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article number 425
article date 02-26-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
How Did American Invention Affect the Civil War? 1861
by Roger Burlingame

From the 1942 book, March of the Iron Men, A Social History of Union through Invention.

§ 1

THE WAR OF INDEPENDENCE did not make a nation in 1776. It made a league of nations. It made what Wilson tried to reproduce in Europe in 1919—a little tighter because the ingredients were more naturally cohesive; a little stronger because there were a few common aims and common enemies.

There is evidence enough that the framers of the 1787 constitution had in mind a union rather than a national entity. “To form a more perfect union,” they wrote, a union of quite independent sovereignties.

Without question, most of these men, if not, indeed, all of them, believed that if any one or group of these sovereignties chose to resign from the league it would probably be neither possible nor desirable to prevent them from doing so.

In the earliest days of the federation, the subject of secession was agitated. When the Louisiana Territory was still French, Jefferson saw the immediate likelihood of the western settlers taking matters into their own hands and forming a nation of their own. His bargain with Bonaparte came just in time to remind the western adventurers that a center of government far behind them was functioning in a powerful manner and that this center represented to Europeans a national entity.

When Jefferson clamped down his embargo on shipping to demonstrate an attitude of the United States, the New England sovereignties proposed a union of their own which should withdraw from the league of which he was president.

This, too, was prevented when the old, common overseas enemy appeared again on the eastern horizon. All this time, Europe, unable (as it still is) to think in terms of leagues and federations, persisted in regarding the United States or “America,” as these were habitually called, as a political entity, a nation.

But in America itself the land was too big for Americans to think of it as national. Climate, natural wealth and interests were far too diverse for such a conceit. It must be made smaller, more compact, more unified in fact before it could be so comprehended. Simultaneously, the scope of the human mind must be enlarged.

What was to effect these changes? First and foremost, technological invention.

Special historians advance many other causes. There were threats from outside, increase of population to fill the empty spaces, the common interest in adventure, the development of new lands, the conquest of the wilderness, the homesick need of the pioneers to keep their touch with those left behind.

There were such political events as the invasion of Washington from the frontier in the person of Andrew Jackson and, later, Harrison, the belief in union of men like Webster, but without the continuous inevitable progress of technology—of which, indeed, very few were conscious—all these causes would have failed to operate.

It is significant that, subconsciously, the framers seemed to have some vision of this and provided for the federal protection of invention in their constitution.

This brought about one of the first federal statutes, the patent law, which should apply to individual inventors throughout the league. Though it did not at once function in the face of state charters, it was an essentially unifying statute. Men like Whitney, Stevens, Fulton, made it operative.

Whitney’s cotton gin unified the far South by giving it a new source of wealth and a common interest in the means of exploiting that wealth: Negro slavery.


Slater’s reproduction of English textile machinery began what, for convenience, we call the Industrial revolution in New England and established an economic connection between North and South which was afterward found to be unbreakable.

The steamboat of Fitch, Stevens and Roosevelt, aided by the formidable promotion of Livingston and Fulton, created the economic support of the pioneer, enabled him to settle and realize the wealth of the West and at the same time bound him inextricably to the East.

McCormick’s reaper brought the dependence of both East and South upon the West.

Stevens’s railroad completed these dependences and the electric telegraph of Henry, Vail and Morse combined with the presses of Hoe to establish instruments of union which, despite their first perversion by laggard minds, nevertheless laid down a pattern, to which eventually all minds must conform.

Thus, by the time of the “irrepressible conflict” the nation had become a fact whether we liked it or not. We did not like it in 1960. Southerners, least of all conscious of technology, did not like it at all. They resented their dependence to such a point that they denied it.

They felt that the manufacturers of the North had forced Southern dependence upon it, politically, through the tariff. They resented northern industrial success because the northerners used free labor in their factories—a kind of labor which they were denied.

