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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
(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.
(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.