The American Civil-War Reconstruction 150th Anniversary: Jules Verne and the Gun Club

During a recent holiday I found myself in a library, with a little free time and with a taste for escapism. A new translation in anthology form of some of Jules Verne’s “amazing voyage” novels attracted me. I went almost to the center of the Earth. Then I decided to go to the Moon, and within reading the first couple of paragraphs was gobsmacked by the truths revealed about the American military-industrial complex immediately after the Civil War. Further reading, in that light, makes me think that the first of Verne’s moon voyage books – From the Earth to the Moon, which came out in 1865 – is really about the US immediately after the war.

In short, it’s not what everybody today thinks it’s about. That topic – visiting the Moon – is actually covered in the next book Circling the Moon. We miss the point of the first book today because we don’t have the same reference points as the author and the audience he was writing for.

Possibly the Swamp Angel battery. (Source)

Possibly the Swamp Angel battery near Charleston, two years before “From the Earth to the Moon” came out.

The Union Military-Industrial Complex in 1865

Now, I’m no expert and I have not found authoritative sources that agree with me. This is all opinion, but it’s opinion based on some detailed knowledge picked up while following Civil War events weekly since late 2011. While researching it, of course I came across a lot of information about firearms and artillery developments that really didn’t fit into a timeline about some of the major battles of that war.

And in the Lincoln Log I noticed that the US president was very enthusiastic about new weapons. He almost was injured during a weapons test failure, I recall reading there.

I had always thought of Verne as a writer for kids and young adults. I did not expect to find Dahlgren and other prominent members of the mid-19th century American military-industrial complex whose names I had read in the Lincoln Log or on the cannon that were named after them.

But they are mentioned in From the Earth to the Moon, as well as the problem all those “big-gun people” in the business were facing at this point, 150 years ago today.

Let’s just look at how Verne opens the story:

A Parrott gun in the field, the year before "From the Earth to the Moon" was published.  (Library of Congress)

A Parrott gun in the field, the year before “From the Earth to the Moon” was published. (Library of Congress)

During the War of the Rebellion, a new and influential club was established in the city of Baltimore in the State of Maryland. It is well known with what energy the taste for military matters became developed among that nation of ship-owners, shopkeepers, and mechanics. Simple tradesmen jumped their counters to become extemporized captains, colonels, and generals, without having ever passed the School of Instruction at West Point; nevertheless; they quickly rivaled their compeers of the old continent, and, like them, carried off victories by dint of lavish expenditure in ammunition, money, and men.

But the point in which the Americans singularly distanced the Europeans was in the science of gunnery. Not, indeed, that their weapons retained a higher degree of perfection than theirs, but that they exhibited unheard-of dimensions, and consequently attained hitherto unheard-of ranges. In point of grazing, plunging, oblique, or enfilading, or point-blank firing, the English, French, and Prussians have nothing to learn; but their cannon, howitzers, and mortars are mere pocket-pistols compared with the formidable engines of the American artillery.

Admiral Dahlgren standing by one of his guns during the war.  (Library of Congress)

Admiral Dahlgren standing by one of his guns during the war. (Library of Congress)

This fact need surprise no one. The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers— just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians— by right of birth. Nothing is more natural, therefore, than to perceive them applying their audacious ingenuity to the science of gunnery. Witness the marvels of Parrott, Dahlgren, and Rodman. The Armstrong, Palliser, and Beaulieu guns were compelled to bow before their transatlantic rivals.

Now when an American has an idea, he directly seeks a second American to share it. If there be three, they elect a president and two secretaries. Given four, they name a keeper of records, and the office is ready for work; five, they convene a general meeting, and the club is fully constituted. So things were managed in Baltimore. The inventor of a new cannon associated himself with the caster and the borer. Thus was formed the nucleus of the “Gun Club.” In a single month after its formation it numbered 1,833 effective members and 30,565 corresponding members.

