For those of us used to traversing the country via airplane, a twenty-five mile-per-hour train ride across seems fairly staid. However, for the first riders of America ’s railroads, the speed at which the train traveled was overwhelming and exhilarating.
In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman celebrated the power of the railroad to take us “To the free skies unpent and glad and strong,” and one new train passenger, a merchant called Asa Whitney, remarked that the rapid movement of the cars left the trees “waltzing.” A t the same time, though, Thoreau worried that “Men have become the tools of their tools,” voicing an anxiety that many felt in the face of such dramatic technological progress.
In his new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, William G. Thomas attempts to make sense of these various reactions, setting them along side historical records of railroad expansion and its effects. Thomas calls his project “a social history of the railroad and its role in American history,” and comments on the way in which the railroad was understood in its time to be a hallmark of modernity, allowing for personal mobility and providing concrete evidence of human progress.
Moreover, Thomas challenges conventional conceptions of the role of railroads in the Civil War, reexamining the notion that increased rail development in the North allowed for the Union victory.
Instead, Thomas looks to the expanding transportation networks throughout the country and asserts that the development of a railroad in the South served to bring the region together into a viable nation state, and thus, making the Civil War one of the first modern geopolitical conflicts.
In his prologue, Thomas connects the rapid technological developments of the mid-nineteenth century to our own changing digital age. A professor of history at the , Thomas is particularly interested in digital history, a practice that, he explains, is not simply about searching through computer databases. According to Thomas, digital history is, “less archival and more exploratory, less about ensuring preservation and more about inviting and enabling inquiry,” and in this spirit, he has created a website to accompany The Iron Way, featuring models mapping railroad expansion in the mid-nineteenth century and a record of every time the world “railroad” appears in military correspondence and reports of the period. By making his sources publicly available, Thomas encourages his readers to explore the topic further, using the narrative his book offers to find their own way across the iron tracks that first brought modernity to America .