It is all very well to say that they had chosen slavery of their own free will, but this is not strictly true. We have already seen how, in the beginning, slavery was forced upon them by America herself, the natural America, the savage mother—at least if they were to live by staple agriculture. And staple agriculture, in turn, had earlier been forced upon them by the colonial policy of England.

Then, in a dubious moment when there seemed to exist the possibility of abandoning staple agriculture—at least in the Carolinas and Georgia—and at the same time giving up slavery, the cotton gin made the decision for them.

It is, of course, highly romantic for historians to emphasize the statement that the cotton gin was forced upon the South by the North because Eli Whitney of Connecticut invented it. In the larger social sense, Whitney did not invent this machine; it was invented by Georgian society and Whitney was merely their well though accidentally chosen tool. In no event did he disseminate it or even manufacture it. It was made, as we have seen, by planters, in their own workshops.

Nevertheless it was the technological factor which completed southern dependence on slavery. More than that, it forged the shackles which bound the South to staple agriculture.

This dependence drove out subsistence agriculture, never adequately developed south of Virginia, and produced the dependence first upon the middle states, then upon the McCormick-invaded West.

With all these factors in operation, the question arises—which, in the South, were the more abject slaves in fact, the blacks bound in legal servitude or their masters, shackled by economic forces?

In compensation for this dependence, a psychological attitude developed which denied it. More and more resentful under it, southerners everywhere began to assert their independence.

United by this common resentment, they decided to form a new union which should be separate and self-sustaining. The more thoughtful among them foresaw the need of closer and friendlier relations with Europe, but this, once tariff bars were down, seemed feasible enough.

The idea that there was any valid political reason why they should not resign from the old, no longer necessary or practical, league scarcely occurred to them.

Provisional Congress of the Confederacy, Montgomery Alabama.

But even in the North, except where strong economic considerations were actively operative, secession was not regarded as impracticable or even wholly undesirable. The strong political party which had started the political controversy with the South many years before had done so because it feared the economic consequences of the spread of slavery through the admission of new slave states.

The violence of their attitude had been, perhaps, unnecessary, as slavery might have died a natural death in many of those states. But their contention was not primarily for the preservation of the old union, for they did not recognize that the nation was already an accomplished fact which would withstand the political will of any one to deny it.

Daniel Webster was the first statesman to recognize the existence of this fact though he may not have entirely understood the reasons for it, and he had an exceedingly difficult time convincing his fellow countrymen. The North, in his time, abounded with men who would gladly die in defence of provincial sovereignty and even the right of sovereign states to secede.

Even Lincoln, as every one knows, seeing the fact still more clearly and understanding all the reasons for it, was branded, in the North, both as a mad visionary and as an economically actuated, self-seeking political pragmatist.

Today, with obscuring emotions out of the way, we find it easy to trace the steady, clear progress of his thought toward the recognition of a fact which was beyond his or any one’s else control; the fact that the United States, from being a league of small, separate, self-sufficient entities, had grown into a whole composed of large parts, no longer dissoluble because none of those parts was longer self-sufficient, because the operation of economics through technology had rendered each dependent upon the others so that, divorced from the whole, neither the seceding part nor the part from which it had seceded could survive.

Lincoln’s statement that no nation could endure half-slave and half-free was an economic and technological utterance. It was not a humane statement. If he could preserve the union by freeing the slaves or by not freeing them or by freeing part of them he would do so, but the essential knowledge was forever in his mind that the existence of slavery would always tend toward disunion and that, as union was a fact, slavery must go.

Lincoln articulated the idea of union long after the fact; psychologically, he brought the conflict to a head by stating an issue; the union preserved itself through the steady continuance of technologically actuated economic forces which had already been long in operation.

The war, nevertheless, had to take place, just as some war of tomorrow may have to take place because the social mind is still so far behind the scientific one, because social invention had not caught up with technological invention.

Americans in 1860 did not see the social pattern that machines had made; southerners did not understand that mechanical slaves and African ones could no longer work side by side. They did not see the curiously diverse aspects, for instance, of applied mechanics.

