Mattoon, Illinois to Columbus, Kentucky Great American Railroad Journeys


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Mattoon, Illinois to Columbus, Kentucky

Riding the mainline of mid-America, Michael Portillo stops at Mattoon, where he gets a taste of the early life which shaped Abraham Lincoln.


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I have crossed the Atlantic,

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to ride the railroads of North America

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with my reliable Appleton's guide.

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Published in the late 19th century,

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my Appleton's General Guide to North America

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will direct me to all that's novel,

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beautiful, memorable

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and striking in the United States.

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THEY SHOUT

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As I journey across this vast continent,

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I'll discover how pioneers and cowboys conquered the West.

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And how the railroads tied this nation together,

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helping to create the global superstate of today.

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The so-called Mainline of Mid-America

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takes me deeper into the fertile heartland of Illinois -

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Abraham Lincoln country.

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At the time of my guidebook, this was a land of plenty,

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above and below ground.

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I'm continuing towards the south.

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During my time in Illinois,

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my journey has taken me away from the Mississippi

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but I've been running parallel with it,

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and the river will feature again in my travels

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before I arrive in Memphis, Tennessee.

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During the years immediately after my guidebook,

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the United States overtook Great Britain

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as the world's largest economy -

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an extraordinary achievement

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in the century since its war of independence.

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I want to discover what fuelled the people and the machines that carried

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America from its political through to its industrial revolutions.

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My rail journey has charted the birth of the industrial Midwest.

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I started in Minneapolis, a 19th-century powerhouse,

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before heading south along the trade route of the Mississippi

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to La Crosse in rural Wisconsin.

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Striking out east, I called at Lake Michigan's Milwaukee,

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then headed south to recall rail's golden age in Chicago.

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I'm now travelling south again through Illinois' rich prairies,

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whose produce fed the urban masses,

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before I end my journey

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at the musical utopia of Memphis.

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Today I start in Mattoon, Illinois,

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continue to the fruit bowl of Centralia

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and the coalfields at Carbondale,

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before ending back on the great Mississippi

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in Columbus, Kentucky.

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Along the way I'll be testing my frontier resolve...

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Abraham Lincoln split rails, and then the United States.

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..unearthing Illinois' elixir of life...

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I'm making apple butter.

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See, all this fruit makes you young and good-looking, Michael.

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..and learning about Civil War tactics.

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Grant is a military commander who never made the same mistake twice -

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he understood that war is total war.

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You fight it to win or you don't get in.

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I'll be visiting Mattoon, Illinois.

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The guidebook tells me that the Chicago branch

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of the Illinois Central crosses here

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and here are the machine shops,

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roundhouse and car works of the railroad.

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But I'll be heading into the countryside

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to investigate the humble origins of the most divisive,

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most decisive figure in United States history.

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The junction town of Mattoon was born in the 1850s

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and soon flourished as the United States railroad network grew.

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Close by, it's possible to glimpse rural Illinois

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as it was before the trains arrived.

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The Lincoln Log Cabin Historical Site recreates a lost way of life

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that shaped the character of one of America's greatest presidents.

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This log cabin is moving.

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It gives a very good idea of the meagre conditions

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of Abraham Lincoln's childhood.

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And you can imagine, no doubt, that he would learn here

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the necessity of hard work and the virtues of self-reliance

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and I understand how that would create a man of principle.

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But few people have written or spoken more beautiful English prose

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than Lincoln. And I wonder how he learnt that craft.

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This is the reconstructed home

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of Abraham Lincoln's father and stepmother,

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Thomas and Sarah Lincoln,

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in its original location.

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Matthew Mittelstaedt looks after this historic site.

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Matthew.

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-Good morning.

-Hi. Michael. Good to see you.

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Well, basic living, eh?

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It is. But, really, it's a simple home

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but it was a home that was familiar to a number of Americans

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in addition to Abraham Lincoln.

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Born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana,

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Abraham Lincoln had left home

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by the time that Thomas and Sarah finally settled here.

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But they continued to live the frontier lifestyle

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that he had known as a boy.

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Children had to work in those days.

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They did. Children worked very hard.

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They were part of the economy of the farm and of the home.

