Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

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

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.

13inmortaronrailcarnearpetersburg
13inmortaronrailcarnearpetersburg

Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on April 14. 

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.

Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on April 14. 

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.