They failed to observe that the machines of the Virginian, McCormick, moving over the western plains, produced wealth that was far more immediately useful than that produced by the machine of the Yankee Whitney, which not only could not make cotton edible but could not even make it into clothes.

So they defied the northern machines, made themselves independent by a mere ukase and marched bravely into battle.

We must deal now with the fact of the war.

There are still many people who believe that the human aspect of slavery had much to do with its outbreak. Realistic historians of the present day are inclined to overemphasize the statement that this aspect had nothing to do with it. Very likely some of them have taken such an extreme position because the historians of an earlier romantic era overemphasized the opposite.

The truth is probably somewhere between the two. We can hardly say that the activity of the abolitionists had nothing to do with the Civil War any more than we can say that the German atrocities in Belgium (real or fancied) had nothing to do with the World War.

The actual putting on of a uniform by a soldier, his departure from home, his subservience to discipline and his entrance into battle are rarely determined by remote economic causes.


Abolitionist feeling, widely propagandized by Harriet Beecher Stowe, unquestionably hurried a great many people on both sides into uniform and certainly maintained the courage in battle of many northerners. Without some such emotion, the mechanics of war are difficult if not impossible.

On the other hand, without the propaganda of abolition, many other devices would, undoubtedly, have been found. After all, The American Flag had been fired upon. And southerners had plenty of grievances of which abolitionist sentiment was a minor one. This is the most that we can say.

§ 2

Let us consider now the background of this war as compared with that of 1776. Geographically, the country was much larger but, socially, leaving out remote frontiers, it was smaller. Now, even in parts where no military operations occurred, there was intense consciousness of the war.

Public opinion formed by instantaneous knowledge of events met the deserting soldier and forced him back even if a telegraphically informed police had not first caught him.

Men no longer drifted back to the farms for the harvest because food supply was now organized. Furthermore they could not drift back because their homes were too far away. They were dependent upon the railroad, which was under military control, and once in uniform a soldier could be moved about at the will of his commanding officer.

Thus the soldier was effectually cut off from the home temptation while, at the same time, home news was more available to him.

Food supply and transportation, the manufacture and distribution of clothing, gunpowder, arms, material were no longer provincial matters—at least in the North. Manufacture was now centralized in the places most adapted to it and quantities of standardized equipment could be sent where they were needed in a short time.

A demand for new supplies could, like the demand for reinforcements, be quickly transmitted from the field to those centers. Strategy could be planned over large areas with the promise that it could be carried out in a short time and with a minimum of error.

A staff college might, with a map before it, project rapid manoeuvres without considering the uncertain factors incident to long delay in execution. Troops and artillery, ammunition and food could be rushed to certain centers to forestall probable enemy operations of which overnight intelligence had arrived. Theoretically, guesswork had been eliminated. Theoretically, all the field was visible and under control.

War, however, is never as simple as this. It is one of the few departments of human activity—we may, perhaps, include finance—which does not respond to scientific and technological motivation. Technological devices are extremely vulnerable and scientific application of force used against itself is quickly nullified.

Thus war can never be a science, for it is, essentially, a nullification of all science as far as its own purposes are concerned. This statement does not say, however, that a war may not be an exceedingly valuable laboratory for the development of new applications of science, but until these applications achieve non-combatant uses they have no value.

- A telegraph line is far easier to interrupt than a relay of express riders and repair may be more difficult. A railroad train cannot circumvent an enemy which cuts its rails or burns its bridges.
- It is easier to cut a track than to block the way of an ox-cart.
- Communication with the rear may be instantaneous via electro-magnetic devices but the intelligence communicated is easily accessible to the enemy.
- Centralized sources of supply arc easier to cut off than decentralized ones.
- Large, rapid-firing artillery is useful only when an immense, continuous and highly vulnerable ammunition supply is organized.
- Efficient service of supply and hospitalization require the concentration of large bodies of men and goods which make excellent targets.
- The more a road is improved and the more dependent a vehicle becomes on its improvement the easier and the more disastrous is its sudden un-improvement by enemy shells or mines.
- A great iron warship seems far more formidable than a wooden sail-frigate, but once its engines or propeller are reached it is as helpless as Achilles with his heel punctured.
- Propaganda via the telegraph and the cheap press seems immensely effective, but the same means are open to the enemy and are highly subversible.

