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.