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. Some of the new inventions, such as ironclads and telegraphic communication, changed warfare forever. Others, like the use of reconnaissance balloons, were unappreciated at the time, but would inspire military innovations in later conflicts.

Ironclads

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.

Balloons: The U.S. Army Balloon Corps

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. By the fall of 1862 the government decided that the balloon project would be discontinued. It's interesting to think how later battles in the war, such as Antietam or Gettysburg, might have proceeded differently if the Union Army had the benefit of balloon reconnaissance.

The Minié Ball

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.

The Telegraph

Artist's depiction of Lincoln in the War Department telegraph office.
Lincoln at the War Department telegraph office. public domain

The telegraph had been revolutionizing society for nearly 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.

The press made extensive use of the telegraph system during the war. Correspondents traveling with the Union armies quickly sent dispatches to the New York Tribune, New York Times, New York Herald, and other major newspapers. 

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 news of Lincoln's assassination in April 1865 also moved quickly via the telegraph. The first word that he was wounded at Ford's Theatre reached New York City late on the night of April 14, 1865. The following morning the city's newspapers were publishing special editions announcing his death.

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.

At the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln's funeral traveled to major cities in the North by rail. A special train carried Lincoln's body home to Illinois, a trip that took nearly two weeks with many stops along the way.