Monday, August 8, 2016

Review of Hacker, ed.: "ASTRIDE TWO WORLDS: Technology and the American Civil War"

[Astride Two Worlds: Technology and the American Civil War edited by Barton C. Hacker (Smithsonian Institute Scholarly Press, 2016). Hardcover, photos, drawings, tables, notes, index. 268 pp. ISBN:978-1-935623-91-5. $37.95]

The timing of the American Civil War is situated roughly halfway between the Battle of Waterloo and the industrialized carnage of the Great War. Ever since, scholars and enthusiasts alike have attempted to place the Civil War within the nebulous confines of one military epoch or the other. However, the eight essays in Astride Two Worlds, edited by Barton Hacker, are less interested in arguing whether the Civil War was the last Napoleonic war or the birth of modern warfare and more concerned with specifically examining (from the title of editor Barton Hacker's introductory essay) "how technology shaped the conduct of the war", the expectations and realities of which contained elements of both eras.

Merritt Roe Smith begins the book with an essay on the North's arms manufacturing industry, both the government and private spheres. While the ability of firms to produce inexpensive and relatively simple rifles on a large scale remains impressive, many still could not come up with the contracted numbers. Smith, by noting the infeasibility of the industry's ability to generally equip the army with the vastly more expensive and technologically complicated repeating rifle, effectively counters modern critics who still often contend that the Union didn't do nearly enough to exploit new innovations in shoulder arms. Interestingly, many rifle producers were dependent on parts subcontracting (a practice frowned upon by the army over quality control concerns) for order fulfillment, and Smith credits this "dispersal of production" for creating New England's machine tool industry, which in turn kickstarted the country's post-war industrial boom.

Steven Walton's following chapter looks at innovations in the casting of heavy artillery, as well as breech reinforcement techniques (ex. banding) that presaged the "built-up" artillery types of future wars. Greatly enhancing comprehension are the excellent diagrams that accompany the article, which is rather technical in nature. Walton and Smith's contributions both reinforce what we already knew about the North's unmatched superiority in producing rifles, pistols, and artillery but the details they provide are fascinating.

The modern concept of C3 (Command, Control, and Communications) is used by Seymour Goodman to discuss the passage of information, within and without, Civil War armies. At the most basic level are sound systems such as voice orders (relayed personally on the battlefield or through couriers) and musical instruments in the form of drums and bugles. Old and new sight technologies like battle flags, the latest optics (ex. telescopes and binoculars), and photography (to copy orders and maps) constituted another means of obtaining and disseminating tactically significant information during the war. Aerial telegraphy (e.g. the Signal Corp flag and torch systems of both sides), balloons, and electric telegraphy had both tactical and strategic uses, but integration varied. Efficient rail and postal systems also greatly enhanced communication between armies separated by great distances. However, even with the advent of steam transport and the telegraph, truly revolutionary enhancements in battlefield C3 would have to await the inventions of the telephone and radio. A salient omission by Goodman in this discussion was the free press. Newspapers were important sources of military information for both sides, but they also represented a critically important information flow between the army and the home front.

While the U.S. Cavalry Bureau is often praised in the literature, David Gerleman's article is highly critical of the army's deficiencies in veterinary horse care, which resulted in high horseflesh wastage rates that could have been to a large degree prevented by staffing mounted regiments with trained veterinarians entrusted with proper rank and authority. According to the writer, the low priority the army placed on equine care was not just an antebellum and Civil War phenomenon, and it wasn't until 1916 that a proper Veterinary Corps was sanctioned by Congress.

During the war, the Confederates developed a special interest in spar-torpedo boats as part of their effort to combat the Union Navy's vast superiority in capital ships. The essay from Jorit Wintjes persuasively argues that the potential of spar-torpedo boasts was significantly overrated given the inherent limitations of the close-range weapon system itself as well as the incapacity of Confederate industry to produce the kind of fast and sleek vessels required for effective use (or their engines). The South also lacked both the manpower to crew torpedo boats in large enough numbers to make a strategic difference and the skilled technicians needed to maintain the fleet. On the other hand, isolated success against single targets was proven possible. Wintjes notes that European navies were inspired by the concept and developed torpedo ships of their own that were deployed in wars of the 1860s and 1870s (ultimately to no great impact).

Like the other contributors, Sarah Jones Weicksel's chapter examines a particular technology (in her case, personal body armor), but she uniquely addresses the cultural meaning of its use. Weicksel documents Civil War society's general view that body armor represented an unseemly fear of death and demonstrated on the part of the wearer an unwillingness to sacrifice oneself for cause and country. While this romantic admonition abated someone under the weight of the war's horrors, the stigma remained. Eventually, some in the public came to view the wearing of armor as a positive good, preserving the wearer's life so he could return home to take care of his family and be a productive member of society, a notion that the manufacturers themselves attempted to reinforce through their marketing campaigns.

A strong case could be made that it was a significant mistake for the Army of the Potomac to disband its Balloon Corps in 1863. However, John Macaulay argues in his article that the Confederates developed clever deception techniques (some examples being Quaker guns and dummy encampments) that proved effective in countering balloon reconnaissance. Nevertheless, one might also maintain that the time, effort, and expense involved in elaborate deception and concealed movement on the part of the enemy made the simple presence of friendly balloons in the air worthwhile.

Finally, antebellum and Civil War designs for both balloon-assisted and heavier-than-air flying machines are reviewed in the book by Tom Crouch. The chapter is a captivating survey of inventors, their designs, and their dreams (though one might wish for more drawings of some of the concepts, several of which anticipated the helicopter). While every contraption foundered on various technological and physical world limitations, it was recognized by many promoters and critics alike that these problems could eventually be overcome. Though less prominently featured than in Weicksel's essay, there is also a cultural component to Crouch's piece, which indicates a surprisingly large public awareness of and enthusiasm for the possibilities of manned flight.

Effectively repurposed from a 2012 Museum of American History symposium, the eclectic essays collected in Astride Two Worlds often stray from the familiar and at the same time offer interesting interpretations of the roles played by a selection of Civil War military industries and technologies. Most contributions offer foreign and/or domestic historical context, and many make insightful connections with the future, as well. Highly recommended.

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