Abraham Lincoln (1861 to 1865): The Great Uniter

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

Of course, Abraham Lincoln is best remembered for preserving the Union during its darkest hours and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederate states. However, his notable career as an Illinois lawyer, representing and defending railroads, had a profound influence on transportation policy and significantly shaped the nation’s infrastructure development. 

Lincoln’s law offices in Springfield, Illinois. Source: Zol87. 

In 1856, Lincoln represented railroads after a steamboat named the Effie Afton struck a newly constructed railroad bridge spanning the Mississippi River. The steamboat spun out of control, hit the bridge’s pier, and quickly burst into flames. Approximately 200 passengers and crew were able to escape, but nearly all the merchandise, machinery, and livestock were lost. The railroad bridge, the first one ever constructed across the Mississippi, was destroyed.  

The lawsuit that resulted was one of the most important in railroad transportation history. At the time, St. Louis was the country’s steamboat capital and city leaders encouraged lawsuits to be filed against the railroads. St. Louis business interests were feeling threatened by the ascendancy of the railroads and the cities (such as Chicago) which were growing around railroad junctions.  

Lincoln successfully defended the railroad companies, and in his closing arguments he argued that the railroads would bind the nation together and help preserve the Union. One of the incident’s legacies was that all future bridges would be constructed so that navigable waters would not be impeded. 

Lincoln’s career coincided with a railroad boom. During the 1850s, nearly 3,000 miles of tracks were built in Illinois, alone. Lincoln’s court cases not only launched him into the national spotlight, but also provided him with insight that laid the groundwork for one the nation’s most expansive transportation projects: the construction of the transcontinental railroad. As a U.S. senator from Illinois, he ran for president on a platform that supported federal incentives to construct a railroad that would connect the eastern states with the Pacific Ocean. 

In the 1840s and 1850s, Congress had lengthy debates about a range of transcontinental railroad questions, including: Where would it start and end? Who would pay for it? Who would build it? The lawmakers were unable to develop a consensus because representatives from the southern and northern states promoted their own preferred routes. 

When the southern states seceded, Congress coalesced around a northern route, and in 1862, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, establishing a public private partnership that would physically and symbolically unite the east and the west. The 1862 Act authorized construction to two companies: Central Pacific (an existing California railroad) and Union Pacific Railroad, a new railroad chartered by the Act itself. By presidential decree, Lincoln selected Council Bluff, Iowa as the eastern terminus.  

The legislation provided federal subsidies in the form of land and construction loans. Because the railroads were unable to obtain all the financing they needed, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1864 which doubled the size of the land grants. 

Union Pacific crews built the railroad westward, often laying more than a mile of track in a day. The work was arduous, with many men working 12-to-16-hour shifts, seven days a week, with few weekends off. The Central Pacific started its construction in Sacramento and headed 1,700 miles east, constructing 15 different tunnels across the Sierra Nevada.  

Construction crews encountered numerous life-threatening challenges as they spanned rivers and burrowed through mountains. Over 8,000 laborers, primarily Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, worked westward, while more than 10,000 predominantly Chinese workers advanced eastward from Sacramento. More than 1,000 workers lost their lives during construction. 

 Map showing Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines. Source: Cave Cattum. 

Railroads in the Civil War 

The former railroad lawyer understood the importance of the railroads for both peaceful and military uses. In 1862, Congress passed a law authorizing Lincoln to take possession of all railroad and telegraph lines in the United States. 

 The Civil War marked a significant departure from previous conflicts due to the strategic use of railroads, a relatively new technology, which enabled the rapid and reliable movement of large numbers of troops, equipment, horses, and supplies across vast distances. This innovation also influenced the location of battles. Unlike earlier wars, where battles were typically fought near populated areas, the Civil War saw many engagements in remote and sparsely populated regions, thanks to the accessibility provided by the railroads. 

 Photo of Union Army’s railroad battery and crew near Petersburg, Virginia. The cannon is mounted in a specially made armored car that moves along a track. Source: Library of Congress. 

Because railroad facilities were so vital to logistics and manufacturing, Lincoln’s generals destroyed railroad facilities all across the South. And, they prepared for enemy attacks. For instance, before General Tecumseh Sherman marched his troops to Atlanta, he trained 10,000 troops in railroad repair so that his supply line would not be permanently severed. Sherman calculated that one railroad line supplied him with 100,000 men and 35,000 animals over the course of 196 days. Without the railroad, he would have needed 36,800 wagons pulled by 6 mules each, an impossibility given the state of the roads in the region.  

Although President Lincoln was assassinated before the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific joined in Utah, he would be seen as the “Great Uniter” who not only kept the Union together, but also connected the two coasts by rail, cutting travel time from several months to less than a week. This monumental achievement became the ultimate symbol of manifest destiny — the 19th-century belief that the United States was destined to expand across the continent. 

Dr. Simmons is the founder and president of Beth- El Academy, and author of the book, “The Sticky Bottom and Living Just above Broke.” Philip Plotch is Eno’s principal researcher. 

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