Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Smith: "ENGINEERING SECURITY: The Corps of Engineers and Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1861"

[ Engineering Security: The Corps of Engineers and Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1861 by Mark A. Smith (University of Alabama Press, 2009). Hardcover, map, illustrations, tables, notes, bibliographic essay, index. Pages main/total: 218/276. ISBN: 978-0-8173-1665-5 $54 ]

Dominating U.S. national defense planning for the first half of the 19th century, the Third System could be regarded as the first truly integrated plan for resisting seaborne invasion by a foreign power (the previous two regimes being "systems" in name only). Mark A. Smith's multi-faceted new book Engineering Security: The Corps of Engineers and Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1861 thoughtfully explores its implementation within military, economic, and political contexts. Along the way, he effectively counters the view that the Third System forts were obsolete failures during the Civil War, instead arguing persuasively that these military installations largely fulfilled their intended roles.

Smith demonstrates that the Board of Engineers, the new bureaucracy tasked with the site selection and design of the forts, enhanced the prestige of engineering officers within the army, a situation that, in turn, advanced the cause of institutional professionalism. The Board also brought to the fore a notable group of West Point-trained American engineers, an important step in ending dependence on foreign expertise (with the obvious attendant benefit of decreasing foreign knowledge of American defenses).

Perhaps a lesser appreciated consequence of the Third System was its fostering of local economies. Just like the frontier army helped cultivate the economic development of the western territories, Third System fort construction often increased the demand for local labor, raw materials, and industry. This profitable private development then created regional constituencies that would ensure political support for both regional and national defense policy.

Of course, the Congress, then as now, held the national purse strings, and the approval of the country's elected officials was crucial to the Third System. Contrary to the assertions of some historians, Smith contends that the Third System received consistent congressional support throughout the antebellum period, with the peaks and valley of each year's funding allocation primarily due to transient economic and foreign policy conditions rather than fundamental political and ideological disagreements. Unsurprisingly, Congress saw to it that line-item funding would replace lump sum annual appropriations to be managed by the Board of Engineers. Thus, the pet projects of individual legislators would be advanced, a progenitor of today's pork barrel politics. On the positive side, funding of one regional project tended to eventually spread to other areas, leaving no stretch of coastline entirely undefended (although, in some cases, it did take decades to do so).

In basic terms, the Third System employed permanent coastal fortifications backed by local militia, a small regular army, and an internal transportation network. Inherited by the Confederacy, the system would received its first and only test during the Civil War. Smith summarizes its performance in a short section at the end of his book. While there were certainly stunning defeats (e.g. Admiral David G. Farragut's passing of Forts Jackson and St. Philip below New Orleans and Brig. Gen. Quincy Gillmore's reduction of Fort Pulaski with land batteries) to be considered, Smith makes a strong case that the system, in the context of its original design and reasonable predictions for the development of future military technology, largely fulfilled expectations.

The forts were not designed to hold out indefinitely, but rather were intended to check an enemy naval force until reinforcements arrived. If one takes into account the period between the approach of invading union forces and the surrenders of Forts Macon, Pulaski, and Jackson-St. Philip, one can see that a more than reasonable period of time intervened for the dispatch and arrival of reinforcements. The limiting factor was the manpower and material weakness of the Confederacy, not the overall failure of the system. The Confederate held forts were undermanned, ill-supplied, and inadequately armed (in both number and modernity of guns). One could argue, as Smith does, that the system planners could not have foreseen the astonishingly rapid advances in heavy cannon development (especially that of the massive rifled pieces) that would afford Union land and sea forces a decisive advantage in range and destructive power. Steam navigation was another significant factor in rendering the Third System forts obsolete, but again the forts were not designed to withstand naval attacks without a supporting network of obstructions. The Charleston harbor defenses were a good example of a successful integration.

The high profile, vertical design of so many of the Third System masonry forts is another frequent criticism, but the author reminds readers again that the designers could not have predicted the devastating penetrating power of the newest rifled artillery. Additionally, the multiple levels of casemated emplacements were essential for maximizing the number the guns in the smallest space possible, at the time a reasonable trade off of defensive strength for firepower. Ironically, the Union navy's ironclads designed in part to reduce them had the opposite problem -- immensely strong protective armor but only feeble offensive capability.

A wish list for the book might include more illustrations. A single map marks the location of Third System forts selectively along the Gulf and Atlantic seaboards. A few drawings of fort designs were present, but the faintness and size reduction of their reproduction hinder their usefulness. Also, while a helpful source essay is placed at the end of the book, a complete bibliography is absent.

Those issues aside, Engineering Security is a remarkable history of the development of a U.S. defense policy that would remain in place for roughly half the nineteenth century. It also traces the rise of the engineer officer within the American military power structure. Moving beyond purely military matters, Smith's study effectively utilizes the events and circumstances surrounding the planning and implementation of the Third System as an opportunity to develop broader insights into antebellum politics and society.

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