Author Interview--Mark A. Smith ("A Crucial Leavening of Expertise") Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Mark A. Smith to talk about his article “A Crucial Leavening of Expertise: Engineer Soldiers and the Transmission of Military Proficiency in the American Civil War,” published in Civil War History 66 (March 2020).

Mark Smith is Professor of History at Fort Valley State University and a graduate of the University of Alabama. He has published Engineering Security: The Corps of Engineers and Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1860 (University of Alabama Press) and forthcoming in the next few months Defending the Continent: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Defense, 1776-1950 (The Corps of Engineers Office of History) and A Volunteer in the Regulars: The Civil War Journal and Memoir of Gilbert Thompson, US Engineer Battalion (edited, University of Tennessee Press). He has also published a number of articles in journals like the Journal of Military History and Georgia Historical Quarterly.

Mark, you have extensively published on the U.S. Army engineers, how did you become interesting in the subject? What do you show in this new article?

MAS: Well, Niels, I sort of backed in to the US Army Corps of Engineers as a topic. I grew up just a few miles down the road from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park just north of Atlanta, and as a kid I visited it often. It's probably what got me interested in history, in general, and the Civil War, in particular. When I started my Master's degree at the University of West Georgia, I wrote my thesis on the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, and from there, I went to the doctoral program at the University of Alabama, still interested in the Civil War. But early on in Tuscaloosa, I had a discussion with my advisor, Dr. Harold Selesky, about professional expertise in the military and how it is (or isn't) maintained and transferred over time. I left that conversation thinking that I would write a dissertation exploring how the regular army brought its expertise into the Civil War, but when I started my background reading on the American military in the antebellum period, I got sidetracked. That's when I discovered that in the early nineteenth century, the engineers sat at the top of the military hierarchy. I knew from some of my earliest reading on the Civil War that several well-known commanders like Lee, McClellan, Rosecrans, Beauregard, and others had served in the engineers before the war, but as I looked backward into the Mexican-American War and really started reading about Winfield Scott's informal advisors, many of whom were engineers, it piqued my interest, and I started shifting my topic. Eventually, I landed on the engineers' role in defining and implementing the nineteenth-century version of national defense policy, which was the topic of my dissertation and my first book. From there, I never really let go of the engineers. I've found so many fascinating topics, from the economics of permanent fortification construction, to the federal government's impact sustaining slavery, to the development of military professionalism, to the role played by technological change in military development.

My article in Civil War History, "A Crucial Leavening of Experience: Engineer Soldiers and the Transmission of Military Proficiency in the American Civil War," hearkens back to that discussion with Dr. Selesky during my Ph.D. program. As I presume often happens, I came across a single source while working on another project that illuminated some aspects of the role played by enlisted engineer soldiers during the Civil War. While that source didn't really answer every question I had about the topic, it shed enough light to get me thinking about that role in detail. And since I knew that the antebellum company of engineers had been created at the start of the Mexican-American War, it eventually made me think of the role that this handful of highly-specialized regular soldiers might have played in bringing critical military knowledge to the Union war effort. Of course, I knew the engineer company and its successor, the US Engineer Battalion, served throughout the war with the Army of the Potomac, so its reach wouldn't be universal, but one of the primary motives behind the creation of the antebellum engineer company in 1846 was the desire to develop and maintain expertise in field engineering. It seemed natural to see if the unit had played a role in doing that. While my article can't address the development of that sort of critical military knowledge beyond the Army of the Potomac, the expansion of the engineer company into a four-company battalion as well as the addition of two volunteer engineer regiments within the same field army at the same time as the expansion of regular engineer companies created the opportunity for me to examine the topic in microcosm by looking for evidence of whether the antebellum engineer soldiers shared what they had learned about field engineering with the new units. At the same time, the Peninsula Campaign gave both the volunteer and regular engineer soldiers the opportunity to share their knowledge with line units whose men were often assigned to fatigue duty under the direction of the engineers. All of these developments gave me chance to go back to the old topic from my doctoral program and examine a case study of how military institutions can transfer expertise, in this case from a small, professional regular army to a larger force composed predominantly of volunteers.

You start your article by illustrating this transfer of expertise with the Mexican War and the emergence of the regular engineers, did the U.S. have engineers or engineer units prior to the war with Mexico? What was the role of this new unit during the 1850s?

MAS: There were always engineer officers dating back to the Continental Army, though most of the earliest of them were French as the new United States had very little native engineering talent at the time of the War for Independence. This reliance on foreign officers continued unabated through the 1790s, until the Quasi-War with France when most of the remaining French officers were "deranged" or dismissed from the American service. The need to replace them with native-born officers was one reason for the earliest American efforts at military education, which began unofficially at West Point in the last few years of the eighteenth century and continued officially after the military academy was formally created in 1802. That year also saw the establishment of the current US Army Corps of Engineers. But in 1802, the new corps consisted entirely of officers. In the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army had included a few engineer soldiers, also called sappers (sometimes sappers, miners, and pontoniers, or any combination of those three), but they didn't long survive that first conflict. There were also a few units of sappers established during the War of 1812, but again, they didn't last long beyond the return of peace. So, for most of the period from 1802 to 1846, the Corps of Engineers consisted entirely of officers.

But in 1846, after several years of lobbying by Chief Engineer Joseph G. Totten and some of his subordinates, Congress authorized Company A, Corps of Engineers, making engineer troops a permanent part of the American military structure. While the officers' lobbying surely had an impact, the immediate impetus was almost certainly the Mexican-American War, which was officially declared just a few weeks before Congress established the new company, and the unit did serve in that conflict, but Totten and other engineer officers had advocated such a force for several reasons. Totten, who led and in some ways coordinated the efforts of engineer officers that lobbied Congress to provide a unit of engineer troops, argued that the new company could fulfill multiple functions. It would develop and maintain field engineering skills during peace by practicing the engineer drill at the United States Military Academy where it was posted, and its men would provide skilled assistance to the engineer officers that were then building the permanent forts of the Third System of Coastal Defense, thus helping to reduce construction costs. The sappers served both of these purposes in the 1850s. Not only did they practice the engineer drill themselves, but after the revision of West Point's curriculum into a five-year program in 1854 and the establishment of a Department of Field Engineering, the sappers helped "instruct" cadets by serving as skilled labor for the officers-in-training to direct. Even before those changes, the cadets were regularly invited to watch the engineer troops practice their drills, presumably so they could learn something of field engineering. Individual sappers were also sometimes assigned to Third System forts under construction where they applied their skills and training assisting the officers-in-charge. And small detachments of engineer soldiers served with the Coast Survey Office and on various railroad surveys in the 1850s. While some engineer officers (like a young George McClellan) railed against these "unmilitary" uses of engineer troops as a distraction from their more important function of preserving and spreading military skills, Chief Engineer Totten always insisted that the sappers continue these functions and contribute more during peacetime, probably as a way to appease a parsimonious Congress and stave off a reduction that might eliminate the unit. Thanks to Totten's efforts, the unit was still in place when the country found itself in need of the skills that its men possessed.

--To be Continued--