Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Technological Legacy of the Civil War

The following is a by-no-means-complete list of things we think of as commonplace that originated in the mid 19th century, and even if they were around, were virtually unheard of until they came into widespread use during and after the Civil War.

All of these things exist today, but not in a form a person of the 1860s would recognize.

1. THE TELEGRAPH. The Civil War was the first conflict in which the telegraph was used as a military tool for long-distance communication, coordinating efforts across a nation and on multiple fronts.  Samuel Morse (and some say Alexander Graham Bell) invented a primitive form of the telegraph as early as the 1830's.

Before this, news could only spread from one town or one state to another literally no faster than a horse could gallop.  Because up to this time, the mail was still delivered via horses. In fact, this was how John Wilkes Booth was able to elude capture for so long after he killed our beloved President Lincoln.  He knew that as long as he rode his horse fast and hard, and never stayed in any one place longer than overnight, he could actually outrun the news and escape the law by passing through a town before they knew anyone was searching for him.  The telegraph remained in use well into the 20th century, and started to diminish with the invention of radio.  During World War II radios were still bulky and heavy, and they relied on field telephone wires for communication across lines of battle. The telephone emerged in the 1880s around the same time as household electricity. Think of how amazing it must have been to be able to talk to someone hundreds of miles away as if they were sitting next to you!

2. RAILROADS AS A FORM OF MASS TRANSPORTATION.  Experiments with self-propelled carts using steam power created from boiling water under great pressure took place as early as the 1700s, and the ideas for it have been around much longer. (Since the Renaissance or some even think Ancient Greece) But the Civil War was the first conflict in which large amounts of men, their equipment and artillery pieces could be moved across the country by rail.  At this time, railroads crisscrossed the country much as our interstate highway system does today.  It was the fastest way to get from one place to another, and the railroad could cross any terrain, unlike horses and men traveling on foot.  There was a time when it was thought the human body could not withstand speeds above 20 miles an hour! The steam locomotive quickly proved this wrong, as it could reach speeds up to 80-100mph. The disadvantage this had was you could only go where there were tracks laid down.  Laying railroad ties and rails took a long time, with teams of workmen laboring for months to build just a few miles of track.

3. MILITARY SIGNAL FLAGS FOR LONG DISTANCE COMMUNICATION.  The United States Army Signal Corps was formed during the early years of the Civil War as a method for relaying orders by line of sight, usually from one hilltop to another.  The other way orders were relayed during the era of Napoleonic warfare was by drum and bugle. The shouted orders of the officers could hardly be heard above the roar of musketry and cannons, and epic artillery barrages such as Pickett's Charge where you had hundreds of cannon firing at once made these all but indiscernible.  First termed "Wig-wagging,"  the idea of waving brightly colored flags to be observed by another signal post was a way to communicate strategy that did not rely on sound.  The disadvantage was it was line-of-sight. The flags were only visible in broad daylight, and on foggy days or situations with low visibility due to smoke from a battle, this proved ineffective.  In the years following the war, this system was adopted into the Army and Navy and called "Semaphore."

An illustration of the differences between 1860s Wig-wag and modern Semaphore is shown below.

Here is a more modern version of semaphore as it began to evolve in the early 20th century.

As radios became portable and this form of field communication was no longer necessary, the Army Signal Corps became the official institution for documenting a conflict visually, through photography and movie film.  This is why many photographs of WWII were labeled with "Army Signal Corps." By the time of the Spanish American war, motion pictures had come into widespread use.

4. PHOTOGRAPHY.  It was also true that photographic techniques were in development from near the beginning of the 1800's, with various sources claiming different people as its inventor. But the wet-plate technique of silver nitrate on glass enabled photos to be permanent and portable (well, at that time portable meant carrying a chemistry lab on your back, so it is a loose definition of portable compared to what we know today.)  This is the first time in history where scenes of battle could be preserved exactly as they happened and we could see people as they actually looked in real life, not as some artist decided to depict them. 

It was popular for many soldiers during this period to pay and have their formal portraits taken before they went off to war.  Many thousands of images exist, both in private collections and in the Library of Congress, of these confident men eager to go to war, who had no idea what life in the Army was like. They thought it was all dress parades, gaudy uniforms and glorified feats of bravery, so far removed from the confusion, chaos and horrific carnage that war actually is.  These pictures still haunt us to this day.

How old do you think this boy is? Twelve?
Do you think he knew anything about what war was like when this picture was taken? Many of these young boys, some as young as 10 or 11 years of age, were killed without mercy because they were used as musicians and flag bearers, not allowed to carry weapons and so they could not fight back. This practice had fallen out of favor by the First World War.

Field photography, by men such as Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady, showed the nation something its people had never seen before: images of the aftermath of battles, with burned buildings, decaying dead men and bloated animals.  It was something never depicted by the news engraving or the sketches and paintings by field artists. This brought the gruesome reality of war home to a shocked America, and destroyed any illusions the populace might have had about what the war meant.

Confederate dead at Antietam, with Dunker Church in background
Along Hagerstown Pike after Antietam
Soldiers and slaves burying bodies, mostly skeletons
 These enduring images of death are forever in the American conscience.

