Express and Freight

   From the very beginning of mobilization, in the spring of 1861, is was clear that the Confederacy was short of rolling stock of all types. Throughout the war, there are telegrams, letters and reports indicating large quantities of goods that were waiting for railroad transportation.
   With such a press of goods to be moved, someone had to decide what would get moved and what would have to wait for a later train. This decision was made by the station agent, often under the orders of the local Quartermaster. How these two men decided what to forward and what to delay is subject to speculation only. We do know that there are many reports of goods not being forwarded to their destination in a timely manner.
   As the war progressed, it became clear that to get goods through without unnecessary delay, it was necessary to send a messenger along with the goods to ensure the station agents were pressured enough to keep the goods moving. Small shippers, who could not afford to send a messenger with their goods, could get a messenger by hiring the Southern Express Company. This company maintained good relations with the various railroads and frequently rented cars from the roads for its exclusive use. With a separate car, a messenger, and good relations with the railroad, it is easy to see why the Express Company was so widely used for small, important or expensive shipments.
   Everyone made use of the Express Company in the later years. There are records of the various Confederate departments and bureaus shipping a great variety of supplies by the Express Company. Private citizens, aid groups and manufacturing companies all came to rely on the Express Company to get their goods through.
   With a near-monopoly on reliable movement of goods, the Express Company raised its prices again and again. Eventually, at least one newspaper made a crusade against the increasing costs of shipping by the Express Company and took the railroads to task for failing to provide this service as part of its status as a common carrier. Some railroads took the criticism to heart and established their own express service (at much lower rates). 
   The crusading newspaper claimed that the rates were too high. Yet the Southern Express Company was a rational business and raised its prices to the level that the market would bear. There was only so much space for moving goods and someone had to allocate that space among the people who wanted to use it. Price was the method used -- as it is always used unless the government takes over and allocates based on governmental priorities (a fatally flawed system for running an economy for the long term, as proven by the Soviet Union).
   There were claims that the station agents and Quartermasters were working with speculators to create high prices for the speculators' goods. These charges are easy to make, but I have seen nothing that could be used as proof that such happened. Of course, there would have been little put on paper for us to find 150 years later. Common sense would say that human nature would cause at least a few of the agents to have worked with speculators at least a few times.
   Could the Express Company's high rates have been avoided? Could the railroads have moved this freight in a timely manner? Of course, by charging different rates for different speeds of handling, as we do today. But doing so would have required a level of business skill that was not evident in the railroads of the South.