It’s been quite a while since I wrote an editorial. I generally use the limited time I have to devote to this site looking for quality content from around the net to share rather than writing editorials and inflicting my opinion upon my readers. However, every once in a while I feel the need to put words to (digital) paper and have my say. Every morning I wake up and plop down in front of the computer. One of the first things I do is a google news search of “tank” to see what pops up. Today the top result is an article that irritated me so much I felt compelled to respond. The piece in question is the rather absurdly titled Foxtrot Alpha article “Why Were There No Tanks In The Civil War?” Normally I would not bother with something so obviously stupid, but since it comes up so high in the google search, I assume many people are reading it and at least some are taking it seriously.
Let’s start off by taking a quick look at the claims made by the author of this piece of fantastical nonsense. His main contention is that during the US Civil War, there existed both the need for, and the technical means to construct some sort of armored vehicle similar to a tank. As to the need for a Civil War tank, he cites the Siege of Petersburg, a battle that is generally said to have foreshadowed the trench warfare of World War I. We will put that aside momentarily and first focus on the author’s contention that the technology existed to make a tank possible in the 1860s. We shall summarize these in bullet point form:
• The US ironclad ship Monitor sort of looked like a tank since it had armor and a turret.
• Armored trains and rail-mounted guns existed during the Civil War.
• Early steam powered tractors existed by 1860. In particular, the author points to the Fawkes’ Steam plow of 1859.
And that’s pretty much it. All other technical issues are glossed over as the author presents some rough drawings for a Union steam tank that looks like something from the (terrible) film Wild Wild West.
Anyone familiar with the history of WWI tank development knows that the vehicles of 1916-1917 were very marginal affairs, almost as dangerous to their own crews as to the enemy. And yet for all their limitations, these steel behemoths of WWI represented the best technology that was available at the time. To suggest that something even remotely effective could have built with the technology available a full fifty years prior to the introduction of the British Mark I is on its face absurd. That said, let’s look at some of the technical challenges presented by trying to construct a tank using 1860 technology.
Armor. The British tanks of WW1 weighed a whopping 30 tons yet had armor that was barely adequate for resisting small arms fire. And yet, the metallurgy of 1916 was far superior to what was available in 1860. Ironclad ships of the civil war era were armored with iron. The turret of the Monitor alone weighed 160 tons. Creating a vehicle with sufficient armor protection using Civil War era materials while staying within an acceptable weight limit is going to be extremely difficult. Keep in mind that in the Civil War, artillery was generally kept much closer to the front line than during WWI. This means a Civil War tank is going to need to be resistant to canon fire or else it will quite quickly be picked off by enemy artillery.
Propulsion. The steam engines available in 1860 have nowhere near the power necessary to propel an armored vehicle and still be of reasonable size and weight. The WWI British Mark I had a 100 HP engine and it could barely move faster than a walking man. A steam engine capable of 100 HP would have been unacceptably large and heavy (yes, we know steam engines were generally not rated in terms of HP in this era.) Steam tractors were an idea still in their infancy in the 1860s and were not a common item. It has to be remembered that steam tractors are massive compared to a gasoline engine of roughly equal power output. Here is a picture of the 150HP Case steam tractor of 1905. Now imagine how big an armored vehicle would have to be to enclose such an engine.
We can also only shudder to think of the potential safety issues involved with a cramped vehicle containing a wood fire steam boiler and large amounts of black powder ammunition.
Traction – In 1893, nearly 30 years after the Civil War, the Peerless steam plowing outfit was guaranteed to plow as much soil in the same time and to an equal depth as could be done with six, three-horse teams – provided the soil was “firm enough to carry the engine, free from stumps and rocks, not too wet, having no grades over 1 foot rise in 10 and good fuel and water are provided.” These are hardly the conditions one expects a military vehicle to encounter on a battlefield, particularly one full of enemy trenches. The solution to the problem of traction would be solved in the WWI era by the adoption of caterpillar style tracks. Unfortunately for the article author, this was an idea that was completely non-existent in the 1860’s. It’s worth pointing out that the single most recognizable feature of a tank is it’s “tank tracks.” In popular media any vehicle that uses continuous track and is not clearly a bulldozer is identified as a tank, regardless of what it may actually be. Tracks are pretty much the most basic characteristic that separated tanks from the armored cars that preceded them. For the author to simply gloss over the fact that this essential piece of technology did not exist in the time period he is discussing is a pretty glaring hole in his argument.
Weapons. Next we come to the question of what sort of weapons would a Civil War tank be equipped with? Breach loading guns were still in their infancy in this period. Common practice at the time in naval gunnery was to pull the gun back into the ship so it could be loaded at the muzzle. However, it’s doubtful that any armored vehicle turret would be big enough for the gun to be pulled back far enough for muzzle loading to be an option. Machine guns, the primary weapon of early tanks, obviously did not exist in the 1860s. The mechanical Gatling gun came into service at the very end of the Civil War, so perhaps the author could suggest this as an option. One can only guess at how quickly a crew would become asphyxiated from black powder smoke from firing a Gatling gun inside an enclosed turret (if they have not already passed out from heat exhaustion due to being in an enclosed space with a steam boiler.) That said, the amount of firepower a Civil War tank would possess would be rather poor compared to the cost and effort required to bring it to the battlefield.
This brings us back to the notion that the Union or Confederate armies would somehow envision a need for such a weapon. The author uses the Siege of Petersburg as his motive for such a vehicle to be created. The problem with this is that by the time of Petersburg, the Union was fairly confident of an eventual military victory of the South (provided Lincoln is able to secure reelection in 1864). The idea of embarking on an expensive and time consuming quest to build some sort of “land ironclad” would have been considered fanciful in the extreme. Given that Grant had already tried one unsuccessful “gimmick” at Petersburg in the form of a giant underground bomb at the Battle of the Crater; it’s unlikely he would have put much faith in winning through the use of an even more outlandish scheme such as a steam powered mobile siege engine.
On most days I don’t feel the need to refute alternate history nonsense such as this article, but because of the amount of traffic it’s getting I felt compelled to say something. Perhaps this article was written tongue in cheek and I am taking things too seriously. If that is the case, may I suggest to the author that he write a follow up piece travelling even further back in time? I would suggest postulating that the Gallic Chieftain Vercingetorix could have defeated the earthen defenses constructed by Caesar’s forces at the battle of Alesia by building a wooden structure over a team of horses and plopping a catapult on top to create an ancient “tank.” Obviously, this technology existed at the time so of course it would be plausible, at least according to the rationale presented by the article author.
(Sidenote – It is worth noting that at the point in time when tanks actually were invented, there were some brief experiments with steam powered tanks. in 1917 the US Corps of Engineers built a 50 ton steam powered tank powered by two Doble steam engines. The Doble brothers had created steam engines for cars which they sold to the public as late as the 1920’s. In the post WW1 period, noted tank expert Col. Robert Icks advocated for more testing of steam powered tanks. Of course, these steam powered systems were considerably more advanced than what was available in 1860. For more on Steam powered tanks, see the article by Robert Icks in the April May 1975 issue of AFV-G2 magazine.)