Telegraph outfit installed in a battery wagon. Headquarters Army of the Potomac before Petersberg, 1864. From Brady photographs, in the Library of Congress.

So we may say of the Civil War or the World War that their aspect was different from that of the American Revolution or the Trojan conflicts but, taken as a whole, their progress was no more efficient or rapid as a result of technological factors. Hospitalization may have been more scientific, but so were the instruments of destruction.

With technological improvement war became more merciless and more inhuman just as factories acquired these traits when machines replaced artisans, but factories at least increased national wealth and, perhaps, general welfare, which war diminished.

§ 3

The aspect of the Civil War was, however, so new in military history that it was closely watched by Europe. Sweden, Germany, France and England had military observers among the Northern troops. The famous inventor, Count Zeppelin, was an official Prussian spectator.

These people saw the steam railroad and the electric telegraph functioning effectively for the first time in a great conflict.

They saw, also, the use of rifled Cannon, armored steamships, repeating small arms, machine-made uniforms, moving hospitals, concentrated foods, balloon observation and photography—some of them not for the first time but certainly on an unprecedented scale.

Side and end views of improvised arrangement of bunks for wounded as installed in a railroad car of the Orange and Alexandria R. R. From the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies—War Department, 1898.

To date, the military textbooks were still based on the Napoleonic wars and ignored the Turkish, Crimean or Mexican skirmishes in which some of these new factors entered but had no great significance.

The result of some of these factors was a revolutionary change in tactics:
- Effective artillery eliminated close-order formations in the field.
- The improved range and greater power of the larger guns easily reduced the old forts often from a safe distance and cover.
- Trenches came into use so constructed as to isolate the effect of direct hits from large and explosive shells.
- Greater range and accuracy of rifles kept combatants farther apart.
- Increased rapidity of fire in large and small arms accelerated the tempo of battle and complicated the service of supply.
- Accuracy, to be sure, reduced waste but at the same time targets were multiplied.
- Cover became an important factor because of accuracy, so did better observation and quick communication of intelligence.

The improvement of the large guns owed much to American invention.

Thomas J. Rodman made exhaustive experiments on the strains suffered by guns from explosion and devised an instrument to test pressures of gases resulting from powder combustion. He then set about making guns stronger.

One of his methods suggests the chilling of ploughs. He cast the guns on a hollow core through which he ran water. This cooled the surface of the bore more quickly than the outer surface and made it harder.

He then experimented with powder. He found that if the combustion of the powder were slower, it was possible to get greater muzzle velocity with decreased pressure at the breech. He began by using large grains of powder but found that, although with these combustion was slower, it progressed from the outside in so that the burning surface became constantly smaller and the pressure of the gases created constantly decreased during combustion.

But his object was a combustion which would begin slowly but increase the quantity of the gases as the projectile moved through the bore.

So he hit on the ingenious expedient of molding the powder into cylinders which fired from the inside would burn outward and so increase the gases after the first low pressure had begun the movement of the projectile. This led to his perforated powder cakes which were, in fact, a multiplication of little cylinders. An enormous increase of power resulted.


Robert Parker Parrot patented in 1861 a gun-strengthening invention. He shrunk on the cast breech a hoop of wrought iron. This was really a malleable bar coiled into a spiral and welded so that it became a solid ring.

He also invented the expanding projectile. On the projectile a brass ring was cast which the exploding gases expanded to fit the grooves of the rifling. The great difficulty in firing from rifled cannon had always been to make the projectiles fit the grooves without ripping away the lands.*

* Spaces between the grooves in rifling. Rifling is the machining of spiral grooves in the barrel which cause rotation of the projectile for increased accuracy.

