[Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina by H. David Stone Jr. (University of South Carolina Press, 2008). Cloth, 16 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total: 328/384 ISBN: 978-1-57003-716-0 $39.95]
Few Civil War books fully analyze the complex interactions and conflicting priorities between local business interests, national defense, and military operations. These spheres are often inextricably intertwined, but rarely more so than with the situation the Charleston and Savannah Railroad found itself in during the Civil War. This understudied scenario is chronicled and analyzed in fabulous depth by H. David Stone in his book Vital Rails.
Begun in the 1850s, the Charleston & Savannah survived early financial and geographical travails and was finally completed just as the secession crisis boiled over. On the face of it, a direct land connection between the two great ports would seem to benefit all, but the story of its financing, construction, and early management provides an almost perfect case study of the economic/political localism and distrust pervading southern attempts at industrial modernization.
When invading Union forces arrived on the coast soon after the opening of hostilities, the railroad proved to be an invaluable defensive asset. Stone credits railroad man and military officer Thomas F. Drayton with the germ of the idea, but Robert E. Lee fully developed in 1862 the very effective mobile defense-in-depth arrangement that protected Savannah, Charleston, and the railroad itself until the ultimate arrival of Sherman's army before Savannah in late 18642.
Stone clearly demonstrates that the South's problems with its railroad system were as much managerial as material. While the author does not formulate a direct comparison with the by all accounts vastly superior northern system of rail coordination, he recognizes the Confederate government's critical error in never attempting to impose central control over the South's railroad network. Why this hands off approach, particular to railroads, was maintained cannot be fully explained. Stone properly maintains the reason cannot be simply ideological, as the Confederate government did not hesitate to assert itself in relation to other private industries. The Davis administration also consistently starved the railroads of replacement and maintenance materials, shunting the Confederacy's limited industrial output of iron and steel to armament factories and the navy. On the positive side, the C&S did possess some gifted and dedicated managers (e.g. Thomas Drayton, Henry Haines, and Robert Singletary) who successfully juggled regional military and commerce needs. They managed to keep the railroad operating under conditions which might have caused others to fail.
Constantly forced to provide reinforcements for other theaters, the dwindling numbers of Confederates defending the rich coastal area between Savannah and Charleston increasingly relied on the railroad for rapid concentration in the face of near constant Federal attempts to break the rail connection. The author impressively recounts these military operations in a detailed fashion not usually found in similarly multi-focused works. The fact that there is a significant dearth of coverage in the literature2 for these campaigns makes Stone's study a particularly valuable piece of military, as well as economic, history.
Cloth bound and heavily illustrated, Vital Rails is handsomely presented. However, the maps are a source of some concern. While a number of excellent archival reproductions and maps gleaned from published works were included [16 by my count]3, more original maps, and at a smaller scale, were needed as aids to understanding the text's often dense descriptions of operational and tactical movements.
Perceptively analyzed and richly detailed, H. David Stone's scholarly, multi-layered history of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad from construction and ultimate destruction to troubled rebirth in the post-war period is a valuable contribution to the military and economic segments of the Civil War literature. It is earnestly hoped that this year's book award committees will give due consideration to this exceptional study. Highly recommended.
1 - Despite numerous attempts at its destruction (many of which are detailed in the text), the C&S was never seriously disrupted until Sherman captured Savannah, a remarkable achievement considering the disparity in men and resources.
2 - Useful recent sources include a pair of publications from Western Carolina Historical Research.
3 - Notable was a two page spread (orig. from Black's The Railroads of the Confederacy) tracing all the rail routes inside the Confederacy, with particular attention paid to breaks and gauge differences.