Abstract: Railroads and the Antebellum South: Southern Exceptionalism?

Aaron W. Marrs


Railroads in the pre–Civil War southern United States have had a reputation for economic underperformance and low impact on their surrounding communities, an interpretation that dates back to the early twentieth-century writing of U.B. Phillips. Were southern railroads truly exceptional for these reasons? This paper will explore some of the ways in which southern railroads were similar to and different from their northern counterparts. All companies, for example, had to address the concerns of multiple communities such as concerned citizens who worked to prevent trains from running on Sundays. In terms of labor, however, there was a significant difference in that southerners could turn to enslaved workers to build and operate their railroads. Slave hiring let southerners unite their conservative social order with the most modern technology available. In this effort to intertwine progress and chattel slavery, the antebellum South demonstrated its true exceptionalism.