A Rodman smooth bore gun, nicknamed "Jeff Davis, Port Royal, South Carolina, in 1861.

A Rodman smooth bore gun, nicknamed “Jeff Davis, Port Royal, South Carolina, in 1861.

One condition was imposed as a sine qua non upon every candidate for admission into the association, and that was the condition of having designed, or (more or less) perfected a cannon; or, in default of a cannon, at least a firearm of some description. It may, however, be mentioned that mere inventors of revolvers, fire-shooting carbines, and similar small arms, met with little consideration. Artillerists always commanded the chief place of favor.

The estimation in which these gentlemen were held, according to one of the most scientific exponents of the Gun Club, was “proportional to the masses of their guns, and in the direct ratio of the square of the distances attained by their projectiles.”

The Gun Club once founded, it is easy to conceive the result of the inventive genius of the Americans. Their military weapons attained colossal proportions, and their projectiles, exceeding the prescribed limits, unfortunately occasionally cut in two some unoffending pedestrians. These inventions, in fact, left far in the rear the timid instruments of European artillery.

Tending wounded Union soldiers during Peninsula Campaign, three years before Verne's book came out. (Library of Congress)

Tending wounded Union soldiers during Peninsula Campaign, three years before Verne’s book came out. (Library of Congress, colored image)

It is but fair to add that these Yankees, brave as they have ever proved themselves to be, did not confine themselves to theories and formulae, but that they paid heavily, in propria persona, for their inventions. Among them were to be counted officers of all ranks, from lieutenants to generals; military men of every age, from those who were just making their debut in the profession of arms up to those who had grown old in the gun-carriage. Many had found their rest on the field of battle whose names figured in the “Book of Honor” of the Gun Club; and of those who made good their return the greater proportion bore the marks of their indisputable valor. Crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc jaws, silver craniums, platinum noses, were all to be found in the collection; and it was calculated by the great statistician Pitcairn that throughout the Gun Club there was not quite one arm between four persons and two legs between six.

Nevertheless, these valiant artillerists took no particular account of these little facts, and felt justly proud when the despatches of a battle returned the number of victims at ten-fold the quantity of projectiles expended.

Robert E. Lee leaving the McLean House following his surrender to Ulysses S. Grant.  (A. R. Waud, Library of Congress)

Robert E. Lee leaving the McLean House following his surrender to Ulysses S. Grant. Sketched on April 9, 1865, five months before Verne’s book came out. (A. R. Waud, Library of Congress)

One day, however— sad and melancholy day!— peace was signed between the survivors of the war; the thunder of the guns gradually ceased, the mortars were silent, the howitzers were muzzled for an indefinite period, the cannon, with muzzles depressed, were returned into the arsenal, the shot were repiled, all bloody reminiscences were effaced; the cotton-plants grew luxuriantly in the well-manured fields, all mourning garments were laid aside, together with grief; and the Gun Club was relegated to profound inactivity.

Some few of the more advanced and inveterate theorists set themselves again to work upon calculations regarding the laws of projectiles. They reverted invariably to gigantic shells and howitzers of unparalleled caliber. Still in default of practical experience what was the value of mere theories? Consequently, the clubrooms became deserted, the servants dozed in the antechambers, the newspapers grew mouldy on the tables, sounds of snoring came from dark corners, and the members of the Gun Club, erstwhile so noisy in their seances, were reduced to silence by this disastrous peace and gave themselves up wholly to dreams of a Platonic kind of artillery.

“This is horrible!” said Tom Hunter one evening, while rapidly carbonizing his wooden legs in the fireplace of the smoking-room; “nothing to do! nothing to look forward to! what a loathsome existence! When again shall the guns arouse us in the morning with their delightful reports?”

“Those days are gone by,” said jolly Bilsby, trying to extend his missing arms. “It was delightful once upon a time! One invented a gun, and hardly was it cast, when one hastened to try it in the face of the enemy! Then one returned to camp with a word of encouragement from Sherman or a friendly shake of the hand from McClellan. But now the generals are gone back to their counters; and in place of projectiles, they despatch bales of cotton. By Jove, the future of gunnery in America is lost!”
 

