Reviews of Gods and Generals and of Brass Pounders: The Young Telegraphers of the Civil War

By Gary Norman
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

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, who is the son of Michael Shaara, author of the award-winning The 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 J. 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 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 history.

The other book that is the subject of this review is Brass-Pounders: Young Telegraphers of the Civil War. 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 metamorphosis. 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.” The extent to which the telegraph served both the civic and military authorities made this medium of communication for the Civil War period what the internet is for 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 statement 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 underequipped 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, as is clear after reading this volume, that the young telegraphers of the U.S. Military Telegraph Bureau were the lifeblood 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 recounts, 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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Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

Brass-Pounders: Young Telegraphers of the Civil War by Alvin F. Harlow