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Civil War Tech
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Minié Balls and Rifles


When you think of modern warfare Vietnam or World War II probably pops into your head. If, on the other hand, you immediately think of Call of Duty, you might need to start cracking open those history books more often.


It might surprise you to know that the first modern war was the American Civil War. Officers on both sides were trained in outdated tactics  using muskets and bayonets. But, the traditional tactics of stand in a line and shoot were going to get a whole lot of people killed in the first battles of the Civil War. The Battle of First Bull Run (July 21, 1861) taught everyone some hard lessons.


The minié ball, first developed by French manufacturer Claude-Étienne Minié, (pronounced min YAY but Americans say minnie) changed the battlefield forever. Before this time muskets rather than rifles were the weapon of choice for most modern armies. But the musket was slow to load and didn’t have a great accuracy beyond 100 yards. The minié ball was designed to be smaller than the barrel which made it faster to load. The four grease filled grooves made it spin increasing its speed and range. The new minié balls could accurately kill a man 500 yards away with such force that would tear through flesh and shatter bone.


The minié ball made the Civil War was the main reason for the high casualty rates on the battlefield. The Civil War also gained notoriety for the large number of soldiers who had to have their limbs amputated. This is because when the soft lead minié ball, no bigger than the width of your little finger, expanded and flattened out as it left the barrel. When it made contact it didn’t just break the bone it completely shattered it leaving army surgeons little choice but to amputate.   The exact number is unknown but estimates put the number of amputees at around 60,000; or 10% of the total casualties.


The scourge of Mobile - Confederate underwater mines, then called torpedoes.  This is a drawing in Harper's Weekly of the most common and deadly type - the Raines Keg Torpedo. A five gallon beer keg was sealed with pine pitch then filled with gunpowder and outfitted with a contact or electrical fuse. They could be anchored in place or attached to floats and allowed to drift on the tide towards anchored ships. The Confederacy deployed thousands of these, with the Mobile Bay area being especially concentrated. Though crude and prone to failure, they sank or damaged more Union ships during the war than gunfire did.

Battle of the Iron Clads


When the Union abandoned Gosport Naval Yard at the start of the war they burned everything. The Confederates rushed in to salvage anything they could get their hands on. The biggest prize was the charred hull of the USS Merrimack which the wasted no time in converting into America's first iron-plated ship.-- The CSS Virginia.  When the Union got word what the Confederates were doing they began rushing to complete their own iron clad--The USS Monitor.


The Rebs had a three month head start but the race ended in a tie-- mostly because the Union had more adavnaced industrial capabilities. Neither ship was actually what we would call sea worthy. The Viriginia was top heavy from too much iron plating. The Monitor had serious construction flaws and still didn't even have a crew. But a slave overheard the Confederates talking about how the Viriginia was about to set sail, and so, risked her own life to sneak across to Union lines to relay the message. There was no other choice, the Monitor had to stop the Virginia from smashing the blockade.


On March 8, 1862 the Virginia began its attack on the Union blockade of the Viriginia seaboard. The Confederacy had to win this won. If it didn't it would be unable to bring in badly needed war supplies. When the Virignia opened fire it tore through the wooden hull of the weaker Union ships. When they returned fire, their cannon balls just bounced right off the Virginia's iron plates. The Virignia also had a lethal iron ram fixed to her bow which she used to ram gapping holes into her targets. By the end of the day the CSS Virignia had seriously damaged three ships and was planning on finishing the job the next day. The Union navy was in complete panic.


But the Virginia was about to get a reality check. The Confederates awoke to a suprise " an immense single...with a giant cheese box on top" as one Rebel sailor described it. The Monitor had steamed into Hampton Roads and was ready to kick some iron clad butt. TThe first (and last) battle between the Virignia and the Monitor had begun. For two hours the two ships exchanged cannon fire without managing to sink the other. After achieving not a whole lot of anything, both sides withdrew claiming victory. But in reality, having prevented the Confederates from breaking the blockade, the Monitor was the real winner. The Confederate hopes of opening up trade with Europe and scoring a quick victory went up in smoke.

'IRONCLADS' (1991 TV series)

Hot Air Balloons


One of the coolest—or should we say hottest— weapons of the Civil War was the hot balloon. The first balloons were used by the Chinese around 200 C.E. as a way of signaling their armies. These early balloons were unmanned and like Chinese lanterns, were lit up and color coded. The first manned balloon came on the scene in France in 1783 just in time to delight the court of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. But aside from being an amusing toy the hot air balloon didn’t seem to attract much attention. That all changed, temporarily at least, during the American Civil War.


 To give it that lift the balloon had either be filled with a gas—like hydrogen or helium— less dense than the surrounding air; or the air could be heated which would expand and thus make decrease the air density inside the balloon.  The problem with using gas is that it had to be connected to a pipeline which limited how far you could travel. Hydrogen is often pretty volatile. Ever hear of the Hindenburg? That disaster in 1933 pretty much put an end to hydrogen balloon travel. The other option, heating the balloon had the obvious flaw of cooling down. Once you ran out of hot air your balloon began to descend. Plus carrying an open flame in a wooden basket wasn’t exactly the safest idea. Aeronauts—as people obsessed with flying were called— were racing to be the first to build a better balloon.


Like the telegraph and railroad, hot air balloons had military potential. Again a rift broke out between the old times and the new timers. The old timers mocked the balloon because it was hard to handle and control. Winfield Scott refused to even meet with these aeronauts until Lincoln forced him to.  


