Innovations in Technology During the Civil War

Inventions and New Technology Influenced the Great Conflict

The Civil War was fought at a time of great technological innovation, and new inventions, including the telegraph, the railroad, and even balloons, became part of the conflict.

The first battle between ironclad warships occurred during the Civil War when USS Monitor met CSS Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads, in Virginia.

The Monitor, which had been built in Brooklyn, New York in an amazingly short time, was one of the most magnificent machines of its time. Made of iron plates riveted together, it had a revolving turret, and represented the future of naval warfare.

The Confederate ironclad had been built on the hull of an abandoned and captured Union warship, USS Merrimac. It lacked the Monitor's revolving turret, but its heavy iron plating made it nearly impervious to cannonballs. More »

Photograph of Civil War balloon being inflated
One of Thaddeus Lowe's balloons being inflated near the front in 1862. Getty Images

A self-taught scientist and showman, Prof. Thaddeus Lowe, had been experimenting by ascending in balloons just before the Civil War broke out. He offered his services to the government, and impressed President Lincoln by going up in a balloon tethered to the White House lawn.

Lowe was directed to set up the U.S. Army Balloon Corps, which accompanied the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia in the late spring and summer of 1862. Observers in balloons relayed information to officers on the the ground via telegraph, which marked the first time aerial reconnaissance was used in warfare.

The balloons were an object of fascination, but the information they yielded was never used to its potential. More »

The Minié ball was an newly designed bullet which came into widespread use during the Civil War. The bullet was much more efficient than earlier musket balls, and it was feared for its awesome destructive power.

The Minié ball, which gave off a terrifying whistling sound as it moved through the air, struck soldiers with tremendous force. It was known to shatter bones, and it is the primary reason why the amputation of limbs became so common in Civil War field hospitals. More »

The Telegraph

The telegraph had been revolutionizing society for yearly two decades when the Civil War began. News of the attack on Fort Sumter moved quickly via telegraph, and the ability to communicate over great distances nearly instantly was quickly adapted for military purposes.

President Abraham Lincoln, who was very interested in new technology, recognized the utility of the telegraph. He would often walk from the White House to a telegraph office in the War Department, where he would spend hours communicating by telegraph with his generals.

The Railroad

Railroads had been spreading throughout the nation since the 1830s, and its value to the military was obvious during the first major battle of the Civil War, Bull Run. Confederate reinforcements traveled by train to get to the battlefield and engage Union troops who had marched in the hot summer sun.

While most Civil War armies would move as soldiers had for centuries, by marching countless miles between battles, there were times when the railroad proved important. Supplies were often moved hundreds of miles to troops in the field. And when Union troops invaded the South during the final year of the war, destruction of railroad tracks became high priority.

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McNamara, Robert. "Innovations in Technology During the Civil War." ThoughtCo, Feb. 29, 2016, McNamara, Robert. (2016, February 29). Innovations in Technology During the Civil War. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Innovations in Technology During the Civil War." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 24, 2017).