The cotton farmer on the left in this political cartoon would have been glad to hear it.

The cotton farmer on the left in this political cartoon would have been glad to hear it.


 

“Ay! and no war in prospect!” continued the famous James T. Maston, scratching with his steel hook his gutta-percha cranium. “Not a cloud on the horizon! and that too at such a critical period in the progress of the science of artillery! Yes, gentlemen! I who address you have myself this very morning perfected a model (plan, section, elevation, etc.) of a mortar destined to change all the conditions of warfare!”

“No! is it possible?” replied Tom Hunter, his thoughts reverting involuntarily to a former invention of the Hon. J. T. Maston, by which, at its first trial, he had succeeded in killing three hundred and thirty-seven people.

“Fact!” replied he. “Still, what is the use of so many studies worked out, so many difficulties vanquished? It’s mere waste of time! The New World seems to have made up its mind to live in peace; and our bellicose Tribune predicts some approaching catastrophes arising out of this scandalous increase of population.”

“Nevertheless,” replied Colonel Blomsberry, “they are always struggling in Europe to maintain the principle of nationalities.”

“Well?”

“Well, there might be some field for enterprise down there; and if they would accept our services——”

“What are you dreaming of?” screamed Bilsby; “work at gunnery for the benefit of foreigners?”

“That would be better than doing nothing here,” returned the colonel.

“Quite so,” said J. T. Matson; “but still we need not dream of that expedient.”

“And why not?” demanded the colonel.

“Because their ideas of progress in the Old World are contrary to our American habits of thought. Those fellows believe that one can’t become a general without having served first as an ensign; which is as much as to say that one can’t point a gun without having first cast it oneself!”

“Ridiculous!” replied Tom Hunter, whittling with his bowie-knife the arms of his easy chair; “but if that be the case there, all that is left for us is to plant tobacco and distill whale-oil.”

“What!” roared J. T. Maston, “shall we not employ these remaining years of our life in perfecting firearms? Shall there never be a fresh opportunity of trying the ranges of projectiles? Shall the air never again be lighted with the glare of our guns? No international difficulty ever arise to enable us to declare war against some transatlantic power? Shall not the French sink one of our steamers, or the English, in defiance of the rights of nations, hang a few of our countrymen?”

“No such luck,” replied Colonel Blomsberry; “nothing of the kind is likely to happen; and even if it did, we should not profit by it. American susceptibility is fast declining, and we are all going to the dogs.”

“It is too true,” replied J. T. Maston, with fresh violence; “there are a thousand grounds for fighting, and yet we don’t fight. We save up our arms and legs for the benefit of nations who don’t know what to do with them! But stop— without going out of one’s way to find a cause for war— did not North America once belong to the English?”

“Undoubtedly,” replied Tom Hunter, stamping his crutch with fury.

“Well, then,” replied J. T. Maston, “why should not England in her turn belong to the Americans?”

“It would be but just and fair,” returned Colonel Blomsberry.

“Go and propose it to the President of the United States,” cried J. T. Maston, “and see how he will receive you.”

“Bah!” growled Bilsby between the four teeth which the war had left him; “that will never do!”

“By Jove!” cried J. T. Maston, “he mustn’t count on my vote at the next election!”

“Nor on ours,” replied unanimously all the bellicose invalids.

“Meanwhile,” replied J. T. Maston, “allow me to say that, if I cannot get an opportunity to try my new mortars on a real field of battle, I shall say good-by to the members of the Gun Club, and go and bury myself in the prairies of Arkansas!”

“In that case we will accompany you,” cried the others.

Matters were in this unfortunate condition, and the club was threatened with approaching dissolution, when an unexpected circumstance occurred to prevent so deplorable a catastrophe.

