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Weapons and Technology of the Civil War

From submarines and hand grenades to cameras and hot air balloons, the Civil War was a giant leap forward for a number of weapons and technologies.

The Confederate submarine Hunley was the first craft of its kind to sink an enemy ship, and though it too sank with all hands lost shortly thereafter, it revolutionized naval warfare. 

Likewise, despite being bulky and unreliable, cameras captured the shocking carnage of war like never before.

All told nearly 620,000 men died in the Civil War – about 360,000 from the North, and 260,000 from the South, the majority of whom were killed by the items we’re about to cover.

Let’s get started.

Muskets and Rifles

weapons and technology of the american civil war Muskets and Rifles
Muskets and Rifles by Daderot is licensed under CC-0

Before the Civil War infantry soldiers were typically equipped with smooth bore muzzle-loading muskets. 

Though they could fire large caliber round hundreds of yards, their effective range – the distance at which they could reasonably expect to hit their target – was often less than 100. 

Hence, in previous wars, large formations of soldiers squared up to one another at short ranges and fired away until losses prevented one side from continuing. 

Muskets were also limited to one round at a time, and were difficult to load because their projectiles were nearly the same diameter as their barrels.

To get the bullet into the muzzle and down to the breach required strength, a ramrod, and in some cases even a mallet.  

In other words, it was terribly tedious under the best of circumstances, let alone in the heat of combat or bad weather. 

But in the late 1840s French Army officer Claude Minié invented a conical lead projectile with a slightly smaller diameter than the barrel from which it’d be fired. 

Nicknamed “Minié balls,” they could be loaded more quickly and were more accurate for a number of reasons. 

First, Minié balls had concave cups at the back of the bullet that caused them to expand immediately after firing thereby increasing barrel pressure and muzzle velocity. 

Second, when paired with rifled barrels that spun the bullets, range increased drastically out to nearly 1,000 yards. 

Commanders on both sides were slow to discard traditional tactics, but eventually staggering losses forced them to rethink the way they fought.  

In all, the one-two punch of rifled bore and Minié ball accounted for the majority of deaths in the Civil War. 

The .58 caliber Model 1855 Springfield Rifle was the first weapon adopted by the Union Army that used the Minié ball, and though it was expensive and unreliable, about 70,000 were produced.

Thankfully for Union troops many of the weapon’s deficiencies were addressed with the later Model 1861 Springfield Rifled Musket, also in .58 caliber, a weapon that became more available as the war progressed. 

The Springfield had an effective range of up to 300 yards (275 m), but in the hands of trained marksmen could hit targets hundreds of yards farther away. 

On the other side of the battlefield, the most common Confederate infantry weapon was the British Pattern 1853 Enfield. 

Like the Springfield, the Enfield was a single-shot muzzle loading rifle also chambered in .58 caliber, and though the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, England was prohibited from selling the weapon to the Confederacy, contractors who manufactured it under license were not.

The Enfield’s sights were adjustable from between 100 and 900 yards in early models, and had reasonable accuracy out to about 400 yards. 

About 900,000 were made between 1861 and 1865. 


Spencer Carbine Mod 1865 by Hmaag is licensed under CC-BY-SA

As the story goes, Confederate soldiers were so disheartened by the new repeating Spencer rifles that showed up in the hands of Union troops in 1863 that they branded them “the guns you load on Sunday and shoot the rest of the week.”

Though it was an exaggeration, the increase in rate of fire from about 4 rounds a minute to over a dozen was a huge advantage.  

The Spencer “Repeaters” were designed and manufactured by Christopher Miner Spencer – a man who just couldn’t make any inroads with the procurement department at the US Bureau of Ordnance. 

Apparently in those days showing up at the White House unannounced with a rifle wasn’t a big deal, because that’s what Spencer did in August of 1863, and as luck would have it, he convinced President Lincoln to test fire it near the Washington Monument. 

Lincoln was pleased with its accuracy and sustainable fire, and in less than a month Spencer’s Massachusetts factory had received more orders than it could possibly fill. 

At just over 37 inches long, the breech-loading carbine was much shorter than muskets of the day. 

At .52 caliber it packed a big punch too, and it featured handy magazines that held seven copper rimfire cartridges that could be fired in less than 30 seconds. 

After loading his rifle, a soldier only needed to cock, aim, and squeeze the trigger until the magazine was empty. 

Before going into battle Union soldiers lucky enough to have a Spencer usually prepared up to 13 magazine tubes which were stored in dedicated cartridge boxes. 

Confederate generals opined that though the Spencers were superior weapons, their true worth lay in the demoralizing effect they had on opposing troops who found themselves hopelessly outgunned. 

