From here to modernity: Technology in the American Civil War

‘The Monitor and Merrimack: The First Fight Between Ironclads’ a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, 9 March 1862, produced by Louis Prang & Co. Boston

The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 is often referred to as the ‘first modern war’. A whole range of reasons are cited to explain how and why this bloody internecine conflict demonstrated its modernity. In this blog I will briefly look at some of these reason before examining, in a little more detail, a couple of specific examples. The latter are both fascinating, and remnants of them remain in existence today for historians and interested visitors to explore.

The claims, and very strong they are in some cases, to the modernity of the American Civil War, principally focus on the emergent technology of the period.  In many cases this war did not see the first use of these technologies, but the wholesale manner in which many were adopted, and the impact they had, was in many in cases revolutionary.

The first and perhaps most obvious of these technologies was the railway, which allowed both the strategic and operational mobility of armies. In 1861 there were some 30,000 miles of railroad in the United States, of which 9,000 were in the newly formed Confederate States.  The military value of these was quickly realised by both sides. In January 1862 the US Congress gave the President sweeping powers to use any piece of railroad for military use by approving the Railways and Telegraph Act.  Shortly afterwards a department of the United States Army called the United States Military Railroads was formed to serve the Army’s needs.  In the South a Railroad Bureau was formed to perform the same function for the Confederacy. However, in line with the suspicion of central government that had created the Confederacy, no form of central control over the railroads was achieved until February 1865 when it was by and large too late to make any difference to the outcome of the War. But both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line railways proved to be a crucial and very modern enabler to military operations.

The rail mounted siege mortar known as the ‘Dictator’, used at the siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War.

Communications also benefitted from modern technology. The use of the telegraph allowed better strategic command and control, although it might be argued that the main impact of the telegraph was to allow increased political interference in the conduct of the war! (To find out more about how Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph I thoroughly recommend Tom Wheeler’s book, Mr Lincoln’s T-Mails, Harper Collins, 2008).

Other technological advances included rifled artillery providing greater range and accuracy of fire.  Combining the mobility offered by the railways and advances in artillery weaponry, siege mortars were mounted on rail flatbeds to give them tactical mobility. Repeating rifles produced increased rates of fire, and telescopic-sighted sniper rifles allowed marksmen to engage and eliminate high value enemy targets at a great distance.  The use of manned balloons was instigated to provide an airborne observation platform for over the horizon visibility. A US Army Balloon Corps was formed to operate them under the leadership of Professor Thaddeus Lowe who had the splendid job title of ‘Chief Aeronaut’. The list goes on and it is easy to see how it can be argued that the American Civil War had all the trappings of a modern industrialised conflict.

Tom Lovell Balloon
Professor Lowe’s Balloon by Tom Lovell

But one must not jump to conclusions, and whilst the technology in some areas of the American Civil War most definitely presaged the industrialised wars of the Twentieth century, there were many aspects of this war that were firmly anchored in the Nineteenth. For example the tactics generally employed would not have been a surprise to those fighting in the armies of Napoleon and Wellington some fifty years earlier – blocks of soldiers marching towards the enemy in choreographed precision, lines of infantry standing fifty paces apart firing muzzle loaded musket and mounted cavalry charges.  Tactical battlefield communications had progressed little since Napoleonic times too. Here the armies still relied on mounted messengers, or a signalling flag system, to pass instruction forward to the fighting troops. Again the list goes on.  At this point I will resist the temptation of straying deeper into a lengthy debate about whether the War was indeed the first modern war. Instead I would like to highlight two particularly interesting, and powerful, examples of the modern aspects of the American Civil War, both of which have anniversaries around this time.

First, 17 February 2016 was the 152nd anniversary of the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the Confederate ship H.L. Hunley, the first manned combat submarine to sink another warship.  The H. L. Hunley, named after her inventor Horace Lawson Hunley, was launched in July 1863, but up until that day in February 1864, her career had been somewhat chequered.

Built in Mobile, Alabama the H.L Hunley was a 40 foot long submarine constructed from old steam boiler plate material.  In August 1863 she was transported by rail to Charleston, South Carolina.   On 29 August 1863, whilst on a training run, she sank killing five members of the crew.  Undaunted she was raised and re-floated only to sink again on 15 October 1863, once again during a training run.  This time all eight of the crew were lost including the submarine’s inventor Horace Hunley.   Determined to make operational use of this new invention she was raised a second time.

