Technology and mayhem
By Joel Achenbach,
It was the war of the future, and it was the war of the past. The combination was brutal, a recipe for slaughter. ¶ The Civil War brought into existence new techniques of killing even as generals followed the tactics of the Napoleonic wars. The rifled guns, exploiting the physics of a spinning bullet, were far more accurate, and an infantryman could drop an enemy soldier hundreds of yards away. ¶ The Gatling gun introduced the world to the concept of a machine gun. Now came, too, the trench warfare, the land mines, the sea mines. The spring of 1862 saw the famous battle of the ironclads, the CSS Virginia vs. the USS Monitor. The railroads, a young technology, enabled the rapid transport and resupply of vast armies.
The rise of American industry in the first half of the century meant factories could mass-produce clothes, boots, weapons. Telegraph lines enabled commanders to direct armies over multiple theaters. The wires carried bulletins from the front lines to distant newspaper presses. The public followed every battle, and, thus, the grand strategy of war had to factor in the shifts in public opinion — the perception of the war in the North, the South and across the Atlantic, where the traditional Great Powers weighed their options.
And yet as modern and fantastic as it was, there was still something medieval about the Civil War. Soldiers fought with bayonets and carried swords to battle. Their weapons included lances and pikes. They relied on horses, mules, wagons. Medicine remained borderline barbaric. Amputations were conducted on the battlefield without anesthesia, and soldiers died in droves not of combat injuries but of ancient diseases — hewing to a grand tradition of warfare.
Wars are always a product of current technology and past strategy. The Civil War was to some extent the first industrial-age war, says historian Bart Hacker of the National Museum of American History. But it was also the last of the preindustrial wars, he says. A conference this fall at the Smithsonian, organized by Hacker, will seek to sort it out.
One of the most important innovations was one that no one could see directly. As Robert V. Bruce reports in his book “Lincoln and the Tools of War,” ordnance officers at the start of the Civil War had at their disposal a huge stockpile of smoothbore weapons. Such guns fired a round bullet that tended to tumble through the air, destination never entirely certain.
But there was a better technology in the wings. It wasn’t new (Lincoln knew all about it from his days on the frontier), but it hadn’t been widely adopted by militaries: the rifle.
A “rifled” gun has spiraling grooves (rifling) inside the bore. The grooves impart a spin to an elongated bullet, making it fly much farther.
The drawback with rifles had always been that they were hard to load at the muzzle, because the bullet had to fit tightly in order to benefit from the rifling. Soldiers labored to cram the bullet down the bore.
But as the war neared, technology found better ways to load and fire a weapon. For example, the Minie ball had become popular with the War Department. Named for the Frenchman who invented it, the small, easy-loading Minie ball had a concave base that would expand under the force of the exploding gunpowder, enabling it to take the rifling and spin.
Gradually, rifled weapons replaced smoothbore guns, and soldiers could inflict death at a distance, which vastly expanded the killing ground between opposing lines.
“Instead of a couple hundred yards, you’re talking about crossing 1,000 yards under fire,” said Hacker, a curator of armed forces history. “You’re just taking a whole lot more fire — and, in general, more accurate fire. You could actually hit something you aimed at several hundred yards away with a rifle musket. With a smoothbore, you were lucky to hit your target beyond 50 yards.”
The generals had learned their craft at West Point, where they had read Antoine-Henri Jomini’s theories on the science of warfare. They knew about the importance of the turning maneuver and of interior lines of supply and communication. They learned the virtues of concentrating forces and sending masses of men into the enemy’s weakest point. This was the Napoleonic orthodoxy. But in practice in the Civil War it could be suicide.
The masses of men charged into a meat grinder.
Lincoln was keenly aware that he lived in a technological society. He was a modern man, knifing into the future. He experienced the acceleration of technological progress more than most Americans because of the primitive nature of his birth in a log cabin on the frontier.
