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Modern Warfare: Military Technology in the Civil War Essay

The American Civil War is considered by many historians to be the first modern war. It was the first war in which mechanized and electrified devices were used. Such technologies include photography, mines, submarines, torpedoes, rapid-fire guns, rifles, and the telegraph. Some of these innovations helped make the civil war one of the deadliest wars in history. Over 620,000 people died in the war; more casualties than all other wars involving Americans combined.

Practical photography technology was not developed until the early 19th century. Although the military did not have much interest in photography in the beginning of the war, there were several photographers who captured many disturbing images. One of the most famous photographers was Mathew Brady. He and his twenty assistants made a complete record of all of the events of the civil war. Each assistant had his own traveling darkroom so that plates could be processed on the spot.

In 1862, Brady shocked the country by displaying his photographs of corpses after the battle of Antietam. This was the first time the general public had seen images of the bloodshed of war. The New York Times said that Brady had brought “home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war” (Congress).

He also photographed soldiers and officers in uniform before going to the front lines, as well as 35 portraits of President Lincoln during his 1860 campaign. During the war, Brady spent $100,000 to obtain a collection of 10,000 prints. He expected to sell the collection to the government after the war, but they refused to until 1875. Even then, they only paid him $25,000 which led him to bankruptcy. Brady’s work marks the first time that a war had been photographically documented, and the first time that the public could see what war was really like.

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The Confederate military developed the first naval mines in order to counter the Union’s blockades. When a ship came in contact with a mine, it would explode and sink the ship. The Confederate mines were successful in destroying about forty Union ships, and led to the development of torpedoes and land minds.

The CSS H.L. Hunley was the first submersible torpedo boat to successfully attack a warship. There were two prototypes built prior to the Hunley, the Pioneer and American Diver. Those subs used various propellant methods including a steam engine and battery power. The Hunley was the first submarine approved by the US military, and cost $15,000 ($300,000 today) to build. The sub was hand-cranked by 8 crew members, and also used hand cranks to pump the ballast tanks (Morris).

On February 17, 1864, the Hunley rammed the Union’s USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor, and set a torpedo in the hull. The sub backed away, and as they did, they pulled a long cord which detonated the torpedo. The torpedo that the Hunley used was made out of copper, and contained 90 – 130 pounds of black powder. The ship sank in about five minutes after the attack, but only 5 crew members died. The Hunley also sank, due to unknown reasons. The sinking of the Hunley ended sub experimentation for the remainder of the Civil War. After the war, sub development eventually resumed. Self-propelled torpedoes were developed in about 1868 (Morris).

Invented in 1862 Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling, the Gatling gun was the first successful rapid-fire gun used in war. It was used only a few times in the Civil War, and if it had been used more, there definitely would have been many more casualties. Apparently, Gatling “set out to create a weapon so devastating that it would make the idea of war so horrible that war would become unthinkable thus ending all wars” (Weapons). Unfortunately, the weapon was very efficient at killing people and eventually became popular, especially in the Spanish-American war.

This 2,000 pound (900kg) gun was operated by a hand-crank, with six barrels revolving around a central shaft. Each barrel could fire over 100 rounds per minute, resulting in a weapon capable of firing over 600 rounds per minute! While the gun fired standard .58-caliber ammunition, it had so many mechanical problems that the US government was not interested in purchasing the weapon. However, Major General Benjamin F. Butler purchased 12 Gatling guns for $1,000 each (Yates). Two were successfully used on the Petersburg front in 1864 and eight more on gunboats. In 1866 the government finally approved the gun for use, and Gatling began selling his weapons throughout the world. Modern versions of the Gatling gun can fire more than 10,000 rounds per minute.

The most widely used weapon used by both the North and the South was the 1861 Springfield musket. This muzzle-loader was fired by a percussion cap and shot a .58-caliber bullet. Its rifled bore, interchangeable parts and percussion cap ignition system incorporated the major innovations of the prewar years into an accurate, dependable rifle. It fired a Minie ball, which was a lead bullet with a hollow tail. When it fired the pressure caused the lead to expand into the grooves. In addition to keeping the bullet on a straighter course this expansion minimized the escape of gas, which increased its range (Randolph).

Advances in rifle technology include benchrest rifles and telescopic sights, used by snipers in the war. The telescopic sight was invented in 1848 by Morgan James of Utica, NY. They were about 4x power, but a trained sniper could hit a long-distance target at 1,800 yards with a benchrest rifle. These muzzle-loaded rifles were named so because they were so heavy (40 pounds) that they were easiest to fire with the barrel resting on a bench. Though this rifle was used in the war, the preferred weapon of the Southern sharpshooter was the Whitworth rifle imported from England (Randolph).

The Spencer rifle and carbine contributed to the success of the Union army. The rifle used an all metallic cartridge with a built-in primer, and the magazine allowed soldiers to fire rapidly by means of a lever and cocking the trigger. Union troops could fire 14 rounds per minute, as opposed to the 3 rounds per minute allowed by a muzzle-loader. Issued in 1863, this rifle was a great advantage for the North. Additionally, the South could not even use captured Spencers because of a lack of ammunition (Beck).

The telegraph was a relatively new invention at the time of the Civil War. Invented in 1844 by Samuel F.B. Morse, by the time of the war, there were telegraph lines all over the eastern U.S. and even some lines across the country. By the end of the war, more than 15,000 miles of lines had been built for military purposes. When the war began, it quickly became the best means to communicate military intelligence, and soon became target for counter-operations. One Union commander captured two Confederate supply trains by intercepting messages and replacing them with disinformation. Both armies developed mobile telegraph units that traveled wherever the army went. The U.S. Government opened its own telegraph office, where President Lincoln often received information on the war (Telegraph).

With all these modern technological developments, the Civil War was certainly the deadliest of the time. The overall consequence of these advances was the rapid application of new weapons and other technologies of war to the battlefield at a pace never seen before in history, with the corresponding result that weapons became more lethal than ever. Even today, the Civil War is still considered one of the bloodiest wars of all time.

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