Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lee: "THE L&N RAILROAD IN THE CIVIL WAR: A Vital North-South Link and the Struggle to Control It"

[The L&N Railroad in the Civil War: A Vital North-South Link and the Struggle to Control It by Dan Lee (McFarland, 2011). Softcover, map, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:192/214. ISBN:978-0-7864-6157-8 $35]

The Baltimore & Ohio, Memphis & Charleston, and Mobile & Ohio may have been more famous, but the Louisville & Nashville Railroad was a critical north-south logistical lifeline for Union campaigns aimed at the heartland of the Confederacy. Its directional orientation, beginning in Louisville and passing through Elizabethtown, Munfordville, Bowling Green, and Gallatin (as well as a handful of trunk lines) before terminating in the Tennessee capital, assured that ownership would be contested in wartime. Dan Lee's new history of this line The L&N Railroad in the Civil War mostly deals with the military efforts of both sides to control or interdict the passage of troops and supplies down through Kentucky and into Tennessee.

The man at the center of L&N operations was its president, the politically powerful James Guthrie. While the author attempts to cast Democrat Guthrie as a bit of a crass economic opportunist of doubtful loyalty, the evidence presented in the book that would support such a claim is not particularly strong. Many officers complain about a lack of supplies, and, without a more thorough investigation, it is difficult to objectively assess the degree of truth behind contemporary charges that Guthrie was overly stingy in prioritizing civilian goods over military traffic. What can't be denied is his success as a businessman, as the L&N greatly increased profits year by year (undoubtedly helped by the federal government shouldering the repair burden), but, again, pointing to yearly profit totals without context is not a meaningful way to assess war profiteering.

Much of the book is devoted to recounting military operations related directly or indirectly to the L&N. Including descriptions of both regular and irregular warfare conducted along the road's length, the breadth of the discussion is satisfactory. Not surprisingly, the exploits of Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan figures prominently in the 1862-63 period. While comprehensive, the military treatment overall is pretty conventional and sometimes wanders a bit too far off topic. The best sections, in terms of fresher material, are the ones covering the 1861-62 period and the guerrilla attacks on the railroad.

The wartime papers of Guthrie himself have been lost, and there is really little if any input by other employees of the railroad in the book. While the book's anecdotal detail is good, a meticulous and sustained quantitative assessment of the railroad's equipment, defenses, and relative importance to the Union war effort is largely absent. However, such information is offered in spots. For instance, a table listing the strength and location of rail guard detachments at a certain date is provided, as well as a snapshot rundown of Union artillery numbers and types emplaced at strategic points.

In the end, the main value of Lee's study lies in the scope of its narrative of military events associated with the L&N railroad.

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