1856 - Railroads and ramifications

(Enlarged versions of many of the maps below are available by clicking on them.)
















"Last year's" map - the J. H. Colton Map of Georgia, 1855



While many people in affluent nations today conceive of travel as a pleasant adventure to be enjoyed as recreation, for nearly all of human history any travel was an arduous burden for nearly everyone. Indeed, the words travel and travail are cognates. And even today the word for working in the Romance languages sounds like it, e.g. travailler in French.

The advantages that can accrue from trade - specialization, economies of scale, and the security of insurance schemes - are much less available if the costs of transportation (and communication) are high. For endless centuries, water transport - both rivers and the global ocean - was key to cheap transport. For all its exceptional prowess in constructing a massive, well-maintained network of paved long-range roads, even ancient Rome still paid more to move grain by road to Rome from its nearby port city of Ostia than to Ostia from Egyptian fields across the Mediterranean Sea. When the Roman Empire fell and their roads went into ruin, people grew much poorer. It would be much over a millenium until Europe would again know the advantages of good hard-top roads - and canals too - with the rise of an absolute French monarchy.

Aside: Even in today's world, the importance of water transport - either in nucleating prosperity in the past and/or sustaining it today - is witnessed by the following empirical observation by economist Jeffrey Sachs in 2001, when he was Director of Harvard's Center for International Development:

When I used some GIS [Geographic Information System -RF] data recently to look at the temperate zone coastal regions that are within 100 kilometres [62 miles - RF] of a navigable waterway or the ocean, it turns out that those thin strips of land... are about 8 percent of the inhabited landmass of the world. But at least 52 per cent of the world's GNP is produced in those thin strips... If you look at the landlocked countries in the world... you will find no success stories, except if you happen to be landlocked surrounded by rich countries...
The advent of low-friction railroads on leveled grades was a transportation revolution. It let people erect cheap-to-use highways in places where canals would prove impractical. Additionally, the much higher speeds possible on railroads than over water allowed goods with limited shelf life to move much further. This speed also allowed the rapid redisposition of mobile resources - a critical consideration in a large-scale enterprise like a war. And it allowed paper-borne postal mail to travel rapidly and cheaply as well.

Quantitatively: In 1816, the cost of shipping a ton thirty miles overland in the United States was the same as shipping the same ton to England... In 1817, the cost of shipping a bushel of wheat from Buffalo, New York to New York City was three times the market value of the bushel of wheat. For a bushel of corn, it was six times and for oats six times. Transportation costs across land were prohibitively expense[sive] except for very high-priced or precious items. Most goods - agricultural, handcrafted, or manufactured - were sold locally [in the early 19th century]... Whereas the cost of a ton-mile in 1815 was 70 cents, in the 1850s it had dropped to between 2 and 9 cents if shipping by railroad and one cent if shipping by canal. - source (All the same, serious scholarship in recent decades has questioned the long-range influence of the railroad on the size of the America economy by 1890.)

Railroads also had an important effect on human evolution. With their advent, people tended to more often marry others born far away, acting to homogenize genetics and culture. The Duke of Wellington, vanquisher of Napoleon and later politically active, was appalled at the mobility railroads gave people not of gentle birth. Those under the thumb of powerful others could at least aspire to find kinder such "betters" elsewhere with the help of the railroad.

Contemporary with the massive rollout of the steam-powered railroad in the early 19th century was the massive rollout of the electromagnetic telegraph. The telegraph offered an even faster (long-range-instantaneous) way for word to travel than the train - albeit at much high cost. But it also helped make the postal mail the train carried cheaper because it allowed things like the use of a single-track rail-line by trains heading in both directions, since word could be sent with no delay between sidetrack oases. And of course it greatly rationalized prices on a national (and eventually a global) scale, because important events anywhere could be known everywhere the same day.

In the maps from 1856 above, we see that while there were railroads almost everwhere, three areas enjoyed especially high concentrations of lines. First, there was the quasi-littoral areas of southern New England and the Middle Atlantic states.

Another comparable area was in western New York, forming a land bridge between Lake Ontario (connected to the global ocean via the Canadian St. Lawrence River) and Lake Erie, which two lakes were in practical isolation on account of the Niagara Falls. Western New York had long also had an important connection to the littoral US North via the Mohawk-Hudson valley and its extension, the Erie Canal, which critical corridor was later reinforced by railway as well. Indeed, it was this remarkable trans-Appalachian gap which led one-time surveyor George Washington himself to characterize New York State as the "Seat of the (American) Empire", giving it the nickname it carries to this day.