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Children were taught to work very young.

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Girls were learning to sew and to stitch and to cook just beside

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their mother. Boys were learning to take care of the livestock,

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filling up the firebox, bringing the water in from the well.

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Splitting rails, of course.

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Abraham Lincoln is known as the Rail-Splitter in his later years

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as a politician. But that was a very common chore on the farm.

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Made out of felled trees with pioneers' sweat,

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split-rail fencing marked boundaries and penned in livestock.

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My image of Lincoln is tall and gangly and,

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of course, rather cerebral.

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Was he good at splitting rails?

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He was. Everyone understood splitting rails

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and so being the Rail-Splitter candidate in 1860,

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they understood that to be a hard worker, a honest man.

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And so they utilised that imagery...

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to further his campaign.

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The man who writes the Gettysburg Address -

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where do you think he got that power with the English language from?

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Abraham Lincoln loved to read.

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You know, he started as a young boy reading from the Bible

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but then he went on to read poetry.

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And Lincoln liked to think of himself as a poet anyway.

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The Gettysburg Address actually begins in a very biblical way, doesn't it?

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-"Four score and seven years ago..."

-It does indeed.

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Lincoln left his father's farm aged 22

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and found work as a boatman and a shop clerk.

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Self-taught, he became a successful attorney

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before moving into politics.

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To find out how life on the frontier shaped the great man,

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I'm attempting to get to grips with his rustic daily slog.

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-So this is what all the good fences around here were made of?

-Yes, sir.

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Abraham Lincoln split rails, and then the United States.

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I'm teased that a seasoned rail-splitter

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could get through about 700 of these logs a day.

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Ah! Tough work.

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Yes, it is.

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I can see why you'd want to sit in the Oval Office after this.

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Doing well.

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Thank you, Mark.

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-Yay!

-Well, you did pretty well.

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About 699 to go.

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About another 2,000 to finish up fixing the fence over there.

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I'm your man, Mark. Don't worry. Have faith.

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When Lincoln's nephew visited him in Washington

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at the height of the Civil War in 1864,

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he commented that if his uncle hadn't been

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brought up to maul rails, he would never have withstood

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the rigours of the White House.

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I believe him.

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I'm picking up my rail journey to delve deeper into the countryside,

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for a sweeter taste of Illinois' agricultural heritage.

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HORN BLARES

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My next stop will be Centralia, Illinois.

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The guidebook tells me we've entered the great fruit-growing region

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of central Illinois.

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"For many miles, the railroad traverses a country of prolific orchards.

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"Vast quantities of peaches are shipped annually to Chicago."

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Fruit brought zest to an otherwise unhealthy city.

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I owe that insight to my APPLE-ton.

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Centralia lies at the midpoint of the Illinois Central's rail route.

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BELL RINGS

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I'm struck by an unexpected landmark.

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This is a carillon,

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an instrument that sounds through bells in a tower.

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It had its European heyday over 300 years ago

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but became popular in America in the 20th century.

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Sorry to interrupt you.

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I was frankly surprised to find a carillon in the United States.

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Are there many in the USA?

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Oh, yes. There are around 180 in the States.

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Where does the carillon originate?

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The carillon comes originally from the Netherlands and Belgium.

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-And where are you from?

-I am from the Netherlands.

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And how long have you been working here?

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I've been working here... This is my very first day.

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-Your very first day?

-My very first day.

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HORN BLARES I hear a locomotive.

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-Yes.

-And that gives me an idea.

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Do you have a train piece you can play for me?

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Absolutely. I was thinking about Chattanooga Choo Choo.

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Take it away, Roy.

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BELLS PLAY CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO

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I've made my way east, out into Centralia's green belt.

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My guide claims that this region enjoyed great prosperity from its fruit.

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I'm joining the apple harvest with historian John Shaw.

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John, when did they start planting fruit around Centralia?

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The first settler came here in 1817,

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and one of the first acts was to plant an apple or two.

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That would have been just for his own consumption, I suppose?

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-Yes.

-My guidebook mentions vast quantities of peaches

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going to Chicago.

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So what made the difference? What enabled them to go commercial?

