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The American Civil War (1861–1865) was a major conflict with a long string of battles. Has it led to any innovations in 19th-century warfare? It has been pointed out that it may have been the first war to include significant strings of multi-day battles. Did any actual significant inventions occur and if so, were those taken up in later conflicts e.g. on other continents?

For instance, were there any significant special circumstances arising from a long campaign season in the South, from the fact that the conflict split loyalties in some countries, that you had somebody with Lincoln's intellect often meddling with details of the war, or that generals on both sides had been trained in the same pre-war institutions: in terms of an analogy from biology esp. the latter situation — in combination with the contingencies or war and the size of the almost continent-scale conflict — would have provided ample breeding ground for tactical and strategic "cross-over", "mutations", and "progress".

And there was also recent technological change that may have had a special impact. The following pertinent quote is from Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West:

In Jefferson's day, it took six weeks to move information from the Mississippi River to Washington, D.C. In Lincoln's, information moved over the same route by telegraph all but instantaneously. Time and distance, mountains and rivers meant something entirely different to Thomas Jefferson from what they meant to Abraham Lincoln. Rivers dominated Jefferson's thinking about North America.

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6 Answers 6

The American Civil war in fact had many innovations.

The most well-known was the first naval battle between iron warships. It was also the first war where the Gatling gun (forerunner of the modern machine gun) was used. By the end of the war many soldiers were using proper automatic personal weapons (Spencer and Henry repeating rifles).

Getting a bit more subjective here, due to improved rifling, the aforementioned automatic weaponry, and a few other marginal weaponry improvements, the American Civil War was the first major conflict to begin to exhibit the dominance of defence over offense that would become so important in World War I. Both sides found it took far more men (and incurred far more casualties) to successfully press an attack than they were expecting. Eventually good generals just had to learn to accept this. For example, Grant's successful "Appomattox campaign" to force Lee's surrender lost him about 2 soldiers for every Confederate soldier killed. The total butcher's bill was two thirds of a million dead, which is said to be more than in every other conflict the USA has engaged in combined. This from a country of only about 30 million (4 million of which were slaves).

Another innovation this situation created was the rise of trench warfare in the Siege of Petersburg. Despite the name, it wasn't a classic city siege, but rather several months of proto-WWI style trench warfare along a 30-mile front between the confederate capitol of Richmond and Petersburg.

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can you please also address Nathan Cooper's view the war led to few innovations. This is for my decision about accepting either your answer or his. Thx. –  Drux Apr 3 '13 at 13:39
@Drux - Well, I guess it depends on what you consider "few". IMHO the stuff I listed is rather a lot of important things, but I'm not entirely sure what would be a typical number and quality of innovations for a war of this size. We probably ought to just let the data speak for itself. –  T.E.D. Apr 4 '13 at 14:48
The Appomattox Campaign did not cost Grant high casualties. And since Lee surrendered virtually his entire army, his casualties in killed, wounded and captured were nearly 100%. –  Oldcat Jan 31 '14 at 21:54
@Oldcat - Are you disputing the numbers in the link I provided (about 11K Union, 6.5K Confederate prior to surrender), or just the characterization of those numbers as "high"? –  T.E.D. Feb 3 '14 at 14:45
Those numbers are casualties - killed and wounded - and not dead. You can't leave out the huge numbers of captured at every battle when discussing casualties. Lee lost about 60000 captured. Those Union losses 11,000 KIA, WIA and captured are losses of less than 10 percent of forces, well below average by CW standards. The numbers also leave out the battle of Ft Stedman on the 25th of March where Lee attacked and lost about 5-6000 men killed, wounded and captured for a trifling loss by the defenders. –  Oldcat Feb 3 '14 at 21:47

I would say innovations in 19th century warfare led to the Civil War being what it was, rather than the Civil War being a great innovative time.

Like Minie Ball, a new type of bullet design, which increased the lethality of engagements. It had been used already in the Crimea on a smaller scale, but like Ironclads or Gatling guns, saw it's first large outing in the Civil War .