This was especially difficult as breech-loading had not come into general use for large guns. Parrot’s device made muzzle loading easy because the expansion which caused the projectile to fit the rifling did not take place until after the explosion had occurred.

Rifling of all arms was common at this time. Many old smoothbore muskets were altered and became effective rifles.

Breech loading rifles had long been invented, but there was a strange conservative prejudice against them. Before the war was over, however, they were made in quantity* and issued to mounted troops who needed them most. The prejudice is especially strange, as Colt’s and Smith and Wesson’s revolvers had long been accepted arms.

* 396,856 breechloaders were manufactured or purchased between Jan. 1, 1861, and June 30, 1866. 19 different “systems” were used.

Richard Jordan Gatling, a gentle person whose early life had been devoted to such matters as rice-sowers and plows, devised, in 1862, one of the deadliest shooting machines ever invented. This was the precursor of the machine-gun which now operates automatically by movement caused by recoil.

Gatling’s weapon consisted of “a group of barrels arranged lengthwise around a central shaft and the whole revolved by suitable gears and by a hand crank.” Gatling’s first crude gun was first fired early in 1862 and had a capacity of 250 shots per minute. It was introduced to the French government in 1863 before the invention of the mitrailleuse.

These guns were not made in great quantity during the Civil War, but Norton tells us that “some of them did, however, get into service before the close . . . and were used effectively in repelling rebel attacks upon the Union forces under command of General Butler, near Richmond, Va.”

Allen, Remington, Colt, Joslyn and Lefaucheux Revolvers used in the Civil War. From the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies—War Department, 1898.

There were several naval inventions which were highly sensational at the time though they have the aspect of curiosa today. One was a Confederate contribution, the ‘David’ type of submersible torpedo boat. These are less comic than the Bushnell submarine of the Revolution and somewhat less submarine. The important advance was in the use of steam propulsion.

They were certainly not comic to the heroes who manned them. The general design of the ‘Davids’ was cigar-shaped and provided for the carrying of a long spar ahead of the bow. This spar carried the torpedo which was exploded on contact with the bottom of an enemy vessel.

The Davids were never entirely submerged and some nine feet of superstructure appeared above water to excite the suspicions and draw the fire of the intended victim.

The first David attacked the ‘Ironsides’ without succcss, but the second David sank the ‘Housatonic’ and spread great terror through the northern navy. Unhappily, the David was drawn into the hole she made in the Housatonic’s hull and sank with her, drowning a crew of nine.

The northern navy specialized in submersibles with rams. Notable among these was the ‘Keokuk,’ whose dimensions are surprising. She was 160 feet long without ram, 164 1/2 feet with ram, breadth 36, depth 14. She had four cylinder engines and two propellers.

Her submersion tanks filled in forty minutes, emptied in fifteen. She carried two 11-inch guns firing 180-pound shot. Her turrets and funnel showed above the surface. She was manned by a crew of a hundred men, but it is not recorded that she ever did get great damage.

Confederate ironclad ram Stonewall, 1865.

The use of steam warships proved valuable in several naval operations. A notable case was the battle of New Orleans, where the northern fleet moved under steam up the river and fired their 10-, 12- and 14-inch guns at the forts along the banks.

The guns here were smooth-bore and fired pieces of scrap iron which went through the embrasures and demoralized the Confederate gunners.

A notable technological advance was John Ericsson’s iron ‘Monitor’ equipped with Ericsson’s screw propeller and a revolving turret.

The invention of arms and weapons in the Civil War, interesting as it may be, in itself cannot command great space in a social history of invention. None of the devices seem to have been basic nor was their effect greatly important in the nation’s future.

America had already taken the lead in small-arms manufacture. Other nations would presently forge ahead in the inventing and making of other weapons.

The Civil War was not won by superiority of arms hut by background factors. It was not won, moreover, by superiority of strategy. This, in the beginning, was all on the Confederate side.