5. AERIAL RECONNAISSANCE.  (see This Article) The Civil War gave rise to something both highly unusual and short-lived: aerial reconnaissance by hot air balloon.  Used mainly in the Union army during 1861-1862, this allowed battlefield observers to see the movement of troops that may have been hidden by terrain to watchers at ground level. The disadvantages were immediate and apparent, though. First, they could not be steered or controlled in any way. They would drift over enemy lines and sometimes be shot down. Second, few things were less covert than a gigantic bag of hot air hanging in the sky. There were hot air balloons present at the battles of Manassas and one was used successfully to sight long range artillery, quoted in the above linked article. 

"On Sept. 24, (Thaddeus) Lowe ascended in the Union to more than a thousand feet near Arlington, across the Potomac River from Washington, and began telegraphing intelligence on the Confederate troops located at Falls Church, Va., more than 3 miles away. Union guns were then calibrated and fired accurately on these enemy dispositions without actually being able to see them. This was an ominous first in the history of warfare, by which destruction could be delivered to a distant and invisible enemy."
 The idea was a good one in theory, but it would not become practical until the advent of the airplane. You could argue, however, that aerial spying had its origins during the Civil War.


The Civil War was so brutal because it used antiquated strategy and tactics from the Revolution, yet with a devastating increase in firepower.  The idea of using grooved barrels to add spin to projectiles had been around in Europe by the late 1700s, and in fact Napoleon Bonaparte was the first military leader to equip all his men with standard rifled muskets. My cousin Billy has a hand made replica of one such firearm, the 1804 Baker Rifle.

Not to say that there were not still smoothbores in use, though.  Many of the Confederates had brought their own hunting pieces from home, fowling pieces and shotguns, and some were flintlock muskets much like the Brown Bess.  The "Napoleon" cannons were virtually identical to the ones used by Napoleon in that much earlier war, and they fired large round balls of iron.

The idea of rifling greatly increased muzzle velocity, accuracy and lethal penetrating power.  For comparison, a flintlock Brown Bess had a variable muzzle velocity depending on powder charge and wadding, and could only hit a target with any accuracy up to about 150 yards at best.  Whereas a pattern 1853 Enfield had a muzzle velocity of 900fps, and could make multiple hits on a target up to 2,000 yards away.

The Minie ball, invented by Claude-Étienne Minié and perfected in 1849, was a soft lead slug with a cup in the base, which would expand with ignition gases and fill the grooves of a rifle barrel, making it spin like a football.  This gave rise to radical changes in the way artillery projectiles were made as well.  The Civil War had a staggering variety of different artillery projectiles used in as many different shapes and sizes as there were guns to fire them.

I don't think this is even all of them...

Some had timed fuse detonators, some exploded on contact or after bouncing once, some were linked by bars or chains to trip horses and decapitate soldiers, some exploded into smaller balls and shrapnel such as the canister type, and some were even rocket powered.  I can't find a good photo showing just how many different types there were, but you can go to any battlefield museum or the armory at Fort Delaware and see what I mean.  This was the heyday of bizarre artillery guns and radical new barrel designs.


Many consider the Civil War "the dawn of modern warfare" for many reasons, perhaps the greatest of which is the invention and proliferation of quick-reloading weapons and weapons that could fire multiple shots in a row very fast.  Any soldier with half a brain knows that "He who loadeth his weapon faster, liveth longer than his unfortunate enemy."  Early on in the war, men realized their slow muzzle-loading long rifles, while elegant weapons in the grand tradition of their forefathers, were not up to snuff against these newer inventions. A well-trained soldier could load and fire only about three shots a minute, or one shot every 20 seconds. And most of them would be killed before they could reload.

So..naturally, this gave rise to a new age in warfare: that of the repeating rifle.

One of the earliest was the Spencer carbine, meant to be carried by cavalrymen on horseback. They needed something to replace their old dragoon-style pistols because these were taking too long to reload through the muzzle with a ramrod.  So a man named Spencer came up with a shortened rifle, about a third the length of a musket, that could be held and fired one-handed and loaded with several cartridges at a time.

Here was how it worked:

The cartridges (which were encased in metal instead of wrapped in paper) were stuffed into the stock of the weapon with a spring-loaded cylinder, and cocking the lever which doubled as a trigger guard, advanced the next round to be fired.  Abraham Lincoln was given a personal demonstration of one of these weapons on the White House lawn, and after being allowed to fire a few shots himself to see how easy it was to use, he said something to the effect of "A fine weapon indeed, I only wish every soldier in my army could have one..."  The Confederates said of this weapon:  "These Yankees could load on Sunday and shoot all week!"

There were even more radical ideas to follow.  For example, the Sharps Rifle and Carbine, the first true military breech-loading rifle.  Issued to the men of the 42nd "Bucktail" Infantry after 1862, these guns had a chamber that opened up just behind the cap lock to accept a cartridge, and could be loaded in a matter of 2 or 3 seconds, capped and fired.

 Men who carried these were known as "Sharpshooters".  Another famous regiment that carried these would be Berdan's Sharpshooters, the world's first recon snipers.  They wore green uniforms and hid up in trees, an early attempt at camouflage. Often, the first a soldier knew a sharpshooter was aiming at him was when a bullet went through his head.

Samuel Colt, a man renowned for inventing the first revolving pistols we all are now familiar with as "cowboy" guns, also manufactured a revolving rifle version of his weapon in 1855 that had a far greater range and better accuracy.  A picture of this is below:

There were all types and variations of these guns, including the Greene Patent Rifle, this rare bolt-action one, which looks decades ahead of its time:

....and finally, the lever-action Henry Repeating Rifle, the familiar weapon of the "Old West"


8. Automatic Weapons and Primitive Machine Guns