Feature Civil War Innovations

Find out more about technological advancements during the Civil War.

Civil War Innovations

Submarines were not the only innovation to come out of the Civil War, which some call the first "modern" war.

History Detectives has highlighted a few of the more important developments.

These not only changed the course of the Civil War, but also the face of warfare to this day.

Communications and Transport

The telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse in 1844, and telegraph wires soon sprang up all along the East Coast. During the war, 15,000 miles of telegraph cable was laid purely for military purposes. Mobile telegraph wagons reported and received communications from just behind the frontline. President Lincoln would regularly visit the Telegraph Office to get the latest news. The telegraph also enabled news sources to report on the war in a timely fashion, leading to an entirely new headache for the government: how to handle the media.

Aerial reconnaissance 
Both sides used hot air balloons for aerial reconnaissance of battlefields during the Civil War. A Balloon Corps was established by President Lincoln early on. The maiden voyage of the first official Union balloon occurred in late August, 1861. Balloon operators used another wartime innovation, the telegraph, to let commanders on the ground know of Confederates movements. This allowed Union guns to be repositioned and fired accurately at troops more than three miles away-a first in military history.

The Civil War was the first war to use railroads, encouraged by President Lincoln — himself a former railroad lawyer — who understood how vital they were for moving men and supplies. The North had a distinct advantage, with superior infrastructure (20,000 miles of track), better equipment and their own locomotive factory. Whereas the South had just 9,000 miles of track and had converted its locomotive works into an armaments factory. The trains allowed generals to move their soldiers, supplies and armaments to where they were most needed. Rail centers and railroad infrastructure soon became targets for attack.

While the South's rail system was weak, they were the first to use trains to their advantage, transporting supplies and soldiers to vital areas. The North was stymied by railroad owners more concerned with how much they could charge, than how quickly they could aid the cause. In fact, Secretary of War Simon Cameron was forced to resign when it was discovered he was trying to profit from War Department contracts for railroad shipping.

Army ambulance corps
Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, was responsible for creating the first organized transport of the wounded. Ambulance units usually consisted of a ragtag group of soldiers who were otherwise unfit for fighting. Letterman innovated and regimented the process. The ambulances of a division moved together under the direction of a line sergeant, with two stretcher-bearers and one driver per ambulance. They would go into the field, pick up the wounded, deliver them to dressing stations and then to field hospitals. To this day the military bases its ambulance system on Letterman's ideas.

Weapons and Ships

Long-Range Weapons and the Minie Bullet
Prior to the Civil War, most combatants used smooth-bore muskets which had a maximum range of about 300 feet. However, shortly before the start of the war, the invention of rifling (grooves in the musket barrel) meant bullets could spin and travel up to 900 feet. This was an important defensive development and increased the range and accuracy of muskets.
The Minie bullet made defense even safer. When used in the rifled musket it spun faster, traveled further and was five times more accurate than any single-man weapon. Able to kill at half a mile, it was the largest contributor to battle wounds (more than 90%).

The Gatling Gun
The ancestor of the modern machine gun, it was the most successful of several rapid-fire guns that were born before the war. Richard Gatling invented the gun in the hopes that a weapon so catastrophic in its damage would convince men to stop waging war. Unfortunately, its efficiency in killing only made war more deadly. It was not used extensively during the Civil War.

Ironclad Warships
At the start of the Civil War the North had a distinct naval advantage as the South didn't have a dedicated Navy. Both recognized the importance of armor-cladding their ships. The first engagement between two iron-clad ships was between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. The first fight between iron clad ships of war, in Hampton Roads, March 9, 1862, in which the Monitor whipped the Merrimac and the whole school of Confederate steamers.

Naval mines and torpedoes
Naval mines were developed by the Confederates in the hopes of counteracting the Union's blockades of Southern ports. Mines and later, torpedoes, were very effective sinking 40 Union ships. The success of these mines led to the creation of land mines and grenades that would be used in later wars.