Railroads | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Then & Now


Railroads were essential for the Union’s transportation of troops and supplies, especially the Pennsylvania Railroad, which ran the vital line through the state that connected Philadelphia with the Midwest. During the war, it doubled its profits and became the largest corporation in the world. As president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Tom Scott wielded great influence over government war efforts and, in 1861, was appointed the assistant secretary of war by President Lincoln. The Pennsylvania legislature was so subservient to the railroad that the expression “scot free” arose because it remained in session each year until Scott dismissed it.

After the war, Scott would continue to be an important figure in the state and federal government. He would authorize the South Improvement Company in 1872, under whose auspices John D. Rockefeller would found Standard Oil of the United States and control the great reserve of oil discovered in western Pennsylvania in 1859. Scott also placed Andrew Carnegie in charge of the military railroads in the east, who would use the million dollar profits on an oil strike in 1864 to later begin his steel empire. Scott would also play a major role in deciding the disputed 1876 Hayes-Tilden presidential election and subsequently introducing the “Scott Plan,” for the construction of a transcontinental railroad, as a component of the Compromise of 1877, which effectively ended Reconstruction.

Philadelphia was the nation’s largest producer of railroad cars and locomotives. The Baldwin Works, the largest company, built nearly 500 engines during the war. William Sellers and Company developed the turntable that enabled cars to be rotated efficiently; Whitney and Company led the nation in producing wheels for the cars.

Information for this section was contributed by Timothy Orr, The Pennsylvania State University.

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Primary Sources

  • Charles Winston Smith and Charles Judah, eds. Life in the North During the Civil War: A Source History (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1966).

Secondary Sources

  • Brian Butko and Nicholas Ciotola, eds., Industry and Infantry: The Civil War in Western Pennsylvania (Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 2003).
  • Matthew Gallman, Mastering Wartime: A Social History of Philadelphia During the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  • Walter Licht, “Civil Wars: 1850-1900,” in Randall Miller and William Pencak, eds., Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth (Penn State Press, 2002), pp. 202-56.
  • Grace Palladino, Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840-1868 (University of Illinois Press, 1990).
  • Phillip Shaw Paludan, “A People’s Contest”: The Union and the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Harper and Row, 1988).

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