An Accurate Account of the “Men Who Built America” Part 11

This is the eleventh in my series of posts about the five businessmen the History Channel profiled in a terribly inaccurate and un-historical TV miniseries titled The Men Who Built America. I’m writing these posts in response to several comments and e-mails from TV viewers who have expressed interest in a more accurate version of the story. (Click here to see all Al’s columns on the program and its subjects.)

Post #11: Carnegie During the War Years

Carnegie had only held his job as Western Superintendent for a couple years when the Civil War broke out. Although he would describe himself as a pacifist in later years, he was passionate in his support for the Union war effort.

Soon after coming to the United States he had become an ardent abolitionist. In letters to his cousin Dodd back in Scotland he often described slavery as a violation of everything America stood for, and predicted that it would come to an end soon. A letter he wrote in 1852 is typical:

Allow me to say that I am an enthusiastic & ultra abolitionist, admit and deplore the great evils that necessarily flow in the wake of slavery feel as keenly the great wrong perpetrated upon the African as you can do. It is the greatest evil in the world and I promise you that whatever influence I may acquire shall be used to overthrow it. In short I am a Republican and believe in our noble declaration that “all men are born free and equal.”

Dodd was not the only one who heard about his political sentiments. Andrew wrote several anti-slavery letters-to-the-editor while he was still a teenager, and at least one of them was published in a New York newspaper. He even formed a literary society among railroad employees to debate the political issues of the day, most of which involved the expansion or curtailment of slavery. In November of 1860 Carnegie was old enough to vote in a Presidential election for the first time, and he proudly cast his vote for Abraham Lincoln.

The 1860 election set in motion the forces that made the Civil War inevitable. On April 12 of 1861, just thirty-nine days after President Lincoln’s inauguration, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, and the war was on.

The Union side very nearly lost the war in the first few days. Washington, DC is located on the border between Virginia and Maryland, two antebellum slave states. Virginia joined the Confederate side right away, and the Governor of Maryland showed a similar inclination. 

Lincoln had not had the foresight to bring large numbers of troops into the capital before hostilities began. As his government attempted to correct this oversight, pro-Confederate mobs in Maryland tore up railroads and bridges to prevent the transport of Northern troops to Washington from the port cities of Baltimore and Annapolis on Chesapeake Bay. The same kind of mob violence, overlooked or even encouraged by the Maryland governor, destroyed the north-south railway through Maryland into Washington from Harrisburg, PA. Cut off from the most viable routes for the movement of troops, the capital could easily been overrun by the Confederate armies then being assembled under General Robert E. Lee.

As soon as war broke out, Lincoln’s Secretary of War wisely persuaded Thomas Scott to take a leave of  absence from his job with the Pennsylvania Railroad and come to DC to take charge of the rapidly deteriorating transportation situation. Scott immediately pursuaded Carnegie to come and help him.

Carnegie’s first task was to re-establish rail service and telegraphic communications between Chesapeake Bay and Washington. He tackled the challenge with his usual tireless energy and ruthless efficiency. Crews worked around the clock to repair the roads and bridges. A locomotive that had been taken out of service and disassembled was quickly put back into running order. On April 25 Carnegie personally supervised the first trainload of troops from Annapolis to the capital, riding in the locomotive with the engineer and fireman to watch for obstructions on the rails.

Spotting a place where anti-Union vandals had grounded the telegraph wires, Carnegie jumped off the train to release them. One of the wires sprang up and cut his face. He would ever after boast that he was the first man to be wounded in the defense of the capital.

Once Scott and Carnegie’s efforts had provided the President with sufficient troops to defend Washington, Scott assigned Carnegie oversight of all rail and telegraph lines south into Virginia. It took Carnegie and his crew only a week to replace a frail horse bridge over the Potomac with a railroad bridge stout enough to carry troop trains. By July 16 Carnegie’s men had built a transportation and communication infrastructure that allowed a large Union force to attack Confederate troops near Centreville in the First Battle of Bull Run.

The untried Union troops didn’t perform well, and the battle turned into a route. Soon Carngie’s trains were busy ferrying wounded troops back to the capital. Despite the early defeat, Carnegie’s optimism about the Union war effort was undiminished.  “You shall at no distant time,” he wrote to a friend, “be able to proclaim in New Orleans that God has made all men free and equal and that slavery is the sum of all villanies.” (sic)

Carnegie’s Scotish constitution was not made for the heat in Virginia in July and August, and shortly after Bull Run he suffered sun stroke while supervising road construction in the area. While he was convalescing Scott, now Assistant Secretary of War, asked Carnegie to take a desk job in Washington. The two of them would once again be working in adjacent offices in the same building. Scott had charge of all Union railroad and telegraph operations, and Carnegie became his assistant.

President Lincoln would frequently visit Carnegie’s office to get the latest information from his generals in the field. Lincoln found an admirer in Carnegie, who called him “the most perfect democrat, revealing in every word and act the equality of men.” The President, said Carnegie, “had a kind word for everybody, even the youngest boy in the office.”

 Carnegie was beginning to prove the truth of Benjamin Franklin’s favorite proverb. He was widely recognized for being “skilled in his work,” and while he had not yet stood before any kings, the twenty-five year old had already stood before a US President.

In September Carnegie, still in fragile health, returned to Pittsburgh to resume his old job with the Pennsylvania. The railroad was taxed to the limit hauling war materiel from Pittsborgh’s factories and provisions from Pennsylvania farms, along with all the usual civilian traffic. In addition to his duties with the railroad, his ever-expanding investment portfolio made demands on his time. In May of 1862 his health failed him, and acting on his doctor’s orders he took a leave of absence from the railroad.

With nothing to do for the next couple months but rest, and with more than sufficient financial means, he took his mother back to Scotland for a visit. His vacation was marred by a bout of Pneumonia that threatened his life. When he finally regained his health he sailed for home. He would continue to be sensitive to hot weather for the rest of his life.

Carnegie’s business interests continued to expand during the remainder of the war years. He made very successful investments in the nacent oil industry, the Western Union telegraph company, an iron foundry, and a bridge building company. By 1863, according to his income tax return, he was only getting about about five percent of his income from his full time job with the railroad.

The other ninety-five percent came from his other interests, all of which (except for Western Union, in which he didn’t play any significant management role) could have benefited from his more-direct involvement. His patriotism and anti-slavery passions were the only things that kept him on the railroad payroll. He quite rightly saw his efforts to keep the trains running on time as a significant contribution to the war effort. In late March of 1865, with Union forces closing in on the Confederate capital, Carnegie collected his last paycheck and resigned. General Lee surrendered twelve days later.

Next week’s post will cover John D. Rockefeller’s childhood.

Anyone who wants to receive these posts by e-mail is welcome to click the “Subscribe” button on the right-hand side of this page. There is no charge for a subscription.

Back to top.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top.