A Railroaded Union


As the young United States republic developed, it was not clear whether it was going to survive. It took the crisis of a civil war in 1861 to ensure a unified republic.

The original sin of slavery was not the only issue that threatened to tear it apart during its first four score years.

We tend to assume that there was just the North and South, but there was a third major area, the North Western Territories, which would eventually become the following states.

  • Ohio (1803)
  • Indiana (1816)
  • Illinois (1818)
  • Michigan (1837)
  • Wisconsin (1848)

All clearly non-slave and northern states.

Or were they?

Transport Routes

They were certainly free states but in the early years of the 19th century they were geographically isolated from the other northern states. East/West travel was arduous and expensive, and distant New Orleans was more easily accessible than the east coast ports of New York and Boston.

The North/South arteries of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers were the main outlets for these states and Territories, and they tended to look south rather than east.

Initially trade would be by rafts floated down to New Orleans. It was a one-way trip for the vessels as they did not have the power to navigate upstream. Once the goods were sold the raft was also sold for the wood and the crew made the journey home overland, repeating the journey the following year.

The advent of the steamers in 1810s changed this and traffic became bidirectional and at greater speed. Whilst not changing the basic trade links it tended to solidify them.

Those in the NW Territories although generally disapproving of their southern cousins “peculiar institution”, had strong commercial and social connections with them, whilst at the same time viewing the Government in Washington as remote and disconnected.

There were strong sectional feelings in the area and a belief that the Republic had grown too large and that partitioning would be necessary at some point.

This position rapidly changed in the 1850’s with the arrival of the “Iron Horse”.

The Westward drive of the Railways

A number of railways forced their way through the mountains that had for decades proved to be such a barrier between east and west, and the isolation of the North Western states was lifted.

By the late 50s the railways were supplanting the canal and river transport, and the once strong link to the south was broken.

The 1860 Election

In the 1860 Presidential election Lincoln carried all 5 of the NW states. He was after all one of their own. Their 58 electoral votes were enough to carry him to victory.

However, had the political situation been different and the southern links stronger those 58 votes could have lifted Breckinridge to victory.

Thanks to the railways they were now all solid northern states.


With Lincoln’s inauguration the southern states began to secede, and the concern now was whether the border slave states would follow their lead.

Ultimately all five of the border states remained in the union, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia would break with Virginia and remain in the Union.

Would they have done so if the neighboring NW states were in any way wavering in their support for the union?

Throughout the war there was still some latent sectionalist feelings, which the Confederacy tried to exploit without success, but they were insignificant compared to the pro-Union majority.

An example of that support is Levi Scofield’s monument in Columbus Ohio depicting eminent Ohioans who served the Union during the civil war.

It depicts:

Three Eminent Union Generals

  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • William T. Sherman
  • Philip Sheridan (Although not born in Ohio he was raised there)

Two Members of Lincoln’s Cabinet

  • Salmon P. Chase (Not born in Ohio but an Ohio Governor and Senator)
  • Edwin Stanton

Three Future Presidents (All of whom served in the Union Army)

  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • James A. Garfield
  • Rutherford B. Hayes


Sectional differences on slavery erupted periodically in the early 19th century, but were settled if temporarily by various compromises:

  • 1820 Missouri Compromise
  • 1850 Compromise
  • 1854 Kansas/Nebraska Act

Had these compromises not forestalled the civil war, the outcome may have been totally different with a sectionally minded and southern leaning NW Territory.

When war finally arrived in 1861 the railways had removed the isolation of the NW, and reduced the influence of the southern connection, leading to the triumph of the Union.

Top Lesson for Project Managers

What can we as project managers learn from these events?

  • Just because something appears in a particular way does not mean that a disruptive event or technology cannot change things decisively and very rapidly
  • Bear in mind that there are no certainties, when engaged in strategic or business planning
  • Things can be much more nuanced than we think
  • Understand, why we are and where we are, but be prepared for change


Victory Rode the Rails – George E. Turner

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Rashid N Kapadia

    Your knowledge of history, and your skill at extracting PM insights from history is breathtaking.
    These are unique and superb articles!
    Keep writing and posting

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