The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It
By Julia Keller
Viking. 294 pp. $25.95
The Gatling gun, invented during the Civil War by an ardent Unionist but not really put into use until afterward, bore only passing resemblance to the modern machine gun. Mounted on a carriage, towed into position by horses or troops, it was large, clumsy and had limited mobility. It was used by the artillery rather than by the infantry (which now employs what Julia Keller calls "the deadly bouquet of assorted assault rifles"), and it was rejected by the Union's procurement officer, who "was notoriously resistant to any sort of innovation in firearms."
Had that officer been less stiff-necked and more open-minded, it's possible that the war would have ended sooner and the casualty lists would have been shorter. Or so one can infer from Keller: "For all of Richard Jordan Gatling's cool-headed technical finesse and businessman's brio, he actually came up with his gun, he claimed, for the most tender-hearted of reasons: as a way of saving lives. 'It occurred to me,' he wrote to a friend in 1877, 'that if I could invent a machine -- a gun -- which could by rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished.' As disingenuous and self-serving as that sentiment sounds, it ended up being quite correct: Innovations in arms steadily reduced the relative lethality of battles (not to mention the cost of waging war) throughout the twentieth century."
The great significance of the Gatling gun, as subsequent use demonstrated all too bloodily, was that it began the transformation of warfare from man-to-man combat into a depersonalized arena in which "men, women, and children were like stalks of wheat beneath a scythe," mowed down with total disregard for their individuality. It presaged modern warfare in all the dehumanized anonymity with which combatants and innocents are killed. But Julia Keller, cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, looks on a brighter side as well:
"The Gatling gun is a weapon of death, but its story is not altogether grim. For it is also the story of a nation on the rise and of a man who, by inventing a new kind of machine, helped propel it in that upward trajectory. It is the story of a country just at the moment when its destiny begins to stir, and of an individual whose career was hitched to that amazing creative and economic boom. It is the story of one genius who helped push America to the top, a man of decency and vision and ambition, a man who held dozens of patents for a variety of life-enhancing gadgets but who died disillusioned, his name attached in the popular mind not to plows or bicycles or flush toilets or dry-cleaning machines, all of which he improved, but to a gun. A utilitarian device whose use came down to a chilling simplicity: death."
As that paragraph suggests, Keller is given to broad strokes, sweeping generalizations, large claims and overheated prose. More about that later. For now suffice it to say that she's obviously smart and has done a lot of interesting research into the life of a man who is almost totally forgotten. Whether this is the great injustice she believes it to be is for each reader to decide, but Gatling was a formidably inventive man at a time when Yankee tinkerers -- "untutored dreamers," Keller calls them -- were coming up with new stuff day after day and flooding the Patent Office with their inventions. Gatling "was no crackpot eccentric, but a respected and socially connected businessman, married to the daughter of a prominent Indianapolis physician." Indeed, Keller finds it "difficult to reconcile the man who created the Gatling gun with the loyal husband and gentle father, to reconcile the canny, competitive arms merchant with the decent, peace-loving citizen," though in truth those contradictions have been constant themes in the business, commercial and industrial life of this country and most others.
Keller argues that Gatling possessed a "phenomenal mechanical genius," and though "genius" strikes me as more than a bit over the top, the range of his inventions is impressive. Early in his career he came up with "a new variety of plow, a cotton cultivator, a washer to tighten gears more effectively"; between 1844 and 1862, he obtained "nine patents for agricultural implements; his inventions include a hemp brake, a rotary plow, a lath-making machine, a gearing machine and a steam-driven marine ram." All told, he received 43 patents in his lifetime. One of his agricultural inventions, a seed planter, was the inspiration, Keller believes, for the gun: "Fed by a gravity-driven hopper, the seeds dropped, one by one, into the furrow. Gatling couldn't get that process out of his mind: its rotating simplicity, its smooth mechanical perfection." She traces this idea to the summer of 1861. By then it was clear that the Civil War, which confident Yankees thought would be over in a matter of weeks, was going to be a tough slog. Keller writes:
"Gatling had everything he needed: the basic mechanical design, embodied in his seed planter; the moral imperative, supplied by the memory of the dead and ailing soldiers as they arrived at the Indianapolis train station; and the commercial impulse, which arose as a possibly awkward but completely predictable consequence of the realization that this might well be a drawn-out, expensive affair. It might last years, not months, despite all the breezy hypothesizing at the outset. And long wars meant large profits for gunmakers."
By 1863 Gatling's gun was in production, and he sold 13 that year, principally to the controversial Union general Benjamin F. Butler, who bought them "for a thousand dollars apiece with his own money, after the ordnance department had turned down his request for funds." He doesn't seem to have gotten productive use out of them. "Indeed," Keller writes, "the only place in which a Gatling gun was destined to make an appreciable difference during the Civil War wasn't on a battlefield at all. It didn't come in the midst of a struggle between competing armies. And it would set the tone for the weapon's dark reputation later in the century, for its grim identification with the forces of oppression and exploitation."
In July 1863, during the draft riots in New York City, three Gatling guns were set up at the offices of the New York Times, whose editor, Henry Jarvis Raymond, was an outspoken opponent of the rioters' anti-draft sentiments. The mob approached the Times but backed off when it saw the guns: "The story foretells the way Gatling's guns would be deployed after the war: as menacing symbols, as icons of sheer destructive ferocity, even if they just sat there." That's putting it a little melodramatically, but in essence it's true. During the last three decades of the 19th century, "Gatling guns were purchased by police departments, state militias, and factory owners" and became known as "tools of domination and intimidation, both at home and abroad." In time "Gatling guns became the weapon of choice for British forces determined to enforce colonial rule in Africa," and Teddy Roosevelt became their ardent champion; he called them the "inseparable companions" of his Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.
Gatling died in 1903 at 85. The likely explanation for his drift into the fog of history is that his gun was soon replaced by other automatic weapons -- light, portable, efficient and even more deadly -- and the phrase "Gatling gun" pretty much vanished from common usage. Certainly the gun seems a period piece now, though it's difficult to find anything to regret in that. Its inventor's story is interesting, but it really can't carry all the thematic weight Keller lards onto it -- she works overtime trying to portray him as the definitive 19th-century American -- and there are times when her prose simply gets out of hand: "No, no, no. His head was too full of all the things he wanted to build. Things he thought he could sell, thereby building a great fortune. He was a restless young man. He was brimming with energy and purpose and hope. He had caught his country's peculiar fever. There was no cure," or, "Richard Gatling and his brothers had followed different rivers as they moved beyond their youth, into the world at large; but everything eventually would come back to one river, the river of the past, and it ran, as it always does, from darkness into light and then into darkness again."
Whatever that means. What it means to me is: Beware of journalists who think they're poets. ·