On the Shelf

On the Shelf

The Union Army’s Silver Bullet

Superior technical skills gave Northern forces a decisive edge against the South.

Engineering Victory: How Technology Won the Civil War
By Thomas F. Army.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. 369 pages.

You don’t have to be a Civil War buff to enjoy Engineering Victory. Its perspective is a compelling one, and sure to fascinate Prism readers. Other scholars have noted the resource advantage enjoyed by the industrialized North; here, Thomas Army highlights industry-derived skills and acumen that aided the war effort. The Union used engineering to ingenious ends, he argues, and by doing so, secured its victory. And beyond military strategy, educated officers, and trained engineers, Union forces benefited from the many recruits steeped in experience with carpentry, masonry, mechanics, blacksmithing, and road and railway construction. A key yet neglected reason for Northern dominance can be found in “the textile mills, railroad yards, small farms, and mechanics’ shops of antebellum America,” he writes.

The two regions’ educational systems are integral to the story. Southern education—and, ultimately, technical agility—were hampered by a conservatism informed by the institution of slavery. Suspicions of “half-educated masses” who might imbibe radical ideas such as abolitionism helped discourage formal learning for all but the plantation elite. By 1860, a mere 18 percent of Southerners attended school. Military academies provided the rare opportunity for middle-class education, while plantation gentlemen were privately tutored in classical programs of Latin, Greek, chemistry, history, literature, and music.

By contrast, Northern communities invested in common, or public, schools because local developments in “commerce, transportation technology, finance, and innovation” increased the need for an educated workforce. While Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and others began pressing for educational reform, the decades before the war saw the emergence of advanced technical education at schools such as the U.S. Naval Academy (1845), Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (1855), and Cooper Union (1859). Frustrated with Southern conservatism and envisioning a polytechnic that could “[connect] science to its practical applications,” William Barton Rogers abandoned the University of Virginia to found the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Army highlights other venues that disseminated knowledge and technology tools in the North, including mechanics’ institutes, agricultural fairs, and manufacturing exhibitions. He contrasts the North’s growing network of railroads with the disparate, privately operated Southern lines. It was not just Northern railroads but also the industry’s “technological innovations, labor formations, and new management systems” that would prove crucial during wartime campaigns.

While Northern engineer regiments at first were reluctant to accept untrained recruits into their ranks, the pressing need to “avail ourselves at once of all the resources which the mechanical skills and ingenuity of the country can furnish” led Maj. Gen. George McClellan, who organized the Army of the Potomac in 1861, to override such objections. It was no coincidence that the first Volunteer Engineer Regiments hailed from New York, where projects in industry, mechanization, and transportation were vigorous. Edward Wellman Serrell, who headed the 1st New York Volunteer Engineers Regiment, was a civil engineer who had worked on the Erie Canal, a Massachusetts tunnel, and two suspension bridges.

Thrilling engineering feats contributed to significant campaigns. At Vicksburg, engineers had to solve the problem of crossing Mississippi’s Big Black River—immediately. On May 17, 1863, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered repair of the railway bridge destroyed by retreating Southerners and three additional floating bridges constructed from riverbank pine trees, dismantled warehouses, houses, and barns, all bound to makeshift cotton bale pontoons. Teams worked “all night by the light of brushfires,” and by the next day, 44,000 men, 38 artillery batteries, wagons, and supplies began crossing the bridges. In similar fashion, in late June 1863, the 50th New York Volunteer Engineer Regiment constructed a 1,340-foot pontoon bridge in just five days. Supported by 64 boats and three crib trestles, the bridge helped transport 90,000 soldiers, horses, artillery, and supply wagons across the Potomac River towards the decisive battle of Gettysburg. This was only one of 86 bridges built by the regiment during the war.

Army, a longtime independent school history teacher and headmaster who earned a Ph.D. in history in 2014, makes a convincing case for the pivotal role of engineering. In this dense but readable volume, he demonstrates how workers’ collective skills allowed the Union to “take the war to the South,” moving thousands of men and equipment across daunting terrain and waterways. “Both sides had skilled warriors and generals,” Army writes, “only one side had an overwhelming number of skilled mechanics, craftsmen, and engineers.”

Review by Robin Tatu

Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.
Image Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press/ThinkStock