Later, when northern strategy improved, the war was, in fact, already won by attrition. Confederate supplies were exhausted and, without knowledge either of industry or subsistence agriculture, no more could be produced. The blockade had effectually cut off supplies from the outside, though many vivid stories of blockade-running from British colonial islands are on the record.

The Confederates tried valiantly to produce arms and munitions when those they had acquired by capturing government arsenals gave out, but this kind of manufacture requires, as we have seen, a long, slow development and free labor, from which the South had been utterly cut off from the very beginning of history.

Food, clothing, shoes and a hundred other commodities necessary to successful campaigns were so beyond them that it is a historic miracle that they were able to continue in the field at all during the last year.

Flagship ‘Carondelet,’ a converted river steamer, at Baton Rouge.
The Union Ironclad ‘Essex,’ a converted river steamer, which ran the batteries at Port Hudson and Vicksburg.

§ 4

Apart from mass production, the most important technological background factor was the railroad. With its variety of gauges and the absence of bridges over many rivers, it seems hopelessly inefficient to us.

The gauge chaos is especially difficult for the modern student to understand. Seven different widths of track made necessary constant unloadings and reloadings.

It was seriously proposed to build cars with adjustable wheel trucks and sometimes an extra rail was laid to make possible the use of a wide car on a narrow track, but the reconstruction of roads with a standard gauge was a dream far too wild for individualists of the ‘60’s.

Nevertheless the railroads performed a remarkable job. It must be remembered that during the fifties they were considerably overdeveloped. At the outbreak of war they were not operating at full capacity, so new rolling stock was not necessary.

With the aid of water transportation they were able not only to keep the northern armies supplied but they maintained the equilibrium of background civilian life as well. Their constant use in the war brought them into such universal consciousness that the transcontinental span no longer seemed impossible, and we find many men besides the prophet Lincoln stubbornly and persistently advocating it.

So whatever the value of the railroad to the war, the value of the war to the railroad was greater in terms of the nation’s development.

Locomotive “Hero” wrecked by Confederates when Atlanta was evacuated. From Brady photographs, in the Library of Congress.
Union forces destroying a railroad at Atlanta, Georgia. From Brady photographs, in the Library of Congress.

Both these things are equally true of the telegraph. This instrument became more adaptable and more necessary. Flexible wires easily transported came into use in the field and proved their practicability.

We even have records of instruments being carried up in balloons and T. S. C. Lowe tells a story which must have thrilled his contemporaries of sending news from the air. “I ascended,” he says, “to the height desired and remained there almost constantly during the battle, keeping the wires hot with information.”

This may have been a mere isolated stunt, but such stories along with the flood of news which reached the public via the telegraph and the press made the telegraph a commonplace in the social consciousness and an utter necessity for the future.

Once the telegraph had been adapted to the uses the Military Telegraph Construction Corps found for it, ordinary peace-time construction became easy and cheap. Most important of all, socially, it convinced the public of the inevitable fact of union.

Thus when Lincoln wrote of this aspect of union at the end of the second year of his administration the people, at least in the North, were ready to understand him.

“That portion,” Lincoln said, “of the earth’s surface which is owned and inhabited by the people of the United States is well adapted to be the home of one national family, and it is not well adapted for two or more. Its vast extent and its variety of climate and productions are of advantage in this age for one people, whatever they might have been in former ages. Steam, telegraphs and intelligence have brought these to be an advantageous combination for one united people.”*

* From Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862.

That is why the Confederate States did not win the war. That is why Lee and Jackson, Bull Run and Fredericksburg, all the sacrifices of background families and all the tragic heroism of foreground troops served only to prolong and alternate the struggle.

Regardless of the military vision of Lincoln, Grant and McClellan, the stern progress of Sherman and the decisions of Gettysburg and Appomattox, the result, in the end, would have been the same.

From the first gun fired at Sumter the South was doomed; it was doomed by no fortunes or science of war but by the peculiar directions of the history of invention in America.

U. S. Signal Service Balloon Corps, Civil War. From Brady photographs, in the Library of Congress.
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