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The railroad was the thing that made it all possible.

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They could take their fruit to Centralia, put it on a train

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and have it in Chicago the next day or sometimes in two days.

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Later, as the markets developed more,

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they started growing strawberries and peaches and raspberries -

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all sorts of fruit in this area.

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Now, I would have thought that strawberries, raspberries and so on...

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..need to be kept very fresh, don't they, on the journey?

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That was the big problem when they first started -

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they would try to ship strawberries directly from the fields

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and that did not work for strawberries.

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And then in 1866, at Cobden, about 70 miles south of here,

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a man by the name of Parker Earle developed a system.

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He built boxes that would hold 100lb of ice

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and 200 quarts of strawberries.

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Just a year after Parker Earle's pioneering ice chests,

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the first refrigerated rail car was patented.

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Known as reefers, by the 1880s,

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these cars were supplying much-needed variety

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to the monotonous diet of pioneers and industrial workers.

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This orchard belongs to the Schwartz family

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who have been cultivating a variety of fruits here since the 1950s.

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-I'm Michael.

-Michael. Tom.

-And what are you doing in that pot?

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I'm making apple butter.

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And you call it apple butter because you would spread it on bread?

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You'd spread it on bread. It's apples that's been cooked down.

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You can cook as long as eight or nine hours.

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Is it very traditional, Tom?

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Yes. Very.

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But do you think it goes back to the days of Abraham Lincoln,

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-all the way back there, do you think?

-I'm sure that's why he looked so good.

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-See, all this fruit makes you young and good-looking, Michael.

-MICHAEL CHUCKLES

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Mm, wow!

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-Look at that!

-Nice and thick.

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-Cooked down just right.

-Mm!

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Oh, it's fabulous. And it's really nice when it's still warm, isn't it?

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-Oh, it's still warm. Oh, yeah.

-Mm!

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This farm is a family affair.

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On the production line, Tom's brother takes charge of packing.

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But he welcomes an extra pair of hands,

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and it's a pleasure to help out.

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How long have you been pouring apple butter?

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-50 years.

-And so this is typical, is it?

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-You get the family together like this?

-Oh, yeah.

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Nobody else'll put up with us.

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There we go, sir.

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You're getting better. I tell you what -

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he's on probation but I guess he'll work out.

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You're hired!

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As night draws in, I'm returning to the railroad station

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to board the last train of the day.

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My next stop will be the appropriately named Carbondale.

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Appleton's says that the principal business of the area is coal mining,

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about a dozen companies being in active operation.

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Coal was needed by the steel mills, by the factories of Chicago

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and by the railroads.

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All right, ladies and gentlemen, the next and final station stop

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will be Carbondale.

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Early morning. I'm making my way to explore the commodity that was

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essential to America's railroads.

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-Hello, Rosemary.

-Hello, how are you?

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-Good to see you.

-Good to see you.

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-Where are we headed?

-We are headed to the mine.

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Rosemary Feurer is a professor of history at Northern Illinois University.

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Rosemary, here we are in this tremendous opencast mine

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here in southern Illinois. When did they first mine coal in this state?

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The first coal mines were in the 1830s but, really,

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it starts getting its traction with the railroads.

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The railroads needed coal for steam

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and they needed to use it for transportation,

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but then industrialisation was highly dependent upon coal.

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The 19th-century American coal industry

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relied heavily on immigrant labour.

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British miners were highly prized for their experience

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of dangerous deep-shaft mining.

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This skilled workforce that was needed - was it well paid?

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At first, yes. But, over time,

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employers kept bringing in more and more immigrants

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and they kept mechanising.

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By the 1880s, coal had overtaken wood

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to become the country's largest source of energy.

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But by then, coal miners' wages had fallen.

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Miners battled against their employers

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for better pay and conditions.

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The British workers brought traditions of unionism

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to the state of Illinois. They formed the first miners' union in the country in the 1860s.

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The conflicts came because this was a very anti-union culture,

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as far as the mine owners were concerned.

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So where did that all lead?

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There were a series of very bloody struggles

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in which dozens of workers were killed in the state of Illinois,

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and it's because that's what it took to form a union in this state.