But by 1856, by far the biggest area of dense railways were three states of the (original) Northwest, carved from the trans-Appalachian area the Federal government received from the Crown in the Treaty of Paris - Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Surrounded by navigable waterways on three sides - the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Great Lakes - the railways put these waterways into cheap contact with one another and all the lands between. This enabled the rapid settlement of the region, which by 1856 held a population rapidly closing on each of the "old" (cis-Appalachian) North or the entire South. During the terrible Civil War on the horizon in 1856, this area - in which Negro slavery had never been (legally) practiced on account of its prohibition by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 - would make a Federal victory over the Confederacy possible. Following the war, the area would also become the re-united nation's "foundry" and soak up much of the massive immigration to come from Eastern Europe.

An audio-annoted slide-show detailing how network infrastructure enabled economic development, especially in Illinois, which reinforces our presentation above, can be found online here.

Many scholars assert that railroad politics greatly helped accidently precipitate the Civil War. Eager to see that the hypothetical transcontinental railroad passed through Chicago, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas needed powerful bait to get enough Southern votes, which would have otherwise naturally favored New Orleans or maybe Memphis for this railhead. The bait was 1854's Kansas-Nebraska Act, which Douglas engineered. It set into motion a competition between slave-soil and free-soil settlers which erupted into a violent conflict in Kansas. This fighting was a key issue of the election of 1856 and presaged full-scale Civil War to follow in 1861. For the potential possibilty of slave-worked land in Kansas, the South landed up losing both its slaves and the first transcontinental railroad.

An audio-annotated slide-show relating the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the creation of the Republican Party, which ran its first presidential candidate in 1856, can be found online here.

Railroads would play an important role in the lives of several men other than Douglas who sought the American presidency at the dawn of the 19th century's latter half.

The chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, George McClellan, was one of the four supreme commanders of the Federal army in the Civil War. When he proved ineffective as a leader, President Abraham Lincoln - who as a lawyer had represented the Illinois Central in precedent-setting court cases - dismissed him, only to face McClellan again in 1864, then the Democratic candidate for President.

As regards 1856, presidential candidate Fremont, who had become a national hero as an explorer, began his career as an Army engineer surveying a potential railroad route between Charleston, South Carolina (where he had attended college) and Cincinnati, Ohio. Shortly afterward he did reconnaissance here in Cherokee Georgia, in preparation for the government's forced removal of the tribe by General Winfield Scott.

Later in his career, by then an international celebrity, the son-in-law of legendary Democratic Senator Benton of Missouri, and himself the Democrat who had very briefly served as California's first Senator, Fremont led the last of his several expeditions through the Rockies, to explore a best route for a potential transcontinental railway. When he ran for president in 1856, more than one of Fremont's campaign songs exploited a railroad theme, celebrating his credentials as an engineer and explorer, and framing him as a young man of the "modern" age, in contrast to his two much older competitors, lawyer-politicans both. The multicolor national map above includes an inset showing the several potential railroad routes to this "new" west of 1856.

Like McClellan, Fremont served as a Major General in the Federal Army during the Civil War - and like McClellan, was sacked by President Lincoln for doing a poor job. Finally, just like McClellan, he was nominated to run against Lincoln in 1864, in his case, by a faction calling itself the Radical Democrats. Accepting nomination, Fremont complained: Today we have in this country the abuses of a military dictation without its unity of action and vigor of execution. But after exacting a concession from Lincoln, he withdrew from the race rather than enhance the election chances of McClellan, whose party platform called for a negotiated end to the war. Lincoln won re-election in 1864, teamed with Tennessee's "War Democrat" Andrew Johnson, running together as candidates of the Union Party.

At the left edge of the multicolor national maps above, one notes the "Indian Territory", now Oklahoma, to which our Cherokee predecessors in north Georgia were exiled but a generation earlier.

The same map also shows Virginia extending to the Ohio River. Early in the Civil War, the western counties would repudiate Virginia's secession from the Federal union and obtain admission as a Federal state. Lesser similar efforts elsewhere in the South failed, although before the war's end local people within nearly all the seceding states would raise at least one volunteer regiment for the Federal army. This included both black and white regiments.

Legal and financial complications from the Virginia fissue would only finally end in 1939. But George McClellan would gain early favorable Federal notice during the Civil War safeguarding the split with his military forces.

