5 Key Technological Developments of the American Civil War | History Hit

5 Key Technological Developments of the American Civil War

Shannon Callahan

23 Dec 2021
Trains on station at Hanover Junction (Pennsylvania) during the American Civil War, 1863.
Image Credit: Public Domain

After the American Civil War broke out between northern and southern armies in 1861, both sides of the conflict hoped to best their opponents with more efficient and deadly technologies.

As well as new inventions, existing tools and devices were repurposed during the conflict. From battlefield machinery to modes of communication, these inventions and innovations greatly impacted civilians’ and soldiers’ lives, and ultimately changed the way war was fought forever.

Here are 5 of the most significant technological advancements of the American Civil War.

1. Rifles and Minié bullets

Though not a new invention, the rifle was mass-produced instead of muskets for the first time during the American Civil War. The rifle differed from the musket in that it was able to shoot more accurately and for longer distances: groves in the barrel gripped ammunition and spun bullets in such a way that when they left the barrel, they could travel more smoothly.

The introduction of the Minié (or Minie) ball was another technological development that impacted the way battles were fought. These new bullets, when fired out of a rifle, were able to travel further and with more accuracy due to little groves that helped it grip onto the inside of the barrel.

Additionally, they did not require a ramrod or mallet to load, allowing for quicker fire. They had a range of half a mile and were responsible for the vast majority of battle wounds, as these bullets could shatter bone. The groves in these bullets allowed for bacteria to grow, so when the bullet entered a soldier, it was more likely to cause an infection – leading to a more devastating wound and, potentially, amputation.

An 1855 drawing of a Minie ball design.

Image Credit: Smithsonian Neg. No. 91-10712; Harpers Ferry NHP Cat. No. 13645 / Public Domain

2. Ironclad warships and submarines

Naval warfare was not new during the Civil War; however, there were several advancements that drastically changed the way war was fought on the sea, including ironclad warships and submarines. Previously, wooden ships with cannons were used in warfare. But Civil War-era ships were fitted with iron or steel on the exterior so that cannons and other fire by the enemy could not pierce them. The first battle between such ships occurred in 1862 between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads.

Another change to naval warfare came in the form of submarines, used primarily by Confederate sailors. Invented long before this war, they were implemented as part of the South’s strategy to break up blockades at key southern trading ports, with limited success.

In 1864, the CSS Hunley sank the Union blockade ship Housatonic off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, by ramming it with a torpedo. It was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship. The use of submarines and torpedoes foreshadowed modern sea warfare as we know it today.

3. Railroads

The railroad greatly impacted both northern and southern war strategies: they were used to transport soldiers and supplies, so they served as important targets for destruction. The North had a more extensive railway system than the South, allowing them to move supplies more quickly to troops in battle.

Though the train was invented before this period, it was the first time the American railroads were employed for a large conflict. Consequently, railway stations and infrastructure became targets for destruction in the South, as the Union army knew the damage that could be done by cutting off critical supply lines at major railroad hubs.

A railway gun used during the American Civil War during the siege of Petersburg, June 1864–April 1865.

Image Credit: Library of Congress / Public Domain

4. Photography

Photography was invented just before the start of the Civil War, and its commercialization and popularisation during the war changed the way that civilians understood war. The public was able to witness and react to events happening far beyond their towns, impacting their opinions on their leaders and the war. Exhibitions in major cities showed the aftermath of grisly battles and were later reproduced in newspapers and magazines, reaching wider audiences.

More intimately, photography allowed for people to retain keepsakes of those who were off fighting. Photographers travelled to camps, taking pictures of battle aftermaths, scenes of military life and portraits of officers. They were even hired to help with reconnaissance missions.

The most utilised print inventions were the tintype, ambrotype and the carte de visite, which could quickly mass-produce photographs for a variety of uses. Though earlier conflicts had been photographed, such as the Crimean War (1853-1856), the American Civil War was more extensively photographed than any conflict that preceded it.

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5. Telegraphs

Lastly, communication during war was forever impacted by the invention of the telegraph. Invented by Samuel Morse in 1844, it is estimated that 15,000 miles of telegraph cable were used for military purposes throughout the Civil War. Telegraphs carried vital communication about battle positions and plans to the frontline, as well as to the government and even the public through news reporting.

President Lincoln frequently used the technology to message generals, and the media sent reporters out to battle sites, allowing reporting on the war to occur more quickly than ever before.

Shannon Callahan