Skip to main content

Mr. Lincoln’s Weapons

April 2018

Abraham Lincoln represented the frontier in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that he was an incurable linkerer. Mechanical appliances fascinated him. The frontiersman had so many chunks of hard manual labor to perform that any mechanical shortcut was bound to strike his fancy: Lincoln had tried his own hand at inventing, and the man with an interesting gadget to display could always catch his interest.

As a war President, Lincoln had a wide-open chance to indulge this interest. He was commander in chief of armies engaged in the first of the modern wars, and most of the authorities with whom he had to deal considered the old-style muzzle-loader (for infantry and for field artillery alike) wholly adequate. Perfectly practical breech-loading repeaters were being made, and the mechanical revolution was quite ready to extend the scope, intricacy, and general effectiveness of all the weapons the Army and Navy could ask for; but except for Lincoln himself, hardly anybody in Washington seemed to be interested.

Lincoln and the Tools of War , by Robert V. Bruce, foreword by Benjamin P. Thomas. The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc. 368 pp. $5.

As a result, Lincoln himself broadened the dimensions of the presidency by becoming, in effect, his own Office of Scientific Research and Development, not to mention his own War Production Board. To him came inventors of high and low degree, and if they could see no one else in the government they could usually manage to see him. Fighting constantly against the inertia of a uniformed bureaucracy, Lincoln did his utmost to equip the Union armies with up-to-date weapons.

This little-known aspect of Lincoln’s presidency is interestingly set forth by Mr. Robert V. Bruce in a stimulating new book, Lincoln and the Tools of War . If Lincoln was a brooding mystic he was also an eternal Yankee, and this trait was not the least of his assets in his struggle to preserve the Union.

He gave to the army, for instance, breech-loading rifles. (They were not universally used, by any means, but they made their effect felt.) He pushed through a machine gun decades ahead of his time; if the army brass distrusted it and finally shelved it, it was nevertheless a perfectly good weapon—one which Lincoln could understand even if the generals could not. He experimented with rockets, explosives, submarines, mines; nearly lost his life, in fact, when a rocket blew up while he was watching a demonstration. Any citizen who entered the White House carrying a shiny new rifle was apt to be ushered into the President’s office instead of being arrested by the secret service as a potential assassin.

Here, altogether, is a new glimpse at Lincoln; a completely fascinating one which adds immeasurably to one’s understanding of what the great emancipator was up against in his White House years.