Thursday, September 1, 2022

Review - "The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War: The Struggle for Control of the Nation's Longest Railway" by Dan Lee

[The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War: The Struggle for Control of the Nation's Longest Railway by Dan Lee (McFarland, 2022). Softcover, map, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:viii,206/244. ISBN:978-1-4766-8972-2. $39.95]

Originating on Alabama's Gulf Coast, the Mobile & Ohio Railroad initially followed a northwesterly course into Mississippi, where it then skirted that state's eastern border for much of its length before plunging through the heart of West Tennessee. From there, the M&O tracks entered Kentucky's Jackson Purchase, finally terminating on the Mississippi River at Columbus. Familiar to all Civil War students, that long stretch of western geography hosted some of the conflict's most bitterly contested ground. Those campaigns and raids intimately tied to the M&O along with the many challenges the railroad faced on a daily basis in order to remain afloat in that environment are the focus of Dan Lee's The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War: The Struggle for Control of the Nation's Longest Railway.

Lee's chronological narrative recounts, at varying degrees of detail, the series of Civil War operations in which the railroad played a key role as either logistical lifeline or target of destruction. In 1861, the M&O supported Confederate forces during their controversial movement into western Kentucky and their establishment of an extensive fortified position at Columbus. Throughout 1862, during the Shiloh Campaign, Siege of Corinth, and fall battles fought at Iuka and Corinth, the contest for control of the M&O would intensify. By the end of the year, Union forces would be firmly in control of the railroad's northern half. In contrast to the previous year, the situation would stabilize in 1863, with action against the railroad mostly confined to raids behind Union lines. Though the damage inflicted by those raids was swiftly repaired, numerous towns in West Tennessee and North Mississippi were victimized by wanton destruction. The Meridian Expedition led by General Sherman in early 1864 brought more extensive damage to the M&O, this time farther south. Later that summer, two more Union expeditions led by generals Samuel Sturgis and A.J. Smith (the former leading to disaster at Brice's Crossroads and the latter inflicting heavy casualties on southern mounted forces at Tupelo) spread further destruction but kept Nathan Bedford Forrest and his feared raiders fixed in North Mississippi and unable to target Union supply lines feeding General Sherman's army group in Georgia. Late in 1864, the crippled M&O was tasked with supplying Confederate general John Bell Hood's desperate advance into Middle Tennessee. The line was targeted later that winter by another Grierson's Raid (the lesser-known of the two), which was aimed at both cutting off Hood's retreat and applying the coup de grace to the rickety M&O's remaining capacity for supporting Confederate forces in the region. During the war's final spring, the M&O was used to reinforce and supply beleaguered Mobile, and it transported the garrison into the interior after the port city was evacuated. The Citronelle surrender, one of the war's most significant, occurred on the M&O. While these large sections of the narrative sometimes lose focus on the railroad itself in favor of detailing military operations (even at tactical level), they nevertheless prove useful in demonstrating to readers the critical role the M&O played in Mississippi River Valley supply and strategy.

Lee's narrative also frequently reminds readers of the range of dire threats the war imposed on the viability of southern railroads. At the start of the war, the modern M&O was fully capable of supporting military traffic and civilian commerce. However, it did was not long before nearby armies immediately threw a series of challenges in its path, and, by the end of the Civil War, the railroad was only a shadow of its former self. The physical destruction inflicted by both sides to stations, tracks, bridges, culverts, etc. was both extensive and repeated. Regular line and equipment maintenance proved impossible, with currency inflation and supply shortages making replacement parts for equipment and railroad repair materials either prohibitively expensive or unobtainable at any price. This rendered the M&O, which prided itself prewar for having suffered no deaths along its length, prone to deadly accidents.

Lee's history of the M&O also illustrates how often railroads were at the center of the war's struggle to balance the competing needs of the fighting and home fronts. Army quartermasters frequently interfered, sometimes illegally, with civilian use of the line to feed urban populations. In the case of the M&O, this became a particular problem for Mobile's hungry citizens, who had to petition Richmond authorities for relief. Army-mandated intermingling of M&O locomotives and cars with other lines also led to missing, neglected, abused, or destroyed equipment that could not be replaced during the war.

In describing the M&O as the "nation's longest railway," the author is specifically referring to the M&O being the longest line controlled by a single corporate entity. That unity of effort undoubtedly helped the railroad survive its wartime trials, but the author additionally credits continuity in leadership (in particular company president Milton Brown and superintendent L.J. Fleming) for keeping the railroad in near-continuous operation and in the red (though Lee sagely admits that paper profits and other forms of creative accounting were involved). Given the railroad's ability to recover its function throughout the war (for example, the massive destruction from the Meridian Raid was repaired sufficiently in less than 50 days), it would have been interesting to read more detail as to how that was achieved in the face of the challenges listed above. Likewise, more information about those who performed those minor miracles on the ground (ex. the railroad's work crews and hired or impressed slave labor) would have been welcome. Perhaps significant source material on those matters does not exist. With the government eventually comprising nearly all of its business (and either not paying its bills or forcing the railroad to accept increasingly worthless Confederate bonds in exchange), how the railroad managed to repair itself and remain in operation throughout the war remains an impressive feat.

Though lighter on matters of railroad management, defense, repair work, and operations detail than some readers might have wanted, Dan Lee's The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War very clearly demonstrates the great degree by which this vital logistical artery shaped how and where major western theater military campaigns were conducted over the entire length of the war.

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