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From the 1890s to the 1920s,

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all of Illinois became unionised

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and that meant that they could govern what the wages were.

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They could say eight hours or nothing.

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So it was a real power for the unions.

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Today, mechanisation has transformed the industry.

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But coal is in the veins of the people of Illinois.

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-Hello, Sue.

-Hi, Michael.

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-How are you?

-Lovely to see you.

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What a pleasure, what a privilege.

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I've arranged to meet Sue in her family's cafe,

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where they commemorate the community's mining heritage.

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Sue, what is your connection with mining?

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Both sides of my family - the Elwoods,

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who came from Newcastle-on-Tyne, and the Littles,

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who came from the border area of Scotland and England -

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came here, ended up working in the coal mine.

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Who is this in this photograph?

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This is my husband's father.

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He's 14 years old.

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They didn't go to school.

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They worked.

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Is your dad on this wall?

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Back there.

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That's Bud Little.

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How did your dad feel about working underground, given the dangers?

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My dad loved it.

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And if you ever talk to a soldier who'd been in combat,

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you'd get the same feeling.

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It was, everybody was a group.

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They helped each other.

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They protected each other's back, they worked together.

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My dad loved it.

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Don't ask me why.

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Have you ever been in a mine?

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Yeah, there you go.

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I have. I agree with you.

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-I don't understand it.

-I don't understand it but he loved it.

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It's time to leave Illinois,

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but the rails don't take me where I'm going.

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So I've arranged a lift in a fine Corvette.

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Hey, Jimmy. I'm Michael. Good to see you.

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I'm heading over the Mississippi to the state of Kentucky,

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which my Appleton's tells me had a crucial role

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in the American Civil War.

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So, what are the qualities of Kentucky, do you think?

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Well, we have a lot of farming.

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-Real small communities.

-And what are the people like?

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Oh, very nice.

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All watch after one another.

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A lot of respect.

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The men still open the doors for the women.

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-And the women don't object?

-No.

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-Safe journey.

-You too.

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Bye-bye.

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It was starting in 1860 that Lincoln, the Rail-Splitter,

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split the Union.

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He opposed any territorial expansion of slavery.

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And on his election as president,

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a majority of slave-owning states broke from the Union

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to form the Confederate States of America.

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This quiet spot played a pivotal role

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in the bloody conflict that followed.

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"Columbus, Kentucky," says the book,

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"is situated on the slope of a high bluff,

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"commanding the Mississippi for about five miles.

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"At the outbreak of the Civil War,

0:23:370:23:38

"it was strongly fortified by the Confederates,

0:23:380:23:41

"who regarded it as the northern key to the mouth of the Mississippi."

0:23:410:23:45

The river was the artery, the aorta of the South,

0:23:450:23:50

and the Union intended to convert it into a meandering rift that would

0:23:500:23:55

tear the Confederacy apart.

0:23:550:23:57

History professor Berry Craig has joined me

0:24:100:24:13

at this former Confederate fort

0:24:130:24:15

to chart the course of the Mississippi campaign.

0:24:150:24:18

Well, it's obvious from where we are and the guidebook emphasises it

0:24:200:24:23

that we're at a strategic point from the point of view of the river.

0:24:230:24:26

Did it have other strategic elements?

0:24:260:24:28

Oh, yes. A railroad came in here.

0:24:280:24:30

The Mobile and Ohio Railroad which, of course, would supply an army.

0:24:300:24:35

It's a very, very strategic place, that when the Confederates come in,

0:24:350:24:39

they heavily fortify this place with artillery.

0:24:390:24:42

Now, if you look down the river,

0:24:420:24:44

they first had long-range guns that could reach way down the river.

0:24:440:24:48

If you happened to come through those guns,

0:24:480:24:51

they had mid-range guns next.

0:24:510:24:53

If you didn't get this close to Columbus as we are here,

0:24:530:24:57

the short-range guns come in. It's a murderous field of fire.

0:24:570:25:01

General Ulysses S Grant on the Union side

0:25:020:25:05

knew that control of the Mississippi was critical.

0:25:050:25:08

A bold assault on impregnable Columbus

0:25:080:25:12

was his first test on the Civil War battlefield.