But I suppose the other side of that coin is how militaries adapted to these changes, like with the use of trench warfare (as pointed out by T.E.D.) or even use of balloons. But I would say that the Civil War was marked by a failure to innovate, the tacticians failure to abandon close order formations in the face of the Minie Ball being a great example: link p89 details use of close order formations

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I'm looking up logistics and use of railways and might just edit this a bit, we'll see. –  Nathan Cooper Apr 2 '13 at 14:09
VG, BTW I wish Andrew Odlyzko's planned book about early railroads had come out already ... –  Drux Apr 2 '13 at 14:55
can you please also address T.E.D.'s view the war led to many innovations. This is for my decision about accepting either your answer or his. Thx and pls also indicate if you are still working on a follow-up re railways. –  Drux Apr 3 '13 at 13:40
May I suggest that if you add information about the use of railways, you look into the way Moltke used the experience of the US Civil War in the Franco-Prussian war? –  Felix Goldberg Apr 4 '13 at 9:18
P.S. This link has relevant information: historynet.com/railroads-critical-role-in-the-civil-war.htm –  Felix Goldberg Apr 4 '13 at 9:20

Many of the technologies that first saw large-scale action (on the North American continent at least) in the American Civil War - rifled artillery, breech-loading repeating rifles, Gatling guns, iron-clads (both naval and rail) - were pre-existing and simply awaiting a war in which to participate. To my mind the true innovations are the changes in military and political tactics and strategy that those technologies enabled. It often takes significant time, and multiple wars, for the impact of new technology to be fully recognized by the military, and suitably incorporated into practice.

I thus see the most profound innovation in the ACW as the recognition by non-elite infantry that taking cover isn't cowardly; merely intelligent. Certainly elite units such as Butler's Rangers and all of Davout's III corps had long recognized the significance of effective skirmishing; however the recognition by the rookie conscripted infantryman that taking cover was an essential prerequisite to killing the enemy, or even having an opportunity to fire on him with effect, was a profound change from the established infantry practice of millennia. This recognitions is an essential prerequisite for effective trench warfare, and is succinctly captured by two quotes from Infantry Attacks by Erwin Rommel:

Even on the attack I found the spade the equal of the rifle.

and during the German attack on Verdun while a Captain (my emphasis):

Although the most extreme command measures were necessary, the entire unit was dug in [to deep foxholes] by nightfall.

Second, the relegation of cavalry to a supporting role as light dragoons (ie mounted skirmishers and scouts), and the abandonment of it's role as a shock troop, completes the slow decline in cavalry's effectiveness that began with the arrival of the pike and then the bayonet. Not since before the introduction of the stirrup had the role of cavalry been so diminished. This innovation stands out particularly because it was disdained to a large extent in Europe, which continued to witness attempts to employ cavalry as shock troops right into the early stages of World War 1, and even saw the wide-scale conversion of dragoon regiments into lancers and hussars through the second half of the 19th century. While useful in a Colonial role, cavalry as a shock troop was by the 1860's no longer effective on the modern battlefield.

The third significant innovation I see in the ACW is mass conscription; the beginning of the modern nation in arms. The entire case for a successful Confederate secession was based on the premise that it's elite professional army - better led top to bottom, better trained, and more fit - would overcome the Northern urban rabble. Although Confederate casualties were much less than Northern in virtually every battle of the War, the sheer scale of Northern industrial output and manpower overwhelmed the Confederacy.

The only major war between 1815 and 1860 is the Crimean, where none of these innovations is seen. The armies of the Texan War were barely brigade-sized units by European standards. Point 1 is a direct consequence of the breech-loading rifle and Gatling gun, which were not available for Crimea. Charge of the Light Brigade and the uiversal conversion of dragoons to Lancers until 1914 disproves point 2 being taken in Crimea. Point 3 was perfected by the Union and Prussia about the same time, 1860-1870, with dramatically positive effects for both.

