Educator-turned-historian, Thomas F. Army, Jr., has provided an important account of how the engineering capacity of the North defeated a determined but ill-prepared and ill-equipped Confederacy in its bid for independence. He does this in thirteen engaging chapters divided into three sections: the first on education, business and industry in mid-19th-century America; the second covering the requisite skills necessary to support the logistical infrastructure of a massive war machine; and the third offers applied examples of U.S. Army engineering prowess and how that translated into Union victory.
Army notes that little attention has been paid to this topic. General Grant barely mentions it in his memoirs; Lee ascribed his defeat largely to being overwhelmed by larger economies of human and industrial resources. In one succinct paragraph, the author proposes his central thesis:
“This volume serves as a corrective [to these earlier approaches]. The Union’s critical advantage over the Confederacy was its ability to engineer victory. The North won because, in the decades before the war, Northerners invested in educational systems that served an industrialized economy. Furthermore, the labor system in the North rewarded mechanical ability, ingenuity, and imagination. The labor system in the South failed to reward these skills. Plantation slavery generated fabulous wealth for a slim percentage of the Southern white population. It fostered a particular style of agriculture and scientific farming that limited land use. It curtailed manufacturing opportunities, and it stifled educational opportunities for the middle and lower classes because those in political power feared that an educated yeomanry would be filled with radical ideas such as women’s equality, temperance, and worst all, abolition.”
There can be no argument with any of this. The laissez-faire capitalism of the North fostered all of these things, especially the growth of education as embodied in the mechanic’s institutes increasingly dotting the landscape of cities burgeoning above the Mason-Dixon Line. It also encouraged a paper investment economy often several times removed from immediate liquidity which tightened the industrial grasp of so-called “robber barons” that, despite their rapacity and ruthlessness, helped establish one of the most fruitful socio-economic systems on earth. Southern planters’ investment in land and slaves simply did not prompt a society based upon broad education, fierce competition, and dynamic internal growth.
Thus when war came the Confederacy was at a distinct disadvantage, and Army explains how this revealed itself most clearly in a lack of technical proficiency in engineering. Three examples will suffice. First, of all the technologies impacting the war effort, none were as of more immediate importance than the railroad. Army points out that by 1861 there were 31,500 miles of track in the United States, 22,000 of which (nearly 70 percent) were in the North. The establishment of the United States Military Railroad (USMR) in 1862 gave the rail a coordinated network of national character that would have a telling logistical effect on moving troops, goods, and rations. The South had nothing comparable. By the time the Confederate Congress attempted to coordinate the management of its rail, steamboat, and canal systems on February 19, 1865, it was too little too late. A second example is the poorly constructed Fort Henry on the banks of the Tennessee River. With the site selected by Colonel Bushrod Johnson, an “engineer” by proclamation rather than practice, with the approval of planter-turned-general Daniel Smith Donelson, the fort gave little evidence of expertise in military engineering. It was constructed so close to the eastern bank of the Tennessee River that the five-sided earthen structure was prone to flooding, while its awkward position exposed three sides to enfilading canon fire. The coordinated efforts of Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote in February 1862 made the fort an easy capture. The fall of Fort Henry would ultimately pave the way for the seizure of Nashville, leaving the Confederate interior vulnerable to invasion under the relentless march of William Tecumseh Sherman. This would culminate in Army’s final example of how engineering won Union victory, namely, the surrender of Atlanta on September 2, 1864. This singular achievement of logistical management helped assure Lincoln’s victory over McClellan in the coming election less than a month later. With this, the hope of an armistice and a political victory for Confederate independence ended.
The establishment of the United States Military Railroad (USMR) in 1862 gave the rail a coordinated network of national character that would have a telling logistical effect on moving troops, goods, and rations. The South had nothing comparable. By the time the Confederate Congress attempted to coordinate the management of its rail, steamboat, and canal systems on February 19, 1865, it was too little too late.
Each of Army’s examples (there are others) support his central theme that engineering made an appreciable difference in the outcome of the war. Robin Tatu has called it “the Union Army’s silver bullet.” This, however, raises two questions. First, how balanced is the author’s coverage? Second, to what extent may engineering alone be considered the essential factor in Union victory?
With regard to the first question, there seem to be curious omissions in Army’s analysis. It is surprising, for example, to see no mention of Lemuel Grant (no relation to the Union general). Grant, Captain of the Confederate Engineering Bureau, was the senior engineer in charge of Atlanta’s defenses, and he built an elaborate system of fortifications, many of which can still be seen today. The complete absence of Captain Grant in Army’s discussion of the siege of Atlanta is all the more surprising given his admission that “the fortifications surrounding the city of Atlanta … posed a formidable obstacle to Sherman’s three armies.” Another curious omission, especially given Army’s emphasis on the siege and eventual capture of Vicksburg, is the absence of another book of the same title, Justin S. Solonick’s Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). Solonick carefully points out that the siege was more important in signaling a transition to a new kind of warfare and an end to old trench style siege works instituted by French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban nearly 200 years before. Instead, Army gives bare mention of Vauban and fails to place this in a larger historical context.
I would not be the first to point out Army’s over-emphasis upon Union engineering efforts. Andrew J. Wagenhoffer has observed that:
“Army … frequently matches the Union at its best with the Confederacy at its worst, which might in some places serve to unnecessarily exaggerate disparities in engineering capability. The book rightly points to serious Confederate deficiencies in the areas of railroad management, reluctance to take troops out of the line in order to form engineer units, labor inefficiency, and other factors, but often seems overly critical of actual achievements. The author offers only grudging praise of Confederate combat engineering during the Atlanta, Overland, and Petersburg campaigns and is less than impressed with their efforts at Vicksburg. Additionally, the book’s overall negligence of naval affairs in favor of land campaigns means the conversation misses out on Confederate technological innovations in the areas of heavy ordnance, ironclad warships, submarines, and torpedoes (nautical mines).”
