U.S. Civil War Technology: Advancements & Facts

Instructor: Logan Thomas

Logan has taught college courses and has a master's degree in history.

The American Civil War was the costliest conflict in United States history. In this lesson, we will learn how new ideas lead to wartime advances in technology that would last long after the struggle had ended.

The War Between The States

Some say the worst fights are between siblings. When the United States went to war with itself in 1861, the resulting conflict was brutal and raged all across the country. Single engagements claimed the lives of tens of thousands. Battles maimed even more.

Union soldiers in 1863
Union soldiers

The world had never seen such staggering casualties. Millions of Americans would serve in uniform, and more than 600,000 would ultimately die for their cause. Representatives from other countries studied the advances and brought innovations from American battlefields back home. As a result, the United States Civil War affected the entire world as inventors searched for new tactics and technology in hopes the slightest advantage would lead to victory.

Advances in Transportation

Combined Use of The Railroad and Telegraph

Years before the American Civil War, Samuel Morse had patented the telegraph and the ''Morse Code'' bearing his name as a means to send messages by using electromagnet pulses across wires. The invention changed the world and made communications quicker than ever. By the time of the Civil War, Americans were able to follow the latest battles as newspapers relied on the most up-to-date information from reporters using telegraphs.

Samuel Morse
Morse

As telegraph lines were installed adjacent to railroads to improve communications between cities and effectively communicate train schedules, the success of the railroad and telegraph went hand-in-hand.

But the revolutionary railroad and telegraph had never been used in warfare before the summer of 1861 when the Confederate and Union armies clashed along a creek called Bull Run in northern Virginia.

The First Battle of Bull Run
First Major Civil War Battle

The two inexperienced forces had not yet fought in a large-scale battle, and it appeared the Union would win the day until word reached Confederate General Joseph Johnston, who was miles away with fresh troops, by telegraph. Johnston's men boarded a train and rushed to Bull Run, arriving in the nick of time to help turn the tide and earn the southern states a victory.

The telegraph, combined with the swiftness of the railroad to transport troops forever changed warfare.

Submarine

The United States had implemented a blockade of all the main southern ports during the war to strangle the rebel states into submission. The tactic worked, and soon the Southerners struggled to acquire the supplies needed to carry out war or feed their population.

Southern inventor Horace Lawson Hunley started to think outside of the box and landed upon the unusual idea of creating a boat that sailed under the water. In an age before compressed air tanks, Southerners viewed this idea with skepticism, and people died in the first tragic tests of what would become the world's first combat submarine.

The Hunley
First combat submarine

In 1864, the approximately 40-foot long Hunley set sail from Charleston to attack the Union blockade. Using a candle to help the crew know when the air in the cabin was running out, the hand-cranked submarine used its explosives to successfully sink the USS Housatonic off the coast of South Carolina and became the first submarine victory in history.

Submarines would advance and are now essential in modern warfare as well as deep-sea exploration.

New Ways to View the World

Balloons

Hot air balloons enabled the military to gain a unique advantage in the era before airplanes, drones and satellite images. The Union Army Balloon Corps, established by Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, would send balloons into the air while tethered to the ground with rope and telegraph lines. The crew searched for the enemy as an early form of aerial reconnaissance.

Hot air balloons were used to spot enemy locations and troop movements
balloon

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