Author Interview--R. Scott Huffard (Engines of Redemption)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature R. Scott Huffard Jr. to talk about his new book Engines of Redemption: Railroads and the Reconstruction of Capitalism in the New South, published by the University of North Carolina Press.  

Scott Huffard is an associate professor of History at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, NC. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Florida.

To start, Scott, could you tell us how you got interested in the topic of railroads in the South and what you argue in Engines of Redemption?

RSH: I first stumbled into this topic in graduate school while writing a research paper for Dr. Bill Link's southern history seminar. I discovered the 1888 yellow fever epidemic in Florida, which led to panic and local quarantines all over the South's rail network. I was very interested in studying capitalism when I entered graduate school (my original planned topic was PA coal strikes) and this epidemic struck me as a fascinating moment where capitalism's connections suddenly became dangerous. As I read more widely, I realized that the New South era was an excellent case study for examining what happens when the forces of capitalism are rapidly unleashed on a society, and the railroad became my lens for studying this. 

The book's argument stems from my realization that the South's experience with the railroad and capitalism was far more destructive than we have realized. Boosters aligned with the New South movement tried to use railroads to tell a story of regional progress and revival but my research uncovered a wide range of counternarratives and anxieties spread by the railroad. The yellow fever outbreaks are one example, but the book also goes into the South's high rate of accidents, the fear spread by train robberies, and anti-monopoly political movements. In the end, I argue that white southern elites and their corporate allies were able to use race and appeals to white supremacy to paper over these anxieties.

You mention the Yellow Fever epidemic and the closure of the railroad network, which seems sadly contemporary with the current Coronavirus. Could you elaborate a little more on this, did the states coerce the private RR companies to shut down or did they do this voluntarily? Was this a hysteria or a real threat? What does such a shutdown illustrate about the dependence of people on the RR network?

RSH: Towards the end of the book, I briefly compare the New South to modern China, which has seen a huge high-speed railroad boom recently. The article I cite on China goes into a disastrous train wreck that exposed corruption and safety hazards but the new coronavirus outbreak is definitely another parallel to consider.

I argue that the real turning point for yellow fever and railroads in the South was the 1878 epidemic, which raced north from New Orleans and devastated the interior South. People were used to yellow fever epidemics hitting on the southern coasts, but when it shows up in railroad towns in a place like northeastern Mississippi, there is a clear realization that it can move via rail. The South never sees another outbreak as bad as in 1878 but in subsequent outbreaks we see a level of hysteria and panic that far outstrips the actual threat of infection.

At first, state and federal governments were not very effective at managing this crisis so in these yellow fever scares we get this raw confrontation between small communities and large distant railroad corporations like the Chicago-based Illinois Central. Newspapers were running editorials threatening to stop all trains in Mississippi, and in the Illinois Central archives, I was finding telegrams with threats to dynamite trestles and railroad property. At one point, during an 1888 outbreak in Florida, the Illinois Central can barely move anything through Mississippi because of so many local quarantines. Towns in Florida were also getting totally cut off from rail transport thanks to quarantines in Georgia. 

By the 1880s the South had become so interconnected that it is a huge shock when this messy patchwork of local quarantines ties up the network and trains stop arriving. Merchants worry about whether the orange and cotton shipments will make it to the North, towns start running short on food, and passengers get stranded all over the South. The moment is an intriguing one as it reveals both the South’s reliance on new connections and its anxiety towards them.

Scott, that is a great transition to the next question: When the Civil War started, the South had this awkward patchwork of railroad lines with different gauges, some hardly going anywhere, how does the network change during Reconstruction? What about ownership changes as the country moves into the monopolization of the trusts and large corporations?

RSH: The book is heavily indebted to excellent works by Scott Nelson and Mark Summers on southern railroads during Reconstruction. Their books have shown us how the South’s railroads recovered from the war’s destruction and how state governments made some attempts to grow the network. Nelson writes about the “Iron Confederacy” or a core rail corridor through the South that comes together during Reconstruction. He leaves us with a tantalizing interpretation of redemption where the “redeemed" southern states largely cede power to larger interstate railroad systems. 

For me, the real story is what comes after this moment of corporate victory, and I mainly trace with happens in the 1880s - after the end of military Reconstruction - when the mileage of the network doubles and we really see the influence of large, northern corporations in terms of systemization, standardization, and consolidation. Nelsons “Iron Confederacy” corridor becomes the main line of the Southern Railway, a company which in many ways embodies the ironies of the New South movement. While the name may make this road seem like a “southern” enterprise, the company was only possible thanks to J.P. Morgan’s wealth and financial expertise. Of course, they tried their best to brand this road as “southern” and Morgan even put a former Confederate, Georgia’s Samuel Spencer in charge. By 1900, we get a situation where 60% of the South’s railroad mileage is in the hands of northern-controlled systems like the Southern, Illinois Central, Louisville & Nashville, and others.