The telegraph came along in 1844, and information suddenly no longer moved at the speed of a horse. Since earlier in the century, the ancient sources of power — wind, water, human and animal muscle — had been to a great extent supplanted by the miracle of steam. Lincoln saw these changes and approved. He was a technophile, curious about contraptions, a student of machines. He became a promoter of railroads and an eager user of the telegraph.
He was even an inventor himself. He owned a U.S. government patent, which no other president before or since could boast. He had designed a mechanism for assisting a boat across shoals. He was quite obsessed with the importance of what people called “internal improvements,” meaning the building of roads, railroads, canals, harbors. He once told his best friend, Joshua Speed, that he wanted someday to be the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois – Clinton being the New Yorker behind the Erie Canal.
By 1858, the year of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, Lincoln had developed a traveling lecture about the history of technology.
“Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship,” Lincoln declared in his lecture on “Discoveries and Inventions.”
As president, he was technologist-in-chief. Inventors banged on his door, wrote him letters, begged him for investment capital for their new weapons. “People knew that Lincoln was a technology geek,” says curator David Miller, who works in the gun room at the American History museum. Lincoln would test-fire rifles sent to the White House.
The telegraph office was Lincoln’s second home, and he would linger late into the night, hectoring generals to pursue the enemy. A president who controlled multiple theaters of war through the clipped diction of the telegraph mastered the art of the compressed message, which may help explain why the Gettysburg Address is not only short but impossible to cut.
Even with the rise of a wired society, information remained sketchy. Entire armies still managed to move undetected behind mountain ranges. Reliable information could be elusive in crucial moments.
A trip the battlefield
Consider the story, available online at the Atlantic Web site, written in 1862 by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., an editor for the (yes, very venerable) magazine. In September of that year he learned, via a telegram delivered to his Boston home, that his son Oliver Jr. had been wounded in the battle of Antietam. The message went:
Capt H wounded shot through the neck thought not mortal at Keedysville”
Holmes sets out to find his son. The narrative is extraordinarily long and digressive, and at times it feels like a shaggy dog story, but it offers a great deal of texture of American life in 1862 across a variety of landscapes.
Holmes, for example, opines about what a nuisance it is to have an overly talkative neighbor during a train ride. It’s a comment that easily could have been written in the 21st century rather than the 19th.
Out the window, he sees canal boats, and for a moment, he dreams of being the captain of one, enjoying a tranquil, prelapsarian existence — “who has not often envied the cobbler in his stall?” This is the lament of the overly busy modern person.
After much travel, Holmes reaches the Monocacy River, but the rebels have blown up the railroad bridge. He must switch to a horse-drawn wagon. Such is life in a between age: The pre-industrial past is never far away.
He eventually makes his way to the scene of the great battle:
“The whole ground was strewed with fragments of clothing, haversacks, canteens, cap-boxes, bullets, cartridge-boxes, cartridges, scraps of paper, portions of bread and meat. I saw two soldiers’ caps that looked as though their owners had been shot through the head. In several places I noted dark red patches where a pool of blood had curdled and caked, as some poor fellow poured his life out on the sod.”
He can’t find his wounded son. He hears all kinds of rumors. He retraces his route, all the way back to Philadelphia, and still can’t find him. He goes to Harrisburg, Pa., and still can’t find him. It turns out (eventually, many thousands of words later, when they finally reunite in Harrisburg) that his son had been holed up in Hagerstown, under the care of some angelic women, just 10 miles from the Antietam battlefield when his father visited.
And, thus, one sees the frustrations of life in a partially technological world. Information isn’t reliable. Everyone is still a little lost. You can’t find your wounded son to save your life.
We know how the narrative turns out, because Oliver Jr. goes on to become a celebrated Supreme Court justice. He lives to the age of 93.
But no one in 1862 knew how the terrible drama of the Civil War would play out. And they didn’t realize that they were nowhere near the end of the story.