Even when they were captured or retrieved from dead Union Soldiers, Confederate troops couldn’t use Spencers because their rimfire cartridges weren’t manufactured in the South. 

Over 94,000 Spencer carbines were purchased by the Federal government during the war, and 100,000 more were bought by civilians.

Gatling Guns

weapons and technology of the american civil war
Gatling Guns 1866 Model; .50 caliber by Rama is licensed under CC-BY-SA

When it made its debut in the early 1860s, Richard Jordan Gatling’s multi-barreled rapid fire machine gun made quite a splash. 

Other than lining up large infantry formations and having them blast away at the enemy with muzzle loaders at about 3 or 4 rounds per man per minute, there was no way sustaining heavy fire before the Gatling gun.

But because it had multiple barrels and was fed by a high-volume gravity magazine, Gatling’s new gun could spit out about 200 rounds per minute of heavy .58 caliber fire, and more than twice that in later smaller caliber versions like the .308.  

Technically, the Gatling gun wasn’t the first fully-automatic weapon because it required external power – a serviceman manually operating a crank. But for those on its receiving end it probably wasn’t an important distinction. 

Weighing nearly 200 pounds (90kg), sporting anywhere from 6 to 10 barrels, and manned by a crew of 3 or 4, the gun was a marvel, but had it not been for new developments in ammunition  it never would’ve been more than an interesting concept stuck on a drawing board. 

Standard musket rounds of the day consisted of lead projectiles with separate paper-wrapped powder charges and external percussion caps. 

In other words, tedious multi-piece ammo that didn’t lend itself to quick loading or rapid firing. 

But everything changed with the advent of one-piece brass cartridges with built in primers like the ones used by repeaters. 

Gatling’s weapon solved a number of problems that’d perplexed gun manufacturers for ages – like how to quickly, safely and reliably load multiple projectiles into a weapon and sustain heavy fire for long periods without overheating.  

The multi-barreled design was the key, because after firing, each barrel had ample time to expel its spent casing, cool down, reload, and make its way to the firing position once again.

The US Army officially adopted the gun in 1866. Though their firepower was indisputable, Gatling guns saw relatively limited action during the war largely because they were considered ammunition wasters, and back then, the “one marksman, one bullet, one kill” theory prevailed. 

However, Gatling guns did find their way to the front lines, but not because the federal government considered them game changers, but because Union generals personally purchased them for their troops – a common occurrence back then.

After an impressive demonstration of the gun’s capabilities in Baltimore in 1864, Union General Benjamin F. Butler purchased 12 Gatling’s guns and 12,000 rounds of ammunition, purportedly paying $12,000 for the whole lot. 

A short time later, he directed their use in the siege of Petersburg, Virginia – a 9-month trench warfare hell that lasted from mid-June of 1864 all the way to April the following year.

The siege pitted Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and  resulted in more than 40,000 deaths on both sides, before Lee cut his losses and ordered the retreat from both Petersburg and nearby Richmond — the capital of the Confederacy. 

In that battle and others, the guns’ concentration of firepower made it possible to break through previously impervious sections of enemy lines, much like tanks would do decades later. 

Gatling guns remained in service until about 1911, when they were replaced by Maxim’s single-barrel machine gun and other portable automatic weapons that didn’t require cumbersome carts and horses to pull them.

In all, hand-powered Gatling guns were produced in various calibers for nearly four decades, and though the design fell out of favor for much of the 20th century, they began showing up after the Vietnam War in aircraft like the A-10 “Warthog”, and in ground systems like the M163 self-propelled anti-aircraft armored vehicle – both of which feature electric motor-driven rotary cannons referred to as “Gatling Guns.”

Gatling guns saw more widespread use after the Civil War, particularly by the armies of Britain, France, Japan, Peru and Thailand among others. They also saw action in the Spanish-American War, the Zulu Wars in Africa, and the Boxer Rebellion in China. 

The Telegraph

Morse Telegraph (1837) by zubro is licensed under CC-BY-SA

When it was developed by Samuel Morse during the 1830s and ‘40s, the telegraph promised to revolutionize the way people communicated over vast distances. 

It seems comically simple by contemporary standards, but back then transmitting information over wires laid between cities was nothing short of cutting edge. 

The first telegraph using a proprietary alphabet of dots and dashes called Morse Code was sent between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington D.C. in 1844, and by the time the Civil War rolled around in April of 1861, the technology was in use across much of the eastern United States.

In previous wars communication relied on forward lookouts and scouts relaying information to messengers on foot and horseback, who then had to get it to battlefield commanders and generals – a process which could take hours or days. 

Needless to say, by the time the information got into the right hands it was often useless. 