The reach of the northern economic octopus is quite impressive. I want to switch gear to racial issues. How do the railroads help with the racial organization of the New South?

RSH: Race is certainly a major theme of the book and throughout the narrative we see ways in which railroads worse race relations and help the rise of Jim Crow. As this railroad boom hits the South, suddenly white and black southerners are encountering each other in new ways. Conflicts within railroad cars were the spark that led states to begin to segregate cars and other public accommodations and the case that led to Plessy v Ferguson took place on a Louisiana railroad. Other scholars have made these arguments about railroads and Jim Crow but my book takes this further and looks at other interactions between capitalism and white supremacy.

As I was writing about the various anxieties and monsters of the railroad age, I noticed a common theme that the white South always resolves these issues through race. For example, railroad companies blamed the rise in train wrecks on anonymous black “train wreckers,” and in yellow fever epidemics authorities move to segregate and deny mobility to black southerners. When politicians start to attack the monopoly power of the Southern Railway, appeals to white supremacy prove more powerful for white votes and corporate power remains unchallenged. 

Perhaps the most grisly example is in my chapter on train robbers. When the white robber Rube Burrow is killed, the white press tries to make him out like some kind of Jesse James or Robin Hood hero, but when Railroad Bill, a black train robber is shot, authorities put his shot up corpse on display (for a modest fee) in a number of different towns in the region.  

We often see folks (even today) make arguments that connectivity and capitalism can bring people together and overcome differences but I would say that the experience of the New South provides a pretty strong counter-argument to this idea. 

You are providing some interesting corrective in your book and I felt as I read the book that you implied that the start of the New South may not be in 1865. Based on your research, do you think the Old South and New South dichotomy and chronology is too simple?

RSH: Yeah, in terms of periodization, I do kind of blur the lines a bit. The standard interpretation of Reconstruction, for example, ends this period with the withdrawal of federal troops in 1878. I think it is more useful to see Reconstruction as a longer process, especially when it comes to mentalities towards capitalism. Similarly the starting point for the New South is something we can reconsider. Economic growth and railroad development certainly happened after the war and in the 1870s but these transformations really accelerate in the 1880s and 90s. In a sense my emphasis on the 1880s as a transformative moment harkens back to older interpretations like C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South.

We are in an interesting moment when it comes to studying continuity and change between the Old and New South given all the great recent works on the capitalist nature of antebellum economy. If we are to see the Old South as an intensely capitalist society, then what does that mean for our understanding of the New South? This is a question my book hopes to answer by examining the railroad. The rail network’s connectivity, circulation, consolidation, and expansion really leads to a different type of capitalism than the cotton and slavery centered capitalism we see in the “New History of Capitalism” works. So I do think it is a dichotomy that is too simple. And of course we have to recognize that these constructs were first created by southern boosters to support their own myths about the southern economy. 

Your book and so many others will force lots of changes to Old/New South curriculums, but to close, I want to change direction to the modern briefly. How do you think your book on railroad travel could contribute to a revival of passenger railroads in the United States? You mentioned China as a cautionary tale over corruption, yet the United States in comparison has one of the worst passenger rail networks, is there hope for change based on history or international examples?

RSH: The comparison to the present is one that can cut different ways. You could certainly read Engines of Redemption and its litany of railroad disasters as a cautionary tale against new railroads and connectivity. But I think railroad histories like mine can also encourage new railroad development by reminding us what we once had. In the 1890s, one could board a train in Gainesville, Florida, where I lived for graduate school, and end up almost anywhere in the country. There was this magic and glamor attached to rail travel too, and despite the problems I chronicle, rail travel could be lead to escape, liberation, and new opportunities for many. I don’t know if there is a way to bring all of this back, but its not like auto and plane travel inspire much of these emotions either these days. 

I write about the South’s railroads as the ultimate example of 19th century capitalism, but of course the story now is much more complicated than that. Railroads are now the eco-friendly alternative to our car-based transportation system, and you’ll likely find more promoters of government-funded high-speed rail on the political left. So I think the overarching moral is not so much about the dangers of the railroad as it is about who controls this technology and to what ends. In the conclusion, I even briefly note Facebook as an example of a connective technology that is dictated by the profit motive. China has high speed rail that is the envy of the world, but these trains have also been spreading disease, getting into big wrecks, and aiding the powers of a repressive regime. 

I am just hoping Engines of Redemption can contribute to the excellent conversations going on regarding the transcontinental lines and railroads in other global contexts. Railroad history is having a bit of a moment and a sober-minded appreciation of the risks and rewards of railroad development can certainly inform the 21st century’s railroad projects.