The railroad that could have stopped the Civil War
The completion of a failed railroad project might have prevented the entire Civil War, according to Clemson professor H. Roger Grant.
Grant’s newest book, The Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Rail Road: Dreams of Linking North and South, explores how the railroad could have affected American history.
“I think there’s enough evidence to suggest that it’s possible if this railroad had been built by the early 1840s, the Civil War might not have happened,” said Grant.
Despite the geographical challenges and hefty price tag involved in constructing the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston railroad, its backers intended to pursue the project to increase trade between the Old Northwest and Charleston and boost Charleston’s economy. They also wanted to avoid competition from other trading cities in the South.
“I think you have to understand Charlestonians, who were so concerned about loss of trade,” said Grant. “They didn’t want their city to become sleepy, which, in fact, it really did.”
After the death of the railroad’s main promoter, the start of an economic depression in 1837 and political opposition from John C. Calhoun, construction halted. Only 10 percent of the intended track was built, stretching from Branchville to Columbia.
“It was a perfect storm,” said Grant. “If some things were somewhat different, this [railroad] might have been built.”
If the railroad had been completed, Grant reasons that it would have brought an influx of whites from the Northwest to the South, thus easing worries about slave insurrections. This influx would also have created a larger population either in favor of slavery, or at least neutral on the issue
“If you bring in people to work on the railroad, and you bring in settlers who are going to form new communities along the line, then you’ve got an expanding white population that might very well make slave owners less worried about the possibilities of slave rebellions,” explained Grant.
Increased trade between Charleston and Cincinnati would have strengthened commercial and social connections between Old the South and Old Northwest. It also would have meant that residents of the Old Northwest, especially in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, might have become much less concerned about the evils of slavery.
“That might have helped mitigate the impact of the ever more abolitionists,” said Grant. “They [Charlestonians] sensed the value of that possibility.”
Combined, Grant holds that these factors likely would’ve prevented the outbreak of war.
“Historians need to speculate. Otherwise, if you just have a narrative, it’s sort of one thing after another. So you’ve got to put it in context,” said Grant. “It [the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston railroad] was a failed effort to do something big, perhaps having importance or significance far beyond just building a railroad.”
–Ashley Hedrick, Class of 2016