Illustrator Henri de Montaut saw President Barbicane as "Oncle Sam élégant."

Illustrator Henri de Montaut saw President Barbicane as “Oncle Sam élégant.”

That circumstance, of course, is the proposal to build a giant cannon and shoot a projectile that will reach the Moon. The plan is later modified when a Frenchman decides to travel in the projectile, and he talks the president of the Gun Club (the quintessential Yankee, Impey Barbicane) and the president’s nemesis Captain Nicholl to go along. Nicholl is nominally from Pennsylvania, but I think he’s a stand-in for the South, as he designs armor plate and is in an arms war with the Gun Club, with them designing bigger and more powerful shells and Nicholl building tougher and tougher plate to withstand the shells. Nicholl is absolutely appalled that they want to literally “shoot the moon.”

A B-movie?

Today most folks see the mordant tone of From the Earth to the Moon as an antiwar parody along the lines of the antiwar movie Dr. Strangelove. We forget that people in the 19th century had more hope than we do today, as well as more self-confidence, even though both qualities had been tested to the extreme by the American Civil War.

Those years were hell on everybody. Yankees did respond to it with industry and ingenuity. Southerners did try to keep their institutions in place, as well as their traditionally revolutionary American ideals (ideals which I suspect Verne, as a Frenchman, sympathized with even as he deplored the institution of slavery).

In From the Earth to the Moon, Verne expresses this by setting up a duel between President Barbicane and Nicholl. Verne tells the reader that Americans duel in a very strange way – by picking up rifles and hunting each other in the woods (actually, I believe, Americans handled duels just as Europeans did). Verne then has his French astronaut (Verne doesn’t use the word “astronaut” – that’s me, using modern references) enter the woods about half an hour too late, trying to talk them out of it. But the duel hasn’t taken place. Barbicane, the Yankee, has become distracted by a physical problem on the upcoming flight (which he solves with pen and paper instead of dueling), while we come across Nicholl (the stand-in Southerner) freeing a bird from a huge web woven by a poisonous spider rather than trying to hunt Barbicane.

I think that “poisonous spider” is meant to be the institution of slavery, and the bird represents former slaves. The Confederacy, just at war’s end, was trying to free the slaves.

So, the French astronaut talks the two men into accompanying him on the flight and in this way ends the duel honorably for both sides. The rest of the story is about preparation (and Verne spares us none of the details!) and then the launch. The story ends with the shell, which strangely resembles an Apollo capsule, orbiting the Moon, with no one, including the reader, knowing if the astronauts have survived (remember, there was no radio, no electricity, and therefore no long-distance communication in 1865).

It seems unlikely that Verne cared, in 1865, about the outcome of the flight. If you change your point of reference just slightly away from the usual “science fiction/anti-war” modern interpretation of From the Earth to the Moon, and if you are familiar with the weekly details of the preceding American Civil War (as we are), then you immediately see this as mind-blowing contemporary social commentary that Verne and his audience probably understood quite well.

The points Verne makes are very much down to Earth, not up there amid the stars.

And the question immediately arises – what set Verne’s imagination soaring in this crazy way? I think it was an attempt to resolve the shocks at the end of the Civil War combined with war exhaustion.

Think about it. Everybody has been through four years of hell. People aren’t antiwar – they’ve lived through four years of war, and they are exhausted.

Grant has taken Richmond. The Confederate government is in flight. There’s a lot of relief (in the North) and pain. As well, there’s the looming question of what to do with the seceded states. And the largest stressor of all is that America has basically changed: slavery was perfectly legal before the war and during it. Now it is over in fact (though it will still be some months before the US Constitution is amended to match law with fact). Black people are now (on paper) free – are they equal to whites? (The way things played out over subsequent decades shows how confused white people at every level of society were about that question, though there was little doubt on the part of black people about it.)

And then some idiot kills Lincoln, who everybody is looking to for direction, and Andrew Johnson – a Southerner and a man who was (accidentally) drunk at his own inauguration – takes charge. Are the victory and all that effort going to be for naught?

