Angevine, Robert G., The Railroad and the State: War, Politics, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America.
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