Book Review: Engineering Victory

Engineering Victory:  How Technology Won The Civil War, by Thomas F. Army Jr.

As is often the case in books like this, I think that the author is overselling his point a little bit, but only slightly.  In stark contrast to the many writers who look at tactics and strategy as a way of explaining the Union’s victory in the Civil War, the author uses the importance of logistics as a way of showing technology and innovation/creativity as an important element in the Union victory, and then explores some of the hidden advantages that the Union had that the Confederacy did not in this regard.  In general, I believe that both the Union and Confederacy had very creative people fighting on their behalf, and both sides were able to develop creative innovations in their attempts to wrest victory from the other–the Union’s use of the telegraph and railroad was in many cases matched by that of the Confederacy, at least until the end of the war when logistics made a difference, and if the North had its ironclads, so did the South, albeit in fewer numbers, and if the North had the Gatling gun the south had the submarine and torpedo, even if the industrial society of the North was better able to exploit those technological advantages.

This sizable book of about 300 pages is divided into three parts and thirteen chapters.  After an introduction into the somewhat exaggerated contrast of North and South as contrasting societies of mechanics and masters, respectively, the author discusses in the first part of the book the gap in education and management between the two regions (I) in looking at school reform and science education (1), the transmission of knowledge in mechanics’ institutes and agricultural fairs (2), and the development of modern management in the railroad system (3).  After that the author looks at how Civil War soldiers took their skills to war (II) with a look at the popularity of volunteer enegineers (4), early successes in the Western front that resulted from engineering know-how (5), McClellan’s test of his engineers in the East (6), the birth of the US Military Railroad (7), and events in the summer and fall of 1862 (8) that showed the limitations of Southern engineering efforts.  The author then closes the book with a look at the applied engineering of the second half of the war (III), with discussions of Grant’s efforts at Vicksburg (9), Lee’s failures at Gettysburg (10), Union efforts at Chattanooga (11), the Red River and Petersburg campaigns (12), and the Atlanta and Carolina campaigns (13), with a conclusion that Northern know-how was triumphant.

In reading this book I was struck by the reality of a rather implicit set of obvious agendas that the author had in not only celebrating the Union’s win in large part through industrial and logistical strength (a characteristic of America’s approach to warfare) but also a public school-based education system that is heavy on STEM education and support.  Even as someone who (as noted above) considers the creativity of Union and Confederacy to be far closer to even than the author does, it is clear that the Union was able to profit from the fact that the North’s culture gave an honored place to innovative and creative people in a way that the South did not, and that the educational and industrial infrastructure that could turn a successful creation into a widely used technology was far greater in the North than in the South, with very serious consequences.  Creative people can indeed be found everywhere, but creativity does flourish best within a context that allows information to be shared and for honors and rewards to flow to those who have the good ideas, who ask the right questions and come up with the best solutions.  Societies as intent on preserving the rule of reactionary elites as the South was are not societies that will encourage a great deal of change and innovation that may be threatening to the existing social order, and to the extent that a society feels threatened by creative types, the ability of those creative people and their creations to gain honor and respect and profit greatly diminishes.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History, On Creativity and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review: Engineering Victory

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The On Creativity Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

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