0:25:120:25:16

What is the Union strategy?

0:25:160:25:18

Grant comes on 7th November 1861 to probe the Columbus outer defences

0:25:180:25:24

at Belmont, Missouri, which is just over there.

0:25:240:25:27

Well, at this point, the Confederates send reinforcements

0:25:270:25:30

across the river, Grant find himself surrounded.

0:25:300:25:33

Now, Grant's troops think, what's the logical thing to do?

0:25:340:25:38

Surrender. Grant said, "Oh, no.

0:25:380:25:41

"We fought our way in, we'll fight our way out."

0:25:410:25:43

And he did.

0:25:430:25:44

Having battled back to safety,

0:25:440:25:46

Grant revised the Union strategy.

0:25:460:25:49

He encircled Columbus by conquering nearby forts,

0:25:490:25:52

until Confederate commanders were left so vulnerable

0:25:520:25:56

that they relinquished their prize stronghold.

0:25:560:25:59

The Union river campaign drove south and pushed northwards

0:26:000:26:04

from the Gulf of Mexico to seize New Orleans.

0:26:040:26:07

In the summer of 1863, the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi,

0:26:080:26:12

brought the mighty river under Union control

0:26:120:26:15

and split the Confederacy east and west in two.

0:26:150:26:19

What role does this play in the career of General Ulysses S Grant?

0:26:200:26:24

I think it very much illustrates the kind of commander he is.

0:26:250:26:29

Grant is a military commander who never made the same mistake twice.

0:26:290:26:33

He understood that war is total war.

0:26:330:26:35

You fight it to win or you don't get in.

0:26:350:26:38

Grant was made commander of all Union armies in 1864.

0:26:380:26:42

Five years later, he became the 18th President of the United States.

0:26:430:26:48

What do historians say of the significance of the battle here?

0:26:490:26:54

Some historians think that the North won the Civil War

0:26:540:26:57

right here in this part of the country.

0:26:570:26:59

It took four years and cost 600,000 lives,

0:27:000:27:05

but the eventual triumph of Union forces

0:27:050:27:07

ended the Confederate secession, and abolished slavery.

0:27:070:27:11

Abraham Lincoln was raised in a place of toil and resilience.

0:27:190:27:24

But he witnessed a new industrial America,

0:27:240:27:27

fuelled by coal and driven by railroads.

0:27:270:27:30

There was just one thing about the United States that was not modern -

0:27:300:27:34

slavery,

0:27:340:27:35

an economic system that had been abolished by competitors

0:27:350:27:38

like Great Britain.

0:27:380:27:40

The Civil War would resolve whether,

0:27:400:27:43

as Lincoln was to put it later at Gettysburg,

0:27:430:27:46

a nation dedicated to the proposition

0:27:460:27:48

that all men are created equal could endure.

0:27:480:27:52

'Next time, I ride the perilous Mississippi...'

0:27:590:28:02

How safe was it to travel on the steamboats?

0:28:030:28:06

It was extremely hazardous.

0:28:060:28:08

There was great danger.

0:28:080:28:11

Sinking from boiler explosions, from fire.

0:28:110:28:14

'..get my ducks in a row...'

0:28:140:28:16

-There they go. Don't let them get away!

-Oh!

0:28:190:28:21

I think this is the bizarrest thing I've ever been involved in.

0:28:210:28:26

'..and dive deep into the Blues.'

0:28:260:28:28

HE PLAYS A BLUES RIFF

0:28:280:28:31

Armed with his 19th-century Appleton's Guide, Michael Portillo continues his 1,000-mile journey, beginning and ending on the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Tennessee. Riding the mainline of mid-America, Michael stops at rural Mattoon, where he gets a taste of the tough early life which shaped President Abraham Lincoln. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Michael struggles to split one rail compared with Lincoln's estimated 700 a day. Basket in hand, Michael joins the Schwartz family apple harvest in Centralia and learns how to make apple butter. He uncovers industrial unrest in the coal mines of Carbondale then heads to Kentucky and the banks of the Mississippi, where a bloody conflict unfolded which proved decisive in victory for Lincoln's Union.