[Engineering Victory: How Technology Won the Civil War by Thomas F. Army, Jr. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:320/383. ISBN:978-1-4214-1937-4. $49.95]
No one would deny that the field engineering skills displayed by the Union Army during the Civil War, both by specialized units and by skilled officers and men of regular volunteer regiments, materially contributed to victory in countless campaigns, but Thomas Army takes this argument a step further in his book Engineering Victory: How Technology Won the Civil War. Given the Confederacy's supposed advantages in strategic imperative, terrain, and sheer land mass1 along with the similarities in training, tactical doctrine, and weaponry between contending sides, Army argues that the engineering prowess of the Union fighting man (combined with the engineering deficiencies of the Confederate Army) served as the key component of military victory.
Army divides the book into three parts. Part I documents the knowledge and education gap between North and South as it specifically pertained to engineering, project/business management, and labor culture. The book looks at common school systems in the sections and concludes that northern reforms and financial support far outstripped those of the South. Northern states recognized early on that their burgeoning industrial economies required a supporting system of mechanical education in order to the provide the skilled labor pool needed, and Army perceptively points toward northern initiatives aimed at expanding the reach of knowledge transmission by way of not only university programs but also agricultural fairs, lyceums, and mechanics's institutes. While the slave system was a closed, top-down arrangement with little input (or personal motivation to increase productivity) from the workers themselves, Northern free labor fostered innovation at all levels, with many laborers striking out on their own after a time and applying improved methods (learned through experience along with trial and error) to new commercial concerns. The explosion of railroads in the North would also lead to the creation a large pool of skilled managers, engineers, mechanics, and artificiers, all of whom could be harnessed by the Union war effort.
While Army's contention that great sectional disparities in mechanical, engineering, and scientific education existed in the antebellum U.S. is surely true, his widely shared view of a southern upper class actively suppressing access to public education has been somewhat contested by recent scholarship, among the most interesting being Sarah Hyde's work (to be published in book form later this year2) on public schooling in antebellum Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Still, for the purposes of Army's engineering arguments, the fact remains that the South's public school system was aimed primarily at a classical education, with a science and technology emphasis greatly dissimilar in scale and breadth to the North's.
Part II of Engineering Victory looks at the earliest Civil War applications of military engineering, during the 1861-62 campaigns in the eastern and western theaters. A major theme here is the forward looking recognition that the Union army's immense growth required a similar expansion in engineering capability, and meeting this challenge would require volunteer units staffed with civilian engineers and skilled laborers. The book documents the initial resistance of the army's professional engineers and their gradual (but never total) acceptance within their specialized field of the presence of volunteers. Army also selectively, yet effectively, contrasts the Union's early aggressive engineering efforts with the Confederacy's muddled ones. The author persuasively argues that, by the end of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, the "the inability to establish an engineering bureau in Richmond, poor maps, few soldiers willing to labor on engineering projects, and no engineer battalion or regiment in any of the armies in the field" (pg. 129) hampered the effectiveness of Confederate armies during the first half of the war and beyond.
More specific, and greatly more detailed, examples are the order of the day in Part III. In this section, Army astutely constructs case studies highlighting the prominent role military engineering played in the Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, Red River, Petersburg, Atlanta, and Carolinas campaigns. Most often centering around Union bridge construction, road building, canal construction, and railroad/logistics management (along with some siege techniques), Army's vignettes are well researched and well described but, mostly important, they very clearly and specifically link these engineering feats to the victorious outcomes of the campaigns (the Red River disaster being the salient exception).
The Confederate side is not ignored in this part of the book, but it is very much pushed into the background. Army also frequently matches the Union at its best with the Confederacy at its worst, which might in some places serve to unnecessarily exaggerate disparities in engineering capability. The book rightly points to serious Confederate deficiencies in the areas of railroad management, reluctance to take troops out of the line in order to form engineer units, labor inefficiency, and other factors, but often seems overly critical of actual achievements. The author offers only grudging praise of Confederate combat engineering during the Atlanta, Overland, and Petersburg campaigns and is less than impressed with their efforts at Vicksburg. Additionally, the book's overall negligence of naval affairs in favor of land campaigns means the conversation misses out on Confederate technological innovations in the areas of heavy ordnance, ironclad warships, submarines, and torpedoes (nautical mines).
Even for the campaigns mentioned, the author often fails to counter Union achievements with corresponding mention of important moments in Confederate engineering. A striking example relates to the 1864 Red River Campaign. Army rightly credits the wing dam system created by Union engineers with saving the fleet from being trapped above the falls at Alexandria, but he neglects to mention that the river's precipitous fall was largely the result of an ingenious feat of hydro-engineering on the part of the Confederates3. Nevertheless, the book makes a powerful case overall that the North out-engineered the South, even after taking into account vast differences between the sides in available finances, material resources, industry, and pools of skilled manpower.
Engineering Victory documents in fine fashion the role of the mechanical arts and their skilled management in the Union triumph over the Confederacy. But was engineering really the singular tipping point in Union military victory that author Thomas Army believes it to have been (after all, engineering was one of many tools often wielded by federal forces to asymmetrical advantage during the war)? Those that grasp warfare's myriad of complexities are generally suspicious of such reductionist claims (and if they are not, they should be), but one can still appreciate the value of various well formulated arguments underlying a central theme while rejecting the headline conclusion4. A thoughtful treatise on an important subject related to war, culture, and society, Engineering Victory is highly recommended reading.
1 - While these factors are often construed as advantageous to the Confederacy, they could also be serious liabilities. Defending an immense land mass with most key cities (and many industries) located along the periphery meant that it was politically necessary that all these widely separated strategic points be protected at all times. Union leaders, on the other hand, could pick and choose where to attack, and the South's poorly maintained railroads seriously diminished the traditional advantage of interior lines. This geography also created a related strategic conundrum. That the Confederacy did not have to win a war of conquest, but only survive a defensive war on its home ground (which additionally consisted of a land mass great enough to afford the ability to trade space for time), seems advantageous on paper, but the reality was that the very outer areas yielded early in the war contained critically important cities and irreplaceable industrial capacity. Terrain is also often cited as a benefit to the Confederacy, but major rivers, especially in the west, were all too often less useful as defensive barriers to key strategic points and more useful as unbreakable all-weather Union invasion and logistical support avenues. They also served to divide vast contested areas into manageable sectors of Union occupation.
2 - Schooling in the Antebellum South: The Rise of Public and Private Education in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (LSU Press, Fall 2016).
3 - This aspect of the campaign remains little known among more general readers, but it has been prominently featured in the recent literature, most notably by historian Gary Joiner in his 2006 book Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West (University of Tennessee Press).
4 - Other examples might include Daniel Sutherland's book on the "decisive role" of guerrillas (A Savage Conflict, 2009) and Marc Egnal's study (Clash of Extremes, 2009) lending economic factors primacy in discussing the Civil War's origins.