Was the Civil War America's "First Modern War"?
Today, "high-tech" means instant internet communication, electronic gadgets, and remote control weapons. In 1861, there was a different list of wonders: printed telegraph messages, long-haul railroads, and rifles that could shoot three rounds a minute. How, then, do some historians consider the Civil War to be the first modern war? It is time for you to analyze the technological advancements of the Civil War. As you look at each advancement, be sure to consider how the technology was used, whether or not the technology was effective, and who the technology benefited most. As a historian, you must also decide if the Civil War was truly America's first modern war.
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.
Civil War technology also saw the first successful use of a submarine. The Confederates created a submarine called the Hunley (above image). The Hunley was powered by eight men who sat on a bench and turned a propeller with a hand crank. It was a crude method of propelling a boat, but it worked. The Hunley only went on one mission against the Union navy. In February, 1864, the Hunley quietly approached and attached a naval mine to the USS Housatonic. When the mine exploded, the USS Housatonic became the first ship in history to be destroyed by a submarine. Only minutes after successfully sinking the USS Housatonic, the Hunley also sank.
The Minie Ball
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 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.
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.
At the beginning of the Civil War, ships of all of the world's navies were made of wood and powered at least in part by wind and sail. By the end of the war, all such ships, in all navies, were completely obsolete. 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.
Observation balloons demonstrated both their promise and their drawbacks. They could provide a superb view of the enemy. Union balloon operators often used 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. Unfortunately, observation balloons were awkward to transport, and difficult - or even impossible - to control once they were in the air. From the perspective of the 21st century, the benefit of being able to see, directly, where the enemy is and what he is doing seems to outweigh the drawbacks.
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.