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What might the railroad and Civil War tell us about our networked nation today?

Just as the railroad reshaped the American economy in the 1840s and 1850s, so did the internet revamp it in the 1990s and 2010s.

13inMortarOnRailcarNearPetersburg

I picked up a book about “Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America” because I wondered if there is an analogy to the internet in that. That is, just as the railroad reshaped the American economy in the 1840s and 1850s, so did the internet revamp it in the 1990s and 2010s.

The railroad had a huge effect on how people worked, lived, and thought. It brought huge changes, not only in speed — moving people and goods at faster than a horse or ship could — but also in capacity. The telegraph began to move information even more quickly: The United States had a mere 146 miles of telegraph line in 1846, but by 1850 had some 10,000 miles, the book notes.

Some optimists thought these innovations would better knit the country together. Instead they seem to have exacerbated differences, especially as the race for the West intensified, and it became clear that the enslaving South was going to lose that competition. Also, railroads could move grain east to ports like Baltimore and New York, which lessened the significance of the Mississippi River and its cities. “The regions developed into ‘contending territorial empires,’ becoming more antagonistic as they simultaneously grew more similar and interconnected,” writes the author, William Thomas.

The Republican Party was particularly associated with railroads, Thomas writes — not just the upstart railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln. He uses an interesting term — “railroad Republicans.”

(more to come)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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