CSS Hunley by Mort Kunstler
Mort Kunstler’s picture ‘Final Mission’, showing H.L. Hunley preparing for what was to be its final voyage in Charleston Harbour on 17 February 1864.

On 17 February 1864 she attacked and sank the USS Housatonic whilst it was on blockade duty at the entrance to Charleston Harbour. However, even this success was tinged with tragedy as having successfully completed its mission the Hunley sank with all eight crew members perishing.  Falling to the bottom of sea the Hunley rested there until she was discovered in 1995.  In 2000, after much hard work, the Hunley was raised and is currently undergoing painstaking conservation work at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston.  Here she can be visited and looking inside this iron tube it is horrifying to contemplate both the cramped and claustrophobic working conditions of the crew, and to imagine the terror of sinking to a watery death at the bottom of Charleston Harbour.

Hunley 2
The H.L Hunley undergoing conservation (Photo: Friends of the Hunley)

The second anniversary, on 25 February 2016, marks 154 years since the USS Monitor was commissioned. An ironclad warship, the US Navy ordered her in 1861 in direct response to the threat posed by the CSS Virginia, a casemate ironclad ship constructed by the Confederate States from the lower hull and engines of the scuttled USS Merrimack.

Designed by Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, the USS Monitor was new, and at the time, unique.  She sat low in the water and mounted a twin-gunned revolving turret on the centre of her flat deck.  This turret allowed her to overcome the problem facing warships of the time, which needed to manoeuvre alongside an enemy ship before being able to bring their guns to bear. Instead the Monitor could engage a target from any angle by rotating the turret. Completed in New York in early March 1862 she was immediately sailed to Hampton Roads arriving just in time to take on the CCS Virginia in the first ironclad versus ironclad duel.

This battle, known as the Battle of Hampton Road, took place on 9 March 1862.  The two ships met and traded shots for almost four hours at the end of which, neither side having inflicted fatal damage on each other, both ships returned to port to lick their wounds.  But as they did so they had changed the face of naval warfare forever. Both the offensive and defensive advantages of ironclads were proven.

A photograph of the USS Monitor taken after the Battle of Hampton Roads, 9 March 1862, with the turret showing clear evidence of damage from the action.

Like the H.L Hunley, the Monitor ended her life at the bottom of the sea, sinking off North Carolina’s Outer Banks on 31 December 1862.  She lay undiscovered on the bottom of the Atlantic until 1973. Since then the wreck site has been extensively examined and some artefacts recovered.  The largest of which, the turret and its guns, were eventually raised in 2002.  Today these are undergoing conservation work in the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, only a dozen miles from where the famous battle took place.  Considerable work has also been undertaken to preserve the range of smaller artefacts found on board, as well as to identify the crew members whose bodies were found in the wreck, allowing the story of the ship and her complement to be interpreted and explained.

The USS Monitor’s turret and guns undergoing early stages of conservation.

Now the jury probably remains out on a definitive answer to whether the American Civil War was indeed the ‘first modern war’. What is clear is that many facets of the war, particularly regarding the technology used, had a modern aspect to them and many clearly signposted the future. Both the H. L. Hunley and the USS Monitor fall into this category.  Both were born out of necessity and both gave a clear indication of things to come.

The H.L. Hunley showed that the threat to warships, and other vessels, could now equally well come from below the ocean waves as from on top.  The one-off success of 1864 alarmingly foreshadowed the dark days of both of the Twentieth Century’s World Wars, when German U-Boat wolfpacks threatened to bring Great Britain to her knees.  Likewise the USS Monitor, and to a degree its rival the CSS Virginia, clearly pointed to a future where iron battleships would rule, indeed a future that was not far off.  Just over forty years after the launch of the USS Monitor, Britain and Germany were in a race to build huge, well-armed and heavily armoured dreadnoughts that would dwarf the USS Monitor. This Anglo-German naval arms race was one of the mosaic of contributing factors that caused the First World War, a war that was brutally modern in every aspect.