Sunday, September 18, 2022

Booknotes: Engineering in the Confederate Heartland

New Arrival:
Engineering in the Confederate Heartland by Larry J. Daniel (LSU Press, 2022).

Northern engineers and their engineering exploits have been featured and celebrated in a number of recent Civil War railroad, fortification, and technology studies. Finally offering detailed insights into the other side's engineering capabilities is Larry Daniel's new book Engineering in the Confederate Heartland, which "fills a gap in th(e) historiography by analyzing the accomplishments of these individuals working for the Confederacy in the vast region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, commonly referred to as the Western Theater."

As was the case with most northerners who lent their professional engineering expertise to assist the volunteer mass armies of the Union, "(m)ost Confederate engineers possessed little to no military training, transitioning from the civilian tasks of water drainage, railroad construction, and land surveys to overseeing highly technical war-related projects." While the tasks of Union military engineers were often offensive in nature, defense-oriented Confederate engineers were called upon most to "utilize their specialized skills to defeat, or at least slow, the Union juggernaut."

Internal and external obstacles hindered Confederate military engineers at every turn, but the sheer scope of land mass that needed to be defended was one of the most challenging problems they faced. The nature of the ground was another. More from the description: "The geographical diversity of the Heartland further complicated their charge. The expansive area featured elevations reaching over six thousand feet, sandstone bluffs cut by running valleys on the Cumberland Plateau, the Nashville basin’s thick cedar glades and rolling farmland, and the wind-blown silt soil of the Loess Plains of the Mississippi Valley." Also, as Kenneth Noe recently documented in exhaustive fashion, across the country from mountains to plains weather had it own say in the matter. "Regardless of the topography, engineers encountered persistent flooding in all sectors."

Daniel's study also seeks to reshape long-held popular beliefs regarding the scope and successes of the Confederacy's western engineer corps. His work "challenges the long-held thesis that the area lacked adept professionals. Engineers’ expertise and labor, especially in the construction of small bridges and the laying of pontoons, often proved pivotal. Lacking sophisticated equipment and technical instruments, they nonetheless achieved numerous successes: the Union army never breached the defenses at Vicksburg or Atlanta, and by late 1864, the Army of Tennessee boasted a pontoon train sufficient to span the Tennessee River. Daniel uncovers these and other essential contributions to the war effort made by the Confederacy’s western engineers."

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