Technology And The Civil War, by Shane Mountjoy
It is hard to know whether to judge a book like this harshly for passing along several mistaken views (such as the claim that the Union fought a “total war” instead of merely a “hard war” against the rebels in 1864 and 1865) or whether to praise it for giving a worthwhile discussion of technology as it relates to the Civil War for a young audience who can find in the Civil War an inspiration for their own desires to further their creative skills. Without a question the Civil War is part of an important transition between ways of European war that had been perfected for centuries and the experience of war that would take place within the 20th century. The extent to which the Civil War resembled the Napoleonic Wars and the extent to which it prefigured World War I and related conflicts are all subjects worthy of exploration that this book discusses thoughtfully. If it is not a perfect book, it certainly has a great deal of value that provides interesting information for readers in a short and easy to read fashion. The authors, moreover, look at the impact of Civil War innovation after the end of the war, which adds to its interest.
This book is a bit more than 100 pages and is divided into eight chapters. The author begins, quite usefully, with a chronology that puts the Civil War (and its aftermath) into a firm timeline. After that the author notes how the Civil War was waged with technology (1) and that the use of railroads and the telegraph for communication and transportation was critical for both North and South (2). The author notes the creativity that the Civil War exhibited in weapons of death, including breech-loading and repeating rifles and early grenades and machine guns (3). The author spends a chapter on ironclads, which made contemporary navies dependent on wood ships obsolete (4), and then discusses Civil War innovation in undersea warfare with early torpedo boats and submarines (5). The author discusses advancements in battlefield medicine that continued reforms made in the Crimean War (6) as well as the use of photography and balloons for espionage and counter-espionage (7). Finally, the author concludes the book with a discussion of technology’s impact after the Civil War, including as well a glossary, bibliography, further resources, picture credits, index, and some notes on the author, making this an easy-to-read book that would be an easy supplement for a technologically inclined student of history.
And really, that is the sort of audience this book is for, someone who has interests in technology and innovation and also has an interest in applying that knowledge to the Civil War. This book does not provide a narrative course of the war but does make it clear that innovation requires a context, namely people who are able to achieve government support for fighting war a particular way. Those generals, for example, that supported efforts in balloons were unsuccessful at winning battles, and so such efforts were not developed further. Likewise, hardbound tendencies within the military establishment were at least partially overcome by Lincoln’s own great interest in military technology. Even in cases where the Civil War marked a beginning for certain innovations (aerial reconnaissance, the submarine and torpedo boat, machine gun, grenades, long distance artillery), it does mark a dramatic shift in the deadliness of frontal charges and in the way that firepower was rapidly making life difficult in massed formations of soldiers. These changes, of course, are of interest to students of war and technology and so this book has quite a bit to offer.