But wartime communication changed forever in 1861 when the US Army established the Military Telegraph Service – a department led by a young railroad man named Andrew Carnegie who’d go on to become one of the country’s wealthiest industrialists.  

By the following year more than 1,000 telegraph operators had been trained, and by some estimations nearly 15,000 miles of wire had been strung between key areas in the north. 

There was also a telegraph office inside the White House that allowed President Lincoln and his advisors to receive real-time information, analyze it, then transmit orders back to battlefield commanders. 

In this regard the cash-strapped and less technologically advanced South was at a huge disadvantage. 

Whereas the telegraph system in the North was under the federal government’s control, the Southern Telegraph Company’s network of lines was comparatively meager, and executives and operators often refused to cooperate with demands made by military officials. 

In addition, as the war dragged on necessities like wire and insulation became increasingly scarce, and as telegraph lines continually fell into Union hands, the flow of information between southern military brass and field commanders was nearly choked off. 

Historians claim that more than 5 million telegrams were sent by the Union during the war, and William Tecumseh Sherman stated that rarely did a day go by when General Grant didn’t know how things were going with him, despite often being more than 1,000 miles away. 

By the war’s end a telegraph line had been laid across the Atlantic between the United States and Europe, and the technology would evolve into more modern means of communication like telephones and faxes. 


Ironclads by Michael Barera is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In the years leading up to the Civil War many warship designs hadn’t changed much for decades. 

Some did have steam power, but most were still made of wood and fitted with sails that left them largely unprotected and at the mercy of the wind. 

But radical plans both in development and under construction would revolutionize the way naval battles were fought – the most impressive of which were the “Ironclads.”

The idea for adding iron plates to existing ships and building armored leviathans from scratch wasn’t entirely new. 

It’d been common practice in England and France for years, but nothing quite motivates like the threat of war, and the Union and Confederacy hastened their efforts to acquire these new vessels that would eventually meet in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862.  

On the Confederate side was the CSS Virginia, a ship that’d begun life as the USS Merrimack in 1855. 

The Merrimack was a 40-gun US Navy steam frigate, but when Virginia officially seceded from the Union in 1861 she was scuttled in Portsmouth to prevent her from falling into enemy hands – which is exactly what happened despite being burned to the waterline and sunk. 

Nevertheless, the Confederate navy salvaged and rebuilt her, turning her into a formidable casemate ironclad with sloped sides, a fixed superstructure, and lots of guns. 

The newly named CSS Virginia was 275 feet (84 m) long, displaced about 4,000 tons, had a beam of more than 50 feet (15.5 m), and drew about 21 feet (6.5 m) of water.  

She was crewed by more than 300 sailors and officers, and got her power from 2 steam engines and 4 boilers that cranked out about 1,200 horsepower which propelled the heavy ship to about 6 knots under ideal conditions. 

Armament included 12 cannons ranging from 6.4 inches (160 mm) to 9 inches (229 mm), and armor was up to 3 inches (76 mm) thick around the built and 4 inches (102 mm) on the casemate, or superstructure. 

On the other side was the Monitor, a radically different design in which most of the ship was barely above the waterline except for a massive protruding turret and exhaust stacks.

Though it made her top heavy, the Monitor’s traversable turret gave her a wider field of fire than the Virginia, whose guns along its sides were relatively stationary. 

Displacing less than ¼ of its rival, nearly 100 feet shorter, and featuring a piddly 320 horsepower steam engine, the Monitor had two 11-inch (280 mm) guns and a crew of just 50. 

It had about the same top speed but drew less than 11 feet of water so could operate safely in shallow coastal areas and rivers. 

The Monitor had been commissioned a little more than a month before the big battle, and though it was significantly smaller, it featured more armor protection that was 5 inches (127 mm) at the waterline and between 8 and 9 inches (203 – 229 mm) on the turret and pilot house. 

The battle between the Virginia and the Monitor began in the Chesapeake Bay on the morning of March 9. 

It lasted for hours, but was surprisingly anticlimactic based on the ships’ impressive specs and firepower.

Apparently the two floating tanks circled endlessly like wary alpha wolves and peppered one another with heavy cannon shots, but the projectiles just bounced or deflected off the armor causing minimal damage. 

In the afternoon the battle ended when both ships retreated, and though neither navy could rightly claim victory, the die for future ship design and naval warfare had been cast. 

A few months after the battle as the Union reclaimed much of the territory it’d lost after Virginia’s secession, retreating confederates scuttled the CSS Virginia, and later that year the Monitor was lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. 

Ironically wooden ships were common for commercial use well into the early 20th century, and armor and turrets are prominent fixtures on warships even today. 

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