The first balloons didn’t have propellers or engines to guide its direction. Instead they were often tethered to the ground or allowed to fly freely for short distances. These early balloons were great for observation because they could fly higher than the enemy guns could fire. This frustrated many confederate soldiers as they tried again and again to shoot down an enemy balloonist that hung in the air directly over their heads. Not a single shot ever found its mark. But the balloons did have other dangers such as tree branches or strong winds to worry about.

From a height of up to three miles an aeronaut could observe troop movements and relay them by telegraph to a portable station on the ground.


In the early years of the Civil War balloons were embraced by the Union army. Lincoln was especially fascinated by them. They were carried into Virginia to observe Confederate troop movements and even installed on the G.W.P. Curtis, a floating barge— making it the world’s first aircraft carrier. Aeronauts were able to give the first air support to an army, something that wouldn’t be widely embraced again until World War One. Despite all of its advantages the air balloon never caught on by Union or Confederate commanders. Perhaps it was just too futuristic for their tastes. But whatever the reason air balloons were completely abandoned after the Peninsular Campaign in 1862.



The new advances made the Civil War not just bloodier but more techy. Two new inventions: the railroad and the telegraph would speed up communications and travel making planning battlefield strategies more efficient than any time in history (up until that point anyhow). The steam locomotive was first developed in 1811 by a British guy named John Blenkinsop. The idea was slow to take off at first but once it did it boomed. By 1850, America was in the middle of a rail building blitz that would link its eastern industrial centers with western outposts. Most of this building boom was in the northern states where factories needed a quick and efficient way of bringing raw materials to the cities. The agricultural south put all of their money on growing export crops like cotton and therefore didn’t push to spend state money on railroad expansion. Also, because the Confederacy gave more power the states it took them more than two years to gain control of their railroads from private companies.  These mistakes would come back to haunt them during the Civil War.


 In 1860, the north had 21,000 miles of rails compared to 9,500 in the south. Abe Lincoln immediately recognized the military value of the railroad. With speeds of up 60 miles per hour the railroad could transport supplies and troops in a fraction of the time. Take for example a trip from New York to Des Moines, Iowa. Today you can hop on an expressway and get there in 16 hours—if you don’t stop for bathroom breaks. The same trip on a horse in 1830 could take 2 weeks. But in 1860, a railroad could get you there in just under 48 hours. Lightning speeds for the 19th century.


Commanders who embrace this new method of travel as tool of war were in a much better position to outflank their enemy. Joseph E. Johnston became the first Civil War officer to use the railroad to get his troops to the battlefield. When the Battle of First Bull Run broke out Johnston was 60 miles away. Johnston loaded up his 12,000 troops and raced them to the front lines in time to reinforce Beauregard and drive back the invading Yanks. Railroads had their disadvantages too. Rail lines could be easily sabotaged and bridges and key links became prime targets for saboteurs. Guarding these supply lines became a top priority for both sides. Of course, destroying them so that they couldn’t be used by the enemy was top priority too. When Sherman marched in to Atlanta—a major supply depot for the Confederacy— one of the main responsibilities of his men was to turn the rail lines leading to the city into twisted scrap metal so that they could never be rebuilt by the enemy.


The Telegraph


Moving people and goods were key to winning the war but so too was the quick movement of information. On May 24, 1844 Samuel Morse sent a simple message "What hath God wrought?" from Washington DC which arrived in Baltimore a few seconds later. Now you may be thinking, Big deal, my cell phone can do that. But considering that before this that same message could take days to deliver, this was revolutionary. Morse had just invented the world’s first electric messaging system—the telegraph. Using a system of electronic “blips” (which we call morse code) messages could be sent via wires to receiving stations all over the world. A message from New York to New Orleans could be sent and received in seconds. In 1858, the first cables were laid under the Atlantic Ocean connecting Europe and the United States making land to ship communication possible.


The invention of the telegraph had obvious military applications. The ability for officers to wire their locations and battle plans to their commanders made it easier to get supplies and reinforcements to the battlefields. Lincoln literally became the first U.S. president to fully take on his role as commander-in-chief, directly sending and receiving messages to his generals about troop movements and battle developments. Many of the older generals like Winfield Scott didn’t see the use of fancy technology as a tool of war. They preferred the old methods that they had been trained in. The new generals, like George McClellan, might have been tech savvy but they hated having the boss breathing down their necks. Lincoln often spent days on end in the War Department so that he wouldn’t miss a blip. He would bombard his generals with questions as to why they did this or didn’t do that.

But at the start of the war neither the War Department nor the White House had its own telegraph line. In order for the president to send a message an officer had to be sent to the D.C. telegraph station and stand in line like everyone else. Lincoln made sure to change that. The telegraph could go anywhere a wire could be run. Ships and even air balloons were connected to cables to allow for constant communication. Of course, like rail lines, these cables were a prime target for saboteurs.


Of course the telegraph also had one obvious drawback: mainly, if you could receive a message so too could your enemy. . These messages could easily be tapped—like tapping a maple tree—by scrapping off the rubber insulation on the wire and hooking up your receiver to it. He could then listen in to your dots and dashes. Codes have always been used in war to communicate confidential messages. The Civil War used code books to decipher scrambled messages sent by telegraph. A encoded message might read “George Dog Trampled Cat Bayou Felix Ax Monkey Village…”. The first word ‘George’ would let the receiver know which code book to use in order to unscramble the message. These codes sometimes were so baffling to the military that they often printed them in newspapers like a contest to the general public. Anyone that could break the code would be given a reward (and possibly a job in military intelligence). Like the railroads, southern states hadn’t invested in this new technology either. At the start of the war the north had 1,467 telegraphing stations compared to a measly 107 built in the south. This would be one more mistake that would cost the Confederacy an advantage over their enemy.


Try your hand at morse code

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