Reviewed by Sean Michael Chick
Railroads have claimed a fair amount of attention in Civil War studies. That is perhaps not surprising, because, while the Crimean War can claim the first use of a railroad in a conflict, its role in that war was more limited. Not until America’s 1861-1865 internal fight did the railroad prove decisive to a conflict’s outcome. However, until rather recently, individual Civil War era railroad lines have received relatively little scholarly attention. Dan Lee adds to that short but growing short list with The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War: The Struggle for Control of the Nation’s Longest Railway.
The book is a pleasant surprise because it is a topic rarely broached. But perhaps not that surprising considering the author. Lee’s Kentuckian in Blue: A Biography of Major General Lovell Harrison Rousseau (McFarland, 2010) is a solid biography. In addition to this work, he wrote The L&N Railroad in the Civil War (McFarland, 2011) which is similar territory to The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War. As such, Lee’s previous experience researching and writing about rail lines and the Civil War in the Western Theater clearly shows in this work.
Lee’s newest book is not about the day to day operations of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Those hoping for something more detailed and technical may prefer Walter R. Green, Jr.’s, The Nashville and Decatur in the Civil War: History of an Embattled Railroad. Instead, as its subtitle clearly describes—The Struggle for Control of the Nation’s Longest Railway—Lee provides readers with just that, a narrative of the war along the railroad and for control of the railway.
The contention over the Mobile and Ohio Railroad started when both sides vied for control of Columbus, Kentucky, and ended with the capture of Mobile, Alabama, in April 1865. Lee’s approach to chronicling the belligerents’ efforts to control the Mobile and Ohio is both refreshing and rewarding. As Lee explains, with the war’s progression, the Mobile and Ohio served as a microcosm for much of the South; slowly ground down, its infrastructure failing as the war wears on. Lee also highlights the diversity of the military actions that afflicted the railway. There are cavalry raids, naval probes, grand marches, perilous retreats, and battles such as Corinth, Brice’s Crossroads, and Fort Blakeley fought directly on or near the Mobile & Ohio.
One of the best parts of the book covers 1861 events in western Kentucky. As mentioned above, Lee wrote The Civil War in the Jackson Purchase, 1861–1862 (McFarland, 2014), so he is quite familiar with the region. In the traditional telling, Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus, which prompted the pro-Union Kentucky General Assembly to break the state’s neutrality and side with the Union. Lee offers a different interpretation. He contends that the Federals often ignored neutrality in the area and that Ulysses S. Grant was poised to act first. In Lee’s assessment, Kentucky had chosen sides already. If anything, Polk’s caution dampened Confederate morale in the Jackson Purchase, the most rabidly pro-Confederate region of the Bluegrass State. Readers may quibble with Lee’s conclusions, but it is refreshing to get a different analysis of an event most seem to see as cut and dry.
The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War is well-written with clear prose. The research appears somewhat thin, but that is not wholly to the book’s detriment. This study is more of a synthesis of information than it is an attempt at original research. As such it delivers a good narrative flow and sound analysis. The Mobile & Ohio Railroad in the Civil War excels in considering the war from the perspective of the fighting that occurred along the railroad, and offers a narrative similar to works covering the struggle for its neighboring transportation artery to the west, the Mississippi River. It forces one to consider how the war was dictated by economic considerations and how the avenues Americans used for travel and commerce, namely rivers and railroads, influenced the course of the war. More books like this would benefit Civil War-Era scholarship.