Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Stone: "VITAL RAILS: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina"

[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.


  1. An information point, Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina by H. David Stone was awarded the 2008 Dr. James I. Robertson Literary Prize for Confederate History by the Robert E. Lee Civil War Library & Research Center of Central New Jersey.

  2. This is an excellent book and a great contribution to preserving the railroading and Civil War history of South Carolina. However, it includes an error (which is only tangential to the whole story, by the way) in Chapter 18 related to the abandoned rail bed that runs through the Links golf course at Stono Ferry. The historic sign erected on the course and Dr. Stone's writing relative to that sign indicate that the railroad was the one associated with the book - The Charleston & Savannah. In fact, the rail bed was built by the Seaboard Air Line Railway (SAL) in 1917, not by C & S in the 1850s, to complete their coastal route from Hamlet, NC, to Charleston to Savannah. It was SAL's Carolina Division, Charleston Subdivision. When it was built, the C & S route, which runs parallel 1.5 miles to the northwest, was operated by the Atlantic Coastline Railroad (ACL), a direct competitor of SAL. The SAL line ran south through Lobeco, Coosaw, Pitchard and Levy and crossed Hutchinson Island into Savannah. Through service ended in 1971 when the lift bridge at Savannah was destroyed by a ship collision. All service ended in 1977 and all the tracks were removed by 1982. The route can easily be seen and traced using Google Earth. SAL was not the C & S. The sign and the book are incorrect and efforts are now underway to remedy the matter. Allen L. Pinkus, PhD, Sun City Hilton Head, alpinkus@aol.com I live just down the street from the old SAL road bed which runs "Through the Heart of Sun City," have worked with a couple of local amateur historians who have known SAL for decades and have written four articles on SAL for the Sun City magazine, SunSations.

  3. Thanks for your comments. You are correct. The photo was, in fact, of the newer line built by the SAL. This was a fact that, evidently, the people I spoke to regarding that particular area, did not know. I was never able to get help from the academicians who knew about that area, and had to rely on the accounts of others associated with the marker. Had I had Google Earth available to me at the time I researched that portion of the railroad, I would have been able to rectify the error before it went to print. You can still trace the railbed on the satellite image and see where the more recent rails ran between the two cities, and once I did that, I realized the error of my ways--only the book was already in print.
    I hope that it will not end up detracting from anyone's enjoyment of the book.

    H. David Stone, Jr.

    1. Dear Dr. Stone,

      Please allow me to introduce myself. I am a South Carolina native currently residing in New Hampshire and working on a book-length biography of Colonel Charles J. Colcock. I was very excited to run across your book and learn more about the railroads key part in his life and that of the Lowcountry.

      My goal is to look at all the social, religious, and economic forces that shaped his character and led him to take an active role in secession and the war. No book-length treatment of his life exists, so I hope this work will nicely fill that gap.

      I'd be curious to know if there are more anecdotal type sources or connections to members of the Colcock family that could help flesh out his life story. In particular, I am interested in obtaining a reproduction quality image of the Colonel’s one known portrait. If you know of anyone who might posses either the original or a reproduction, please let me know as I would eagerly like to speak with them.

      Thank you for your consideration.

      Best regards,

      Jonathan Newell

  4. My name is Eugene Cain. I have learned "almost" all there is to learn about the SAL route between Charleston and Savannah. Hope this information is helpful. The line was
    begun in 1915 and completed at the end of 1917. Three construction gangs worked on the line at both ends and in the middle. Much fill work was required as well as a dozen or so major bridges. The line was built heavy-duty and soon
    the Seaboard routed all their freight along this line, due to the "low grade' profile. However, the bridge across the Savannah River was hit numerous times and posed a serious threat to shipping and was utimately abandoned after the 1971 bridge hit which destroyed it. A new connection was built to service the Industry on Hutchingson Island across the River from Savannah. But by the early 1990s that business dried up too. The origional SAL mainline still exists for a few miles north of Hutchingson Island but it has been out of use for nearly 20 years now. CSX retained this portion for future use which has not occured as of 2012.

  5. My name is T.Breno Riker. I am a descendant of R.H. Riker (Robert Henry Riker). I live in Brazil.
    I understand that there is information about him on page 271 of this book. In that sense, I am interested in knowing what this information about Riker is on this page.
    Before the Civil War, Robert Henry Riker was involved with the rail industry in the South, along with his brother David Riker.They were the founders of an industrial village called Rikersville in Charleston, SC. They were also partners with George Hacker, General Stevens and others.
    Robert Henry and David Riker also contributed to the construction of the iron battery that shot Sumter.
    In 1867, Robert Riker immigrated to Brazil.


***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.