Wagenhoffer’s assessment is revealingly honest. Army commits the one-sided fallacy, an imbalance of evidence that may not invalidate his argument, but surely makes it at the least incomplete and at most suspect.
This leads to a second nagging question. Was it really, as Tatu says, the Union’s “magic bullet”? With a topic as well covered as the American Civil War, this really becomes an issue of historiography. Army is right to suggest the preeminence of the Union’s rail system over the Confederacy, an observation that is hardly new. Historian of the South, Charles W. Ramsdell, said as much a century ago. Others such as Robert C. Black, III’s The Railroads of the Confederacy (1952) and George Edgar Turner’s Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of Railroads in the Civil War (1953) made significant additions to Ramsdell’s analysis that are now more than 60 years old.
If the slave-based economy kept the South from achieving the same progressive successes as the North, a point well made in Engineering Victory, then the continuation of Jim Crow in the South cannot be overlooked as a factor extending these regional imbalances. The point is, much more than conventional engineering was going on in mid-19th-century America—significant socio-economic “engineering” was in play as well.
There is also a sense in which ascribing so much to Union engineering is important but too limited a view to give it “silver bullet” status. Many things lay at the heart of the Union victory. While the social and economic features of the rapidly industrializing North are correctly explained by Army as the source of this engineering effort, this too is not new. Historians have long chronicled the socio-economic differences that drove the disparities between North and South. More importantly, the Beard-Hacker thesis, developed in the first half of the 20th century by historians Charles and Mary Beard (1927) and Louis M. Hacker (1940), pointed to the socio-economic forces of industrial capitalism in establishing a “second American revolution.” Richard Franklin Bensel’s Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 (1991) essentially agreed with the Beard-Hacker thesis but added that far from establishing a revitalized South the war only served to further marginalize it into a colonial economy serving the interests of Northern business and industry. If the slave-based economy kept the South from achieving the same progressive successes as the North, a point well made in Engineering Victory, then the continuation of Jim Crow in the South cannot be overlooked as a factor extending these regional imbalances. The point is, much more than conventional engineering was going on in mid-19th-century America—significant socio-economic “engineering” was in play as well.
Army’s argument for the importance of engineering in part relies upon the assumption that the Confederacy actually had a chance to win the war, but it allegedly hinged upon the South’s prolonging the war and the election of Lincoln’s opponent, George B. McClellan. The surrender of Atlanta to Union forces on September 2, 1864, prevented this by providing the timely victory needed to ensure Lincoln’s re-election on November 8. This scenario is speculative since McClellan himself repeatedly denied that he would sue for peace; McClellan “the peace-maker,” an oft-repeated Republican charge encouraged by the South’s wishful thinking, still lodged itself permanently in the collective memory as fact. A more realistic assessment came from Shelby Foote in episode seven, “Most Hallowed Ground,” of Ken Burns’ PBS Television series, The Civil War:
“I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back. At the same time the war was going on the Homestead Act was being passed, all these marvelous inventions were going on, and in the Spring of ’64 the Harvard/Yale boat races were going on and not a man in either crew ever volunteered for the army or the navy. They didn’t need them. I think that if there had been more Southern successes, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that war.”
While diminishing Army’s single cause for Union victory, Foote’s comments actually underscore much of Army’s argument. The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged free soil expansion in the American West, and Foote might well have added the Morrill Act passed that same year would establish the national, federally-funded network of land grant colleges. It was the antebellum mechanic’s institute on steroids. Foote even acknowledges all those “marvelous inventions,” a product of Yankee ingenuity and industry (in both senses of that word). So long as immigrants could fill the ranks, America’s elites—those boys in the 1864 Harvard/Yale boat races—could stay out and did. Foote merely recounts as a historian what Texas Governor Sam Houston predicted. Houston refused to join the Confederacy not because he opposed states’ rights but because he thought the war unwinnable. “You may,” he warned his fellow Texans, “… as a bare possibility, win Southern independence, if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of State rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union.” The North’s resolve remained unshaken through four bloody years of conflict, but its minimalist approach could be seen in Lincoln’s initial belief that the rebellion could be quelled with 90-day volunteers, and in the halting efforts of its generals that would follow until “fighting generals” such as Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were found. Truth is, both sides underestimated one another, but for the South it was fatal.
Having said all this, Army is correct in highlighting the role of engineering in winning the war, but it is just one aspect of a very complex concatenation of factors leading to Union victory. Engineering Victory is as much about wartime logistics—the movement, supply, and support of forces—as it is actual engineering. While Army’s book may not provide much that is new, its synthesizing under one cover the leading influences impacting the war’s logistical challenges and accomplishments is a valuable contribution to Civil War literature. Brian Holden Reid has recently commented that “the study of Civil War logistics is still an untilled field; a great deal of work remains to be completed on matters great and small.” Here Army has “tilled” a good deal of valuable historical soil related to this crucial topic. Army’s efforts may at times be incomplete, it may suffer from Union-centered myopia, but overall this is an extremely useful book. It is thoughtfully written and easily accessible. Its deficits notwithstanding, every academic library and Civil War specialist—scholar and enthusiast—should have it on their shelves.