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Technology in the Civil War


The first railroad in America was the Baltimore and Ohio which started laying tracks in 1830.  As with many technologies now, the first developments sparked many improvements.  For instance, after only eight years, all the crossties had rotted and they had to go back and replace them all from the beginning inventing creosote to delay rotting and prolong the service life.

The railroad was "new" technology when the Civil War erupted in American.  The North entered the Civil War with about 22,000 miles of railroad track, and most of it in a standardized gauge allowing cars to be transferred instead of unloading and reloading the freight.  The South only had about 9,000 miles of railroad track, and it was not of a standardized gauge.

The North had far more manufacturing facilities, including to make more rails and locomotives which consumes prodigious quantities of iron.  A hefty percentage of Southern prewar locomotive production was by Smith & Perkins of Alexandria, Virginia, which was within the ground seized almost immediately by the Federal Army for the protection of Washington.  By the end of the War, the Southern railroads were in terrible shape for lack of maintenance supplies.

The biggest effect of the railroad on warfare was the ability to supply vast armies.  The American Civil War armies were much larger then anything ever seen before for forces kept in the field year round.  The railroads could, and did, move large numbers of troops quickly, such as shifting Confederate Longstreet and his corp from Virginia into Kentucky to surprise the Federals, and back again before the Federals could react in Virginia.  But the biggest effect by far was the ability to haul supplies, especially food, long distances.  Ammunition is heavy, very heavy, but not perishable like food.  The vast armies at Gettysburg marched from Virginia in the summer heat to get there, but it was the railroad that sustained the Federal Army in the South.

The North organized its train operations as the U.S. Military Railroads under Herman Haupt.  They became especially adept at replacing bridges burned by Southern Partisans operating behind Federal lines.  Just bending a rail wasn't good enough.  To ruin a rail, it had to be heated "glowing" hot in the middle over a fire and bent like pretzel around a tree.

Especially in or near Virginia, enormous numbers of soldiers had to be kept behind the Federal lines to protect the railroads.  The last guards were not withdrawn from the B&O in Maryland near the Potomac River and Virginia until well after the Civil War was over in July, 1865.

The vast tonnages carried by the Civil War railroads were all on small cars pulled by small locomotives at slow speeds of 25 miles per hour or less.  The inventions that allowed bigger and faster locomotives and trains came in the fifty years or so after the Civil War.  The first significant invention to increase speed was in 1866 when Baldwin Locomotive Works brought out the "flexible beam truck" to better keep the locomotive on the track.  But it was decades before the bearings and lubricants were developed to significantly increase operating weights and speeds.

For more information, read Civil War Railroads by George Abdill first written in 1961; Northern Railroads in the Civil War by Thomas Weber; and Railroads of the Confederacy by Robert Black (? & III).


One of the maddening things about warfare is the inventions it sparks, especially medicine in the American Civil War.  President Lincoln banned the exportation of medicine from the North to the South early on.  The North developed, because it had to, an extensive network of hospital operations not just close behind the lines, but all the way up through the Northern states using the railroad to transport wounded soldiers.  The north had chloroform and the first use of modern anesthetics was in the Northern armies.

The South, especially in Virginia, had large hospitals, but the care was primitive by comparison to what was organized in the North.  The Southerners cared, probably more so, but they didn't have the supplies and the ability to transport them.

Civil War Guns

The adoption by the United States in 1855, only a few years before the Civil War erupted in 1861, of rifling in the common musket was the result of the French invention of the Minie Ball bullet and the rifled musket to shoot it.  The rifling tripled the effective range of the common soldier, and the new bullet's hollow base carried enough of the gunpowder fouling to enable rapid and sustained repeated reloading in battle.  The infantry rifle was still a long musket, and it still loaded from the muzzle, but in massed fire, it wrought havoc against formations of troops.

They still marched and attacked in mass formations because they couldn't communicate more then a few feet by yelling until the Second World War brought the portable radio, but the common soldier in the Civil War quickly learned to hide behind trees, fences, anything, to ram and fire fast.  They became very adept at digging early, often, anytime.

The common soldier of the American Civil War invented trench warfare as a reaction to the rifled musket.

The revolving pistol, invented by Colt, the breechloaders of Sharps, Spencer, and others, and rifled cannon, as deadly as they were, didn't change warfare nearly as much as the Minie Ball and the rifled musket that shot it.

The Civil War also saw the invention and use of the submarine, the flame thrower, land mines, grenades, observation balloons, iron hulled warships, and repeating guns.  So much was invented to allow large massed armies to maneuver for extended periods of time in the field, that the American Civil War became the text book model for large massed armies in the military academies of Europe, and stayed that way for a long time.

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