Lincoln and the Tools of War
by Robert V. Bruce
foreword by Benjamin P. Thomas

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1956
368 pages

December 2009

Research and development:
  Presidential and personal

President Lincoln takes a rifle in hand —

One clear, still morning in the early summer of 1861 Abraham Lincoln set out across the south lawn of the White House with his young secretary William O. Stoddard. Lincoln carried a repeating rifle (probably a Henry) and Stoddard a Springfield rifle which had been converted into a breechloader. The nine pounds of wood and metal in Lincoln's hand offered a key to victory, and Lincoln was beginning to sense the fact. It was the grim question of muzzle-loaders versus breechloaders, and not the beauty of the morning, that absorbed the two men as they strolled across the grass. ...

The Treasury Park was a humpy stretch of weeds, grass and gravel, surrounded by a wooden fence about shoulder high. At each end of the north side stood a cluster of wooden sheds and stables, and close to the fence along the other three sides ran a fringe of trees. The center of the lot was bare, except for one or two small huts, a big woodpile and a half-mile race track.

... the lot served as President Lincoln's personal rifle range and weapons proving ground, and more than one passing citizen stopped to watch the tall Kentuckian fire at a target pinned to a woodpile. ...

Lincoln and Stoddard commenced to bang away at a board leaning against the big woodpile. Gunfire had been banned in the capital, and a detail of men presently charged up, led by a noncom who shouted, between curses, "Stop that firing! ..." When the unmistakable eminence of President Lincoln loomed up through the drifting smoke, the astounded guardians of public tranquility beat a hasty retreat.

"Well," said Lincoln, looking after them, "they might have stayed to watch the shooting."

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.

Fight the war with what you have

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:

In the last prewar Congress, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi had managed to put through a law prohibiting the use of patented articles by the Army or Navy, ostensibly in the interests of economy; but after the desertion of its Southern members, Congress swept away the disability and overhauled the patent laws generally.

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:

If General Ripley's passion [at the Ordnance Department] for standardizing arms had its tragic consequences [for good inventions], it had also its merits, especially in field artillery. A requisition for field-artillery ammunition during the Civil War was apt to be an exercise in permutations and combinations. Cannon might be rifled or smoothbore, bronze, steel, or iron. They might be Parrott, Napoleon, Wiard, Whitworth, Woodruff or Ellsworth guns, mountain or prairie howitzers, mortars or coehorns.

They came in nine common calibers, fired solid shot, grape shot, canister, case and seven principal types of shells — Dyer, Parrott, James, Shenkl, Dimmick, Hotchkiss and Whitworth. The varieties of ammunition were not infinite, but by late 1862 they had passed the six-hundred mark.

The resulting confusion may have been slightly comical, but its effect was not. At the most critical moments in more than one battle, guns fell silent for lack of some freakish type of shot or shell, though great stores of standard ammunition were on hand.

Backed by such commanders as U. S. Grant, Ripley worked heroically to standardize field artillery. ... by the time of Gettysburg, only a hundred and forty kinds of ammunition were in use. The increase in efficiency was unmistakable.

Breech-loading rifles

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.

An experienced man with steady nerves could fire three rounds per minute at the most. Choked by fear and battle smoke, unnerved by the shrieking of shells and the whining of bullets ... not many soldiers did so well. And entirely aside from speed, a lot could go wrong if a man got overexcited. He might ram the bullet into the barrel before he poured in the powder. He might leave the ramrod in the barrel and then fire it off, past retrieving. He might load the cartridge, paper and all, with out breaking it open.

If he made any of these mistakes, his gun was useless, probably for the rest of the battle. On the field at Gettysburg more than twenty-four thousand loaded muskets were found. Six thousand of them had one load apiece, twelve thousand had two loads each and six thousand had from three to ten loads. One famous specimen had twenty-three loads rammed down in regular order.

Another famously effective infantry weapon, the Spencer repeating rifle, was of course a breech-loader, and these began reaching Union soldiers in 1863.

Lincoln R&D

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

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