TV movie review: Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana–Split Rails to Steel Rails

Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana is a PBS documentary series based on the book by famous Indiana historian James H. Madison. The documentary series is split into four parts: Birth of a State, Split Rails to Steel Rails, the 20th Century, and the Next Indiana.

Split Rails to Steel Rails covers the period of time from the Civil War to World War I and focuses on war, business, and culture. The documentary is narrated by Madison and includes interviews with various people, like the Editorial Page Editor of the Northwest Indiana Times (Marc Chase) and a retired Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (Randall J. Shepherd).

War seems to hold a special place in the Hoosier state, and Indiana has more than its share of war memorials. Indiana sent the most men to fight in the Civil War, second only to Delaware—two-thirds of eligible-aged Indiana men served in the Civil War. Troops were organized by ethnic groups and counties, which meant that they were often fighting side-by-side with family and neighbors.

Lew Wallace, later known as the author of Ben-Hur, selected the site of what was the State Fairgrounds—and what is currently Military Park—as the site for training volunteers. This training site—Camp Morton, named after the governor during the Civil War—morphed into a POW camp.

From 1862 to 1865, Colonel Richard Owen managed this camp of 3,000 POWs. Despite 50 prisoners dying per month, after the end of the war, the prisoners raised funds to have a sculpture of Owen made in honor of the humaneness he showed told the Confederate soldiers in the camp. (You can see the sculpture in the Indiana Statehouse.)

Governor Morton had a decidedly difficult time financially supporting the Union and funding the government. Democrat Copperheads, or those Democrats who didn’t support the Union, controlled the legislature and blocked the state contributing money to the Union cause. In a seemingly modern-day move, the Republicans fled the legislature so no quorum was possible. In retaliation, the Democrats decided not to dispense ANY money, which meant that the Indiana government risked grinding to a halt.

In an attempt to keep the government running, Governor Morton turned to the Madison banker James Lanier for funding. In 1861, the two decided that Lanier would buy $400,000 worth of bonds—perhaps not quite an above-board tactic—to prevent government shutdown.

How much of the war was waged on Indiana soil? Not much. The only battle was Morgan’s Raid in 1863, when Confederate troops crossed the Ohio River at Corydon. They blazed a path of destruction, mistakenly thinking that sympathizers to the Southern cause would rise up. None did. (I recently learned of another foray across the river, by Adam “Stovepipe” Johnson at Newburgh. Basically, Johnson’s foray was a hit and run excursion, intent on gathering supplies and firearms before retreating back over the river.)

Originally, Indiana settlements existed by waterways, the quickest means of transportation that connected communities. But in the second half of the 1800s came the railroad, which changed the pattern of population in the state. The steepest incline was in Madison; the Reuben Wells steam engine, specifically made for the Madison incline, can be seen at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis became a transportation hub for the railroads. In 1853, the first Union Station, meant to be one station shared by all railroads, was built in Indianapolis. By 1890, 120 trains were stopping in Indianapolis every day.

An equally impressive system of interurbans crisscrossed Indiana towns. Eventually, with the rise of the automobile (that had an incredible early history in Indiana) came the demise of the interurbans. (The only one that exists today is the South Shore.)

Indiana was a big center of business, from the Ball Company in Muncie to Eli Lilly, L.S. Ayres, and Madam C.J. Walker in Indianapolis. The limestone of southern Indiana was quarried for buildings such as the statehouse (1886) and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1902). In the 1870s, the coal mines suffered through strikes and unions, resulting in the firing of workers and the hiring of their children. (Children were less apt to cause trouble or unionize, and could be paid less.)

Into this maelstrom came Eugene V. Debs. Originally he believed that the best course of action for workers was to do a good job; managers would recognize the good work with good pay. Eventually, faced with reality, he changed his views and organized unions (the railroad union in 1894) and strikes (think the Pullman strike). Change, he saw, was only possible through politics. In his core, he believed in the dignity of all people.

In the late 1800s, 13% of the population in Indianapolis was German. German immigrants looked around at the culture and traditions around them and concluded that it was lacking in refinement (ouch!). Instead, they created their own vibrant society with German organizations, clubs, symphonies, theatre, and schools.

World War I destroyed the German culture in Indiana. Kurt Vonnegut, famous 20th century Hoosier author, described how he was raised ignorant of the rich heritage of German music, literature, culture, and language—all because Germans in the early 20th century assumed that ignorance of their culture and traditions was necessary in order to be patriotic. Bits and pieces still exist today as German festivals or the Athenaeum (Das Deutsche Haus, which incidentally Vonnegut’s father was an architect for) in Indianapolis.

The documentary continues with a third part that looks at Indiana from World War I to the present time.

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