Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in the Spring of 2000.
It is interesting how no two men
view a similar experience in the exact same way and how technology
exists as an underlying force that helps to both form and
communicate the experiences of men. This is especially true during
the time of the Civil War.
There are two books that I would
like to introduce to the Roundtable which touch on the issue of the
dissimilarity of similar experiences and how technology forms and
communicates it. The first book is Gods and Generals, written
by Jeff Shaara, son of Michael Shaara author of the award-winning
Killer Angels. The second book is, Brass-Pounders: Young
Telegraphers of the Civil War, written by Alvin F. Harlow. Both
books are well-written and both blur the threshold between
historical fiction and nonfiction.
In Gods and Generals, Shaara
utilizes historically factual material to compose a work that
examines the lives of a handful of notable Civil War leaders from
1858 to the summer of 1863 when the Battle of Gettysburg occurs.
Featured are such prominent characters as Joshua Lawrence
Chamberlain, Robert E. Lee, Thomas A. Jackson and Winfield Scott
Hancock. In the volume, the reader follows both what actually
happened at the time as well as what the author imaginatively pens
the various parties might have thought and said while experiencing
the events in question.
In accounting both historical
nonfiction and fiction, the author touches upon such events as John
Brown’s raid on the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Brown's
execution for treason following the raid and such battles as
Chancellorsville. The only concern I had about the volume was the
degree to which it was a historical work or a fictional novel.
This reviewer recommends the
Gods and Generals, because it touches on how similar events can
have dissimilar interpretations. Shaara utilizes the dangerous
discretion inherent in historical fiction to set forth how the
Confederates viewed The Civil War as a conflagration for the
survival of their unique and “superior” culture; whereas, those who
fought for the United States viewed the Civil War as a conflagration
for the survival of the grand union that dated to the signing of The
Declaration of Independence.
This topic is the most interesting
aspect of the book. One need search no farther than the impeachment
of President Clinton to find a “real world” example of the idea
touched upon in this work of literature. Moreover, one need search
no farther than the same exact event to ascertain how communication
technology both formed and shaped the experiences of men in
connection with the second impeachment of a President in American
In our era, citizens increasingly
gather information from the nascent technological medium known as
the Internet. The Americans who experienced the Civil War also lived
during a time of profound technological advancement and
One of the major technological advancements of the pre-Civil War era
that had a profound effect upon the conflagration was the telegraph.
“It had been clear enough back in 1861 that the electric telegraph
was going to revolutionize military communications in this war.”
In comparison with our own era, the
extent to which the telegraph served both the civic and military
authorities, this medium of communication was for the Civil War
period what the Internet is to today's “Information Age”. “No sooner
was the first telegraph wire put into service by Samuel P. Morris
than boy’s fingers began to itch for the feel of the brass…” of the
instrumentation that for the first time in history transmitted great
quantities of information through wires.
That is correct. As with
computers today, some of the most proficient operators of the
telegraph during the war were youth. At that point in time,
telegraphic services were operated through commercial telegraph
companies. In the volume, the author recounts how the United States
government was under-equipped to handle this new form of technology
at the beginning stages of the war. This was quickly remedied
by commissioning a U.S. Military Telegraph Bureau that was for all
intents and purposes a civilian organization under the control of
the War Department. Harlow pens an interesting account of the
tension between this new branch of the military and the Signal
Corps. Conversely, the Confederate States of America never
commissioned a telegraph branch of its military forces.
There is no doubt after reading
this volume that the young telegraphers of the U.S. Military
Telegraph Bureau were the life-blood of the Union Army. Once again,
it should be commented that the men who performed telegraphic
services for the Union Army were not men but boys for the most part.
Harlow accounts how the average age of a Union telegrapher was in
the latter teenage years. In fact, “a lot of the boys who worked the
wires during the war were under voting age when the war ended.”
Of course, several of those young
boys laid down their lives for the survival of the grand Union.
Approximately, one hundred of the one thousand two hundred operators
who served in the United States Military Telegraph Bureau died. As
Harlow also accounts, the government appreciated the services of the
young telegraphers. At the closure of the war, the U.S. government
gave ten of the top telegraphers silver watches worth five or ten
dollars in honor of their service to the American people. Although
several telegraphers received honorary Captaincies for their
outstanding service, the young telegraphers of the Union Army were
not considered soldiers, thus they could not join veterans'
organizations after the war. Therefore, the telegraphers established
their own veterans' organization.
This reviewer recommends the two
titles described in the foregoing review.
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book; click the book title to purchase from Amazon.com. Part
of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the
CCWRT website are returned to the CCWRT to support its education and