In confronting the political ambivalence within Virginia on the question of secession, it should be remembered that at the outbreak of the war the command of the principal Federal field army had been offered to a Virginian named Robert E. Lee (son of Federalist near-martyr Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee). Indeed, another Virginian, aged Winfield Scott, a one-time Whig candidate for President and a supporter of Freemont's 1856 presidential bid, was overall commander of the Federal army early in the Civil War, through his retirement in late 1861. And it was a third Virginian, George Thomas, who made the opposite difficult decision that General Lee did. Major General Thomas led the Federal Army of the Cumberland under army-group commander Sherman, directing nearly half the forces which invaded Georgia. (Confederate General Hood's army abandoned Georgia for Tennessee via Alabama and Thomas was sent after him, leaving the remainder of Sherman's forces to ravage Georgia in 1864.)

Yes, Virginia was home to more slaveholders than any other other state. But it was part of the so-called "Upper South," (also including North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas), which did not immediately secede upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, as had the "Lower South." This second group of state secessions only followed after the fall of Fort Sumter and Lincoln's subsequent call for 75,000 volunteer troops to put down the secession of the first group. Federal success in the war importantly depended on the four remaining slave states - Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri - not undertaking yet a third group of state secessions. Lincoln felt his position compromised in August 1861 when General Fremont promulgated an emanicipation proclaimation in Missouri, which the President quickly undercut. Later, Lincoln wrote a famous letter explaining, that despite personal feelings, he felt obliged only to preserve the union at any cost and what he might do or fail to do about slavery would be entirely subjugated to that end.

As the multicolor national map above shows, Minnesota, not yet a state in 1856, would be admitted to the union during Buchanan's presidency. But a major Sioux uprising there early during the Civil War would force Lincoln to divert the Federal army to crush it. The alternate terminology many US Indians prefer today, "Native Americans", would completely confuse the people of 1856, who had used the term to refer to the precursor of the short-lived American (or "Know-Nothing") Party which nominated Millard Fillmore for president that year!

NATIVE AMERICANS. The name assumed by a political party which sprang up a few years ago, to advocate the rights and privileges of persons born in the United States, in opposition to those of foreigners. The principal measure advocated by them, was the extension of the time of residence required by law previous to naturalization, from seven to twenty-one years. The extreme lengths to which this party went, and the excesses produced in consequence of its inflammatory appeals to vulgar prejudice, ensured its speedy defeat; and it may now be considered as, to all intents and purposes, extinct. - Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) by John Russell Bartlett

In the Dixie of 1856 we see the highest density of railroads in central Georgia and South Carolina. During the Civil War, after Federal forces had used naval superiority to blockade the Confederacy and slice off its western limb by seizing full control of the Mississippi River, land forces under General Sherman would march, as the song puts it, "from Atlanta to the sea" (Savannah - incidently the city of Fremont's birth) to smash this critical concentration of railways.

Having worked so hard to wage "total war" on the Confederacy, in part by destroying its railroads (cf. "Sherman's neckties"), an irony is that Sherman's "second act," after the Civil War, was to wage "total war" against the Indian nations of the Great Plains, with a principal rationale being the construction and safety of new transcontinental railroads, which the Civil War had postponed.

Some also find it ironic that Ohio-born General Sherman himself was not uncomfortable with the militantly racist society of the antebellum South, or not even just originally in favor of slavery abolition. Immediately prior to the war he had been superintendent of a military school in Louisiana, recruited by two men who would become prominent Confederate generals. Sherman would soon face their would-be nation on the battlefield in his disagreement not over racial equality, but over the permanence of the Federal union.

March to the Sea by Alexander Hay Ritchie (1868)
(Note the destruction of railroad track - not to mention telegraph line.)

The maps of 1856, including the detailed local map below, betray no hint of the railways that would cross here in Haralson County at Bremen decades later to make its fortune in the late 19th century. (Look here for Bremen's heritage.) But Van Wert and Carrollton in our neighboring counties are already marked as country towns. And this detailed map even locates the village of Tallapoosa.


Bridges, canals, lighthouses
and other large public works
completed in 1856


Paris. The bridges across the Seine circa 1853-1854 (stereoptican)


1856 (E-mail/Web-based Canadian historic railroad building game).
Additional information here and here.


Determination overcomes means:
The first Mormon handcart pioneers depart for the West in 1856.