Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Review - "Engineering in the Confederate Heartland" by Larry Daniel

[Engineering in the Confederate Heartland by Larry J. Daniel (Louisiana State University Press, 2022). Hardcover, maps, photos, drawings, tables, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,153/216. ISBN:978-0-8071-7785-3. $45]

The routinely brilliant accomplishments of the Union Army's engineers and specialized engineering units have been lavishly documented and praised in a number of recent Civil War railroad, fortification, and technology studies. Citing northern economic, educational, and cultural investment and incentives that together produced wide sectional disparities in engineering achievements and innovation, Thomas Army's recent study Engineering Victory: How Technology Won the Civil War (2016) went so far as to argue that the Union Army's superiority in military engineering was the key to victory. Acknowledging that the South faced daunting odds in those categories, Larry Daniel's Engineering in the Confederate Heartland nonetheless argues powerfully that talent enough existed in the western Confederacy to meet the army's engineering needs. Additionally, when providing professional assistance to Confederate western theater defense, these civilian turned military engineers produced noteworthy achievements of their own under the most trying conditions.

Much in the way of Confederate military engineering-related content is spread among the literature's many western campaign and battle histories, but Daniel's study marks the first real attempt at compiling that material into a cohesive theater-level survey. In persuasive fashion, this combined narrative and theme-based history of Confederate engineers and engineering operations lends support to those who maintain that theater-wide patterns of mismanagement when it came to strategy, defense prioritization, and resource allocation most powerfully explain the Confederate side's principal contributions to the string of early military disasters that plagued the West. Similarly drawn analysis was offered in Neil Chatelain's excellent naval history of the Confederate defense of the Mississippi River Valley (for more information on that, see Chatelein's Defending the Arteries of Rebellion).

Featuring on an individual level the western theater activities of a host of Confederate engineers both well known and obscure, readers quickly gain a solid administrative understanding of where (within departments, districts, and various formations within armies) authorities allocated the available pool of engineer officers. Also explained are the ways in which those engineers had a notable impact on major western campaigns. The text associated with these sections of the book is largely descriptive in nature, but both historical and modern criticisms of particularly controversial engineering decisions, plans, and implementations are duly raised by the author and judiciously reassessed. Overall, Daniel produces a solid argument that the engineering department was not a major underperformer that quickened the process of Confederate defeat in the West.

Daniel's quantitative analysis of the city of Nashville's industrial and mechanical talent pool, as well as that of the heartland Confederacy (Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia) on the whole, does offer a degree of counterpoint (though without any direct comparison to Midwest state occupation numbers) to the commonly presented picture of a South comparatively destitute of engineers, architects, artisans, carpenters, mechanics, and other similarly skilled workers. Even after taking account of the loose standards of the day when it came to defining jobs and professional specifications, Daniel's table suggests that sufficient numbers were available, the challenge being more about getting them into the army and up to speed on the new skill set of military engineering. Care in not stripping the home front of the skilled workforce necessary to sustain it also needed to be observed. Keeping talented officers, many of whom held prominent positions in the civilian sphere before the war, as relatively low rank and status military engineers proved difficult as well (by comparison, the combat branches offered higher prestige and far greater promotion opportunities for ambitious men). Readers of Justin Solonick's recent study of Union siege operations and engineering at Vicksburg might recall the many concerns voiced within Grant's army regarding its lack of professionally trained military engineers, only to have those fears largely disappear after the army's volunteer engineers picked up the slack in very effective fashion. Daniel's study shows that their Confederate counterparts in the West proved similarly able to learn on the job and achieve task competence at sufficient pace.

Daniel stresses geographical challenges Confederate engineers faced both in terms of the vast amount of territory that needed to be defended and the specific problems imposed by diverse western environments. Amid growing crossover between Civil War history and environmental studies, weather is becoming more emphasized as an opponent on par with enemy armies (for a great survey of the topic see Kenneth Noe's The Howling Storm), and western engineers certainly dealt with more than their fair share of muddy roads, floods, and washed out bridges.

The evolving organization of Confederate engineering units in the western theater is also usefully addressed in the book. By the war's midpoint, the Confederate Army possessed three engineer regiments and an engineer battalion (a force deserving of its own study). The Third Engineer Regiment was deployed in the West, with companies widely distributed among active army divisions and administrative districts. Daniel summarizes and evaluates their supporting roles in the Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Atlanta campaigns, the last representing the Army of Tennessee's engineer corps at its peak performance.

Other chapters address more specialized engineering activities. In the chapter featuring the theater's topographical engineers, Daniel finds that western theater map makers were, to use the author's oft-used descriptor, "adequate" in their performance yet still behind both their Union opponents and Lee's army in the East. According to the author, the Union Army's western mapmakers got an earlier start than their Confederate counterparts and were better organized and more skilled overall. Tested by trying military, material, labor, and environmental conditions, Confederate pontoniers also proved capable when it came to delivering on their assigned tasks. The pontoon engineering chapter's case study focus on the 1864 Tennessee Campaign is fertile reminder of what those bridging specialists were able to accomplish in the face of their cause's imminent collapse.

Recent works such as Sarah Hyde's Schooling in the Antebellum South: The Rise of Public and Private Education in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (2016) and Michael Frawley's Industrial Development and Manufacturing in the Antebellum Gulf South: A Reevaluation (2019) invite Civil War readers and scholars alike to reconsider popular preconceptions regarding the antebellum South's commitments to education and industry. In similar vein, Larry Daniel's slim but thoughtful and engaging new book Engineering in the Confederate Heartland offers Civil War students a fresh reappraisal of the western Confederacy's ability to, if not match, at least seriously contest the Union Army's vaunted engineering capabilities.


  1. Drew: This looks interesting. As for "the western Confederacy's ability to, if not match, at least seriously contest the Union Army's vaunted engineering capabilities", my ancestor Isaac, Co's C and D US Engineers Battalion, would welcome the challenge. Let 'em throw up a pontoon bridge across the James on short notice!

    1. John, did Isaac leave any writings behind that stayed with your family?

    2. Drew: He left three diaries from enlistment October 1861 to muster out October 1864. His sister sent him the 1862 diary in early April (just after he arrived on the Peninsula), so the October '61 - early April '62 is in the form of a recollection. It became daily entries about mid-April 1862. That one unfortunately disappeared but - fortunately - I had transcribed it. I have the 1863 and 1864 diaries.


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