Lincoln and the Tools of War
Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1956
Research and development:
Presidential and personal
President Lincoln takes a rifle in hand —
Lincoln and the Tools of War by Robert V. Bruce is an enjoyably unconventional history, which, as we begin it, seems out of step with what we're used to about Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War. What makes it different?
The Union and Confederate Armies in their campaigns and battles have been thoroughly documented and analyzed. There's much material about the political environment, the antecedents to war; and about diplomacy. Closer to the fighting we have logistics, with manufacturing and railroads, cotton and horses. We have catalogs of the small-arms and artillery used. But what about the development of weapons used in the actual fighting? Or of weapons invented but not used: some superb and some useless?
Robert V. Bruce's engaging and insightful study of Union weapons development covers a crucial aspect of war-fighting, but one less appreciated before the scientific pace became even more rapid during the Twentieth Century.
America was divided North versus South; but the Union war effort was also divided on whether to stake victory on new and perhaps better weapons, or hold with the tried and true. At least the Union had this choice, for the fundamental point here is that the Northern dominance in invention was as strong as in manufacturing:
... the Confederate Patent Office issued only two hundred and sixty-six patents during the whole war, as against more than sixteen thousand granted by the Union.
Some Southerners were well aware of this disparity, even to the point of anticipating secession:
Abraham Lincoln was firmly in favor of weapons development, and other Unionists like Admiral Dahlgren of Navy Ordnance agreed. John Ericsson, designer of the Monitor ironclad warship, was one outstanding example among the many inventors working for a quicker and less costly victory using new and better weaponry. However, Bruce also gives fair weight to the vastly more cautious approach entrenched at the Ordnance Department: that the Union should fight the war with the weapons they had, rather than hareing off into tangles of fresh-patented nonsense:
Improved, reconfigured, or brand-new devices included breach-loading rifles, breach-loading artillery, machine guns, incendiary shells (all of the previous in multiple variants from different inventors), and a flame thrower.
Breech-loading was the key design concept becoming practical engineering for the Civil War:
The Sharps alone, of all Lincoln's breech-loading rifles, took the field in 1862; and there were less than two thousand of them. That was still enough to transform warfare on land as the Monitor had done on the sea.
Bruce goes on to give capsule accounts of Federal sharpshooters using the new rifle with startling effectiveness at Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill, and so on. In contrast, he vividly gives us the sequence required to prepare a muzzle-loading firearm for shooting — for each shot. It's quite a list, and all has to be done in the right order, and done right.
Another famously effective infantry weapon, the Spencer repeating rifle, was of course a breech-loader, and these began reaching Union soldiers in 1863.
Robert Bruce shows us thoughtfully and even entertainingly how Lincoln's intelligent interest in, and often enthusiastic promotion of, armament ranged from rifles and body armor, through gunpowder and shells, through field artillery and mortars and rifled artillery, on up to ironclad naval warships. He backed the development of the mortar boats which helped clear the Mississippi, as well as Ericsson's plan for the Monitor, which ship with its descendants proved vital to maintaining Union dominance at sea and the blockade of the Confederate coastline.
Lincoln was vital to the Union's weapons-development efforts. Amidst his clear presentation of all this fascinating detail, Bruce states the core of his thesis very simply:
During the Civil War, the nearest thing to a research and development agency was the President himself.Mixing the Lincoln levity into serious matters
Despite the seriousness of weapons discussion and demonstration, Lincoln sometimes managed to lighten the proceedings with his special brand of humor, sometimes from his frontiersman youth:
As a sort of grand finale to the afternoon's diversion, Dahlgren had one of his big eleven-inch guns fired. The concussion died away, and the party rose to leave. Spying an ax hanging outside the cabin, Lincoln took it down and remarked:Gentlemen, you may talk about your "Raphael Repeaters" and "eleven-inch Dahlgrens"; but here is an institution which I guess I understand better than either.And he held the ax out at arm's length by the end of its handle. Most of the party tried, but none could duplicate the feat. With that they dispersed, and Lincoln drove Dahlgren home in his carriage.
© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson