Book Review: Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War

Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War:  How The North Used The Telegraph, Railroads, Surveillance Balloons, Ironclads, High-Powered Weapons, And More To Win The Civil War, by Thomas B. Allen & Roger MacBride Allen

I would have had more reasonable expectations going into this somewhat disappointing book if I had known ahead of time, before reading it, that the book was published by National Geographic.  Despite the author’s click-baity book, this short volume is no detailed discussion of the importance of the vital role that telegrams made in allowing for some level of control on Lincoln’s part of the operations of Union armies [1].  Nor is the book the sort of in-depth discussion of technology and the role of governments in war to promote and exploit inventions, which was the sort of book I expected it to be.  Had I known the book was published by National Geographic as opposed to only its title, though, I would not have expected depth from this book because I would have realized that as a National Geographic title it was not interested in providing depth but rather in achieving mass popularity with a superficial gee-whiz view of technology and gadgetry, which is what this book provides.

In terms of its content, this book is less than 150 pages filled with photos and drawings that tells a surprisingly conventional narrative of the Civil War interspersed with various discussions of Civil War technologies.  Beginning with a prologue that praises America’s spirit of invention, it then moves on to tell the story of the Civil War briefly in three situation reports that are scattered throughout (the first before chapter one, the second between chapters six and seven, and the third between chapters eleven and twelve).  Other than these narrative situation reports that provide the structure of the Civil War in very brief fashion, we hear about Lincoln’s secret arrival in Washington DC (1) and the way he took command just before the attack on Ft. Sumter (2), get a sympathetic account of Scott’s Anaconda Plan (3), and look at how it was that civilians (and military figures) learned war (4).  We hear about how balloons rode the winds of battle but were only used in the beginning of the war because generals who favored them did not win (5) and also hear about ironclads (6) as well as commerce raiders and blockade runners (7).  The authors discuss old and new war (8), the slow march to rapid fire machine guns (9), the homemade navy (10), the use of rails and wire in the civil war (11), and a misguided and cliched discussion of total war (12) before the book concludes with the legacy of civil war technology beyond the battlefield and a bibliography and sources quoted list and an index.

There is a lot of potential in here for a good book.  The technological developments that were invented during the Civil War and that were utilized in the Civil War for the first time or at least in their early stages are well worth books.  The Union adoption of a harsh war that was well short of total war but that was well regulated in accordance with the norms of international law but which led to a great deal of destruction by such generals as Sheridan, Sherman, Hunter, and others has been discussed in other, better books [2].  The fact that the authors seem more interested in technologies as gadgets and seem rather uninterested with the logistics of how such machines are to be used and maintained and integrated with the other arms systems suggests that this book has some rather severe limits to its worth.  In better hands this could have been a much better book, but one does not expect greatness from National Geographic unless one is courting disappointment.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

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 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review: Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War

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

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