Friday, May 18, 2012

Iron Maidens

As much as I like hearing train whistles in Jackson Ward, I had no idea that railroads were such a popular topic.

It was near standing room only for today's Library of Virginia lecture, "The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War and the Making of Modern America" by Dr. William Thomas.

And trust me, I've been to plenty of their noon lectures and not seen as many attendees.

Even UR's President Ed Ayers, apparently one of Thomas' former teachers, found a seat at the last minute.

Operating from the premise that the railroads were a modern way of unifying the country, he made a strong case for their divisiveness, too.

And while I've no doubt that the railroad-savvy audience already knew, I was a tad surprised to learn that thousands of enslaved men had worked on building railroads in the South.

Railroad companies apparently began by renting the men and moved on to buying them. More cost effective, I'm sure.

Thomas showed a picture of the Appomattox High Bridge, an impressive and picaresque structure, but it was the numbers that stuck in my head.

When built in the 1850s, it cost $167,000, and required 1,000 slaves and 200 horses to build.

We heard about "railroad Republicans" who saw railroads as the future to push their agenda forward.

One of the most interesting topics was that of Northern soldiers as tourists.

Arriving by train or steamboat, these men who'd never ventured south of the Mason Dixon line documented what they saw in this foreign place.

In letters to family back home, they described the locals (a different breed, surely, to them), the flora and fauna.

They were even known to stand on the top of railroad cars and shoot at local animal life (turtles, snakes) like they were on safari or something.

But the railroads had better uses, too; escaping slaves were able to get away in 48 hours instead of two weeks on foot.

Thomas cracked wise when he said, "For those of you who are observant or aren't asleep" before sharing how a former slave became the "Pickle King" once he got to New York.

By the end of his lecture, Thomas had proven that railroads had brought about a great compression of space and time, meaning that the Civil War was not the "local" war of high school history books.

How could it be when people, free and enslaved, were now moving freely between North and South with regularity?

The lecture closed with Thomas explaining how news traveled on the train.

An approaching train that blew a long whistle told listeners that there had been a Confederate victory. A short whistle meant a defeat.

"Everybody sure did listen to that train," a man of the time observed.

I know I sure do.

Best of all, it no longer has to do with victory or defeat.

Just a lovely sound.

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