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The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America [Kindle Edition]

William G. Thomas
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Beginning with Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery in 1838 on the railroad, and ending with the driving of the golden spike to link the transcontinental railroad in 1869, this book charts a critical period of American expansion and national formation, one largely dominated by the dynamic growth of railroads and telegraphs. William G. Thomas brings new evidence to bear on railroads, the Confederate South, slavery, and the Civil War era, based on groundbreaking research in digitized sources never available before. The Iron Way revises our ideas about the emergence of modern America and the role of the railroads in shaping the sectional conflict.

Both the North and the South invested in railroads to serve their larger purposes, Thomas contends. Though railroads are often cited as a major factor in the Union’s victory, he shows that they were also essential to the formation of "the South" as a unified region. He discusses the many—and sometimes unexpected—effects of railroad expansion and proposes that America’s great railroads became an important symbolic touchstone for the nation’s vision of itself.

Please visit the Railroads and the Making of Modern America website at

Editorial Reviews


"A tour-de-force, and offers a series of bracing insights about the origins, shape and outcome of the Civil War...Because it integrates military and social history so imaginatively, The Iron Way is a must-read for students, scholars and enthusiasts alike."—Civil War Monitor
(Civil War Monitor)

“William Thomas has written a remarkably nuanced and brilliant interpretation of railroads and the Civil War. . . . The Iron Way is truly path-breaking.”—Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln
(Vernon Burton)

"In this provocative and deeply researched book, William G. Thomas follows the railroad into virtually every aspect of Civil War history, showing how it influenced everything from slavery's antebellum expansion to emancipation and segregation—from guerrilla warfare to grand strategy. At every step, Thomas challenges old assumptions and finds new connections on this much-traveled historical landscape."—T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(T.J. Stiles)

“At once bold and elegant, this powerful book sweeps across slavery and secession, the Civil War and its aftermath. Thomas masterfully integrates one of the most complicated eras in American history, making familiar subjects new and compelling.”—Edward Ayers, Bancroft Prize-winning author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America
(Edward Ayers)

Winner of the 2012 New York Book Festival History category, sponsored by the New York Book Festival
(History Winner New York Book Festival 2012-06-12)

About the Author

William G. Thomas is professor of history and the John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He lives in Lincoln, NE.

Product Details

  • File Size: 4357 KB
  • Print Length: 291 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0300141076
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (October 25, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #422,104 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By B.
As a model railroader building a historically based layout I view myself as an applied historian. When I read a book or go to the archives, I am looking for facts, maps, drawings, data and information that I can apply to my railroad. But it is also useful to understand the big picture. That is where William G. Thomas' book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America fits in.

Like Edgar Turner's earlier book, Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War, Thomas' book takes a look at the role that railroads had in the making and shaping of the war and reconstruction. It is a fascinating look that combines traditional research with new techniques like word cloud analysis and web based interactive maps. As such it offers new insights.

The book has comparatively little detail on the tactical situation and the operations of the railroads during the struggle. Instead the book focuses on the overall economic and sociological environment of the U.S. and its railroads with an emphasis on the railroads of the south. In doing so he takes head-on the role that slavery had in railroad development, a topic that Turner and many others glossed over.

The first chapter of the book begins with the word "slavery" and then a description of Frederick Douglas' escape from slavery via the railroad. He describes how the "Underground Railroad" was not just a figure of speech. There was a literal component as many slaves used the real railroads and or rail lines as escape routes.

He goes on to describe how the question of slavery affected every issue in the U.S. politics. Thomas spends a good portion of the text discussing the role that slavery had in the economy of the south.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All Aboard for the Real Thing July 10, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book for all concerned. The casual student of the Civil War will find a readable and informative book that breaks new ground in a subject which is saturated with good books (forgive the mixed metaphor, please). Civil War buffs will find even more to read; students will love it for its readable and short (210 pages) format. All in all: a great book on the Civil War; a wonderful essay on the importance of railroads in the development of modern America.

The age of the railroad lasted a long time and did much to shape our country; we in the era of planes and computers tend to forget that. I rode the train overnight from Atlanta to Louisville in 1959 to my grandfather's funeral. I don't think we even thought about flying or driving. When I rode the Cardinal from Charlottesville to Cincinnati in 1973, the era of railroading was clearly over, and the railroad was a somewhat backward, somewhat bizarre way of moving from one place to another (the trip cost me $20). Even the bus was more popular, and the railroad carried with it unique challenges: I stood behind singer Burl Ives at the Los Angeles Amtrak station in 1974, who cancelled his ticket to Chicago when he found out they put him in a compartment over the wheels. His last words were: "C'mon, let's go to the airport." I continued on to Chicago, seeing as I was travelling in a seat, no overnight accomodations: LA to Chicago, about $95. Clearly, by the 1970s, the grand railroad had been reduced to a minor, somewhat idiosyncratic player in American transportation. Thomas's book goes a long way to remind us of the once mighty power of the iron rails that girded the land, won a war and set the stage for the modern mess we now find ourselves in.

I read this book with a great deal of interest.
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4.0 out of 5 stars rating THE IRON WAY June 8, 2014
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In a graduate course in Civil War History, I wrote a paper on southern railroads in the Civil War. This book showed me what I'd missed. Especially interesting was the way Southern businesses were isolated from European financiers and the way Rothschilds & Baring looked at the South's prospects. After the end of the conflict, the U.S. Military RR sold locomotives etc. at cost & in some cases just left them where they were - thereby jump-starting the Southern roads.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Review of The Iron Way December 28, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America

I found the research excellent. But, the work is lacking in maps to support the narrative. Thus It is not as valuable a work as I had hoped. Dr. Michael J. Deeb
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More About the Author

William G. Thomas III was born in Alexandria, Virginia. He is a co-editor with Edward L. Ayers, Anne S. Rubin, and Andrew Torget of the award-winning "Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War." He teaches Civil War history, the U.S. South, and American history at the University of Nebraska. His recent book "The Iron Way" was a 2012 Lincoln Prize Finalist.

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