- Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil Warby Saxon T. Bisbee
Despite published studies on seemingly every conceivable aspect of the U.S. Civil War, there are yet some topics poorly understood by historians. In Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War, maritime archaeologist and historian Saxon T. Bisbee takes on one of these topics, the technology and engineering of Confederate ironclads. Bisbee makes the case that Confederate ironclad building has been neglected by historians despite an abundance of extant evidence, a situation that is perhaps evidence of the chestnut that military history is written by the winners. In addition to the availability of sometimes surprisingly detailed archival resources, maritime archaeology has yielded a trove of physical artifacts. Harnessing his knowledge of both, Bisbee has studied a total of twenty-seven Confederate ironclads, those that had American-built machinery and that were actually launched, though he does include a handful of never-completed vessels featuring relatively sophisticated late-war technology. Bisbee argues that "the Confederate navy ultimately pushed the boundaries of ingenuity and changed the character of war at sea" (p. 3).
Engines of Rebellionexplores this contention in a well-researched and copiously illustrated format whose chapters mirror the varied nature of ironclad vessel types. After an introductory chapter, the work proceeds through ironclad conversions and nonstandard designs, a chapter each on two sizable classes of standardized Confederate ironclads, and then on to other hull forms, [End Page 701]experimental models, and coverage of four promising but incomplete vessels. Deftly avoiding the classic pitfall of treating historical technology as a black box, Bisbee makes a concerted effort to unpack the details of nineteenth-century steam propulsion. Historians and general readers alike will benefit from the detailed glossary and the large number of illustrations that punctuate the work—even if some of the latter could be profitably enlarged. The author corrects previously misidentified equipment descriptions, ferrets out engineering drawings from private collections, and delves into some of the technicalities of the boiler explosions most historians mention only in passing. Previously ignored innovators receive similar treatment, including Confederate naval personnel such as John L. Porter, John M. Brooke, and William P. Williamson, whose collective efforts contributed so greatly to the ironclad program.
Like so much of the southern side of the Civil War, however, this story abounds in questions of what might have been. Some stem from the over-optimistic views of men such as Confederate secretary of the navy Stephen Russell Mallory, whose initial hope that the Confederate navy could leverage innovative maritime technology to "overwhelm" the Union navy never came to pass (p. 5). Others emanate from an author deeply engaged with his material and sympathetic to its technical aspirations, who at times seems to claim success for a particular Confederate ironclad whose performance was at best marginal. The Confederate ironclad program was a reactive endeavor based on the necessity of combating riverine and coastal Union naval incursions, and its failure to innovate its way to victory appears inevitable given the lack of resources plaguing nearly every Confederate endeavor. The author exhibits sound scholarship and impressive detail in probing all extant corners of what ultimately proved, even in better-equipped Union and European shipyards, to be transitional technology. It should therefore come as no surprise that the much more improvised Confederate ironclads proved to be tactical disappointments and strategic dead ends. But even so, the role of ironclads in the larger evolution of nineteenth-century armored naval vessels surely deserves study. It gets that attention in abundance here.