The year 1865 was absolutely insane for everybody, from around April 1st on.

You know how B-movies came out in the 1950s and had subthemes about the fears of the day? I think that Jules Verne had a sort of prototypical B-movie in his head related to the American Civil War (one that balanced both sides, as Europeans could see the matter). He wrote it down because books were movies back then, and it became From the Earth to the Moon. Years later, probably due to popular interest, and after society had recovered somewhat, he wrote the other half of the story, which starts out by basically negating the beautiful ending paragraphs of the first book and then gets into traditional science fiction for the first time.

Crescents

People have already pointed out the obvious parallels with the successful space program, so here I’ll just note that, in Circling the Moon, yes, the astronauts have survived, and once they’ve recovered from the launch (which knocked them out) they take a look outside.

Of the earth flying from under their feet, the travelers had lost all recollection.

It was Captain Nicholl who first recalled their attention to the vanishing globe.

“Yes,” said Michel Ardan [the French astronaut], “do not let us be ungrateful to it. Since we are leaving our country, let our last looks be directed to it. I wish to see the earth once more before it is quite hidden from my eyes.”

To satisfy his companions, Barbicane began to uncover the window at the bottom of the projectile, which would allow them to observe the earth direct. The disc, which the force of the projection had beaten down to the base, was removed, not without difficulty. Its fragments, placed carefully against a wall, might serve again upon occasion. Then a circular gap appeared, nineteen inches in diameter, hollowed out of the lower part of the projectile. A glass cover, six inches thick and strengthened with upper fastenings, closed it tightly. Beneath was fixed an aluminum plate, held in place by bolts. The screws being undone, and the bolts let go, the plate fell down, and visible communication was established between the interior and the exterior.

Michel Ardan knelt by the glass. It was cloudy, seemingly opaque.

“Well!” he exclaimed, “and the earth?”

“The earth?” said Barbicane. “There it is.”

“What! that little thread; that silver crescent?”

“Doubtless, Michel. In four days, when the moon will be full, at the very time we shall reach it, the earth will be new, and will only appear to us as a slender crescent which will soon disappear, and for some days will be enveloped in utter darkness.”

“That the earth?” repeated Michel Ardan, looking with all his eyes at the thin slip of his native planet.

The explanation given by President Barbicane was correct. The earth, with respect to the projectile, was entering its last phase. It was in its octant, and showed a crescent finely traced on the dark background of the sky. Its light, rendered bluish by the thick strata of the atmosphere was less intense than that of the crescent moon, but it was of considerable dimensions, and looked like an enormous arch stretched across the firmament. Some parts brilliantly lighted, especially on its concave part, showed the presence of high mountains, often disappearing behind thick spots, which are never seen on the lunar disc. They were rings of clouds placed concentrically round the terrestrial globe.

While the travelers were trying to pierce the profound darkness, a brilliant cluster of shooting stars burst upon their eyes. Hundreds of meteorites, ignited by the friction of the atmosphere, irradiated the shadow of the luminous train, and lined the cloudy parts of the disc with their fire. At this period the earth was in its perihelion, and the month of December is so propitious to these shooting stars, that astronomers have counted as many as twenty-four thousand in an hour. But Michel Ardan, disdaining scientific reasonings, preferred thinking that the earth was thus saluting the departure of her three children with her most brilliant fireworks.

Indeed this was all they saw of the globe lost in the solar world, rising and setting to the great planets like a simple morning or evening star! This globe, where they had left all their affections, was nothing more than a fugitive crescent!

Long did the three friends look without speaking, though united in heart, while the projectile sped onward with an ever-decreasing speed.

 

NASA

Ninety years after “From the Earth to the Moon” was published, humans found themselves in a similar gun-club predicament after a world-changing war…and this time, they had rockets. (Image: NASA)



Categories: American Civil War, Reconstruction

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