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+1 It seems to make sense that these changes took place in the early 19th century (between the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War, say), but are you sure they were not tried or perhaps (co)invented on another continent also or instead? –  Drux Jan 31 '14 at 15:58
@Drux: The only major war between 1815 and 1860 is the Crimean, where none of these innovations is seen. The armies of the Texan War were barely brigade-sized units by European standards. Point 1 is a direct consequence of the breech-loading rifle and Gatling gun, which were not available for Crimea. Charge of the Light Brigade disproves point 2 being taken in Crimea, as well as the conversion of dragoons to Lancers until 1914. Point 3 was perfected by the Union and Prussia about the same time, 1860-1860, with dramatically positive effects for both. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 31 '14 at 17:41
You are probably right, but there were major European battles e.g. in 1866 and 1870. That's quite close in time, isn't it? And the Prussian army could potentially have fought similarly in say 1859 as it actually did a few years later ... –  Drux Jan 31 '14 at 21:22
You seriously propose that the Prussian General Staff, carefully preparing a major war against Austria, did not closely observe the American Civil War to learn as much as possible from it. Such incompetence was endemic in the Hapsburg domains but absent from the Hohenzollern. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 31 '14 at 21:46
The view that cavalry in the Civil War never acted as shock troops is not quite true. Sheridan's Cavalry late in the war had evolved a very effective mix of shock, fire and movement that could have great effect in battle. NB Forrest's Cavalry also had some success in that area. –  Oldcat Jan 31 '14 at 22:06

OK, good lord this answer stretched on, apologies for my total lack of brevity.

In many ways the American Civil War was the first war of the industrial age, and most of the major innovations spring from that. I will focus on the three most important innovations and the fallout from those, in order of least to most significant.

Steam powered warships and Ironclads

Both of these existed and were used in limited ways in warfare before the Civil War, but the Civil War saw the mist widespread use up to that point. Steam power allowed smaller, heavier ships to move with a kind of speed that would normally require a decent spread of sail, and it allowed them maneuver in any direction without the need of the wind. Armor plating allowed gunships to duke it out with coastal batteries on a much more even footing. Not to mention, the introduction of exploding shells made some kind of armor plating almost necessary on naval warships. All of these things changed the naval landscape considerably, making naval warfare more dynamic and giving it greater capabilities to support land forces. Innovations begun during the civil war (like turreted guns), would radically change the design and construction of warships in the decades going forward, while the need for coaling stations to supply steam boilers would create a rush for colonization in different parts of the world.

The widespread use of rifles

What many people don't realize is that the United States, at the outbreak of the Civil War, was the most industrialized nation on Earth. American factories invented interchangeable parts, and American armories were the first to produce mechanically complicated guns that could be issued to large numbers of soldiers thanks to the ability to obtain and interchange replacement parts. While rifles had been around before the Civil War, factory-made barrels, interchangeable parts, and the minié ball made them feasible to issue in large numbers for the first time ever.

Long range infantry rifles are the biggest contributor to the changes in warfare between Napoleon and WWI. These changes continued throughout the century, but the Civil War is one of the first large conflicts in which rifles were widely used.

To understand why it's significant, imagine standing on the end of a football field with an enemy soldier standing on the other. That's actually about 20 yards longer than the average engagement range during Napoleon's time. If the person was 50-100 yards further, you wouldn't even bother shooting at them, because your musket was that inaccurate. Cavalry charges, bayonet charges, lining up in big blocks, and direct-fire artillery were all possible and all effective because the actual range of a musket was so short. When you expand that range to around 400 yards, everything changes. Frontal cavalry charges are suicidal when every enemy soldier can get off several accurate shots instead of one wildly inaccurate one. Artillery needs to move farther back and shot longer, arcing shots. Massed formations and bayonet charges are similarly useless when the enemy can shoot 5-6 rounds at you while you advance instead of 1-2. Other answers have pointed out the change in tactics that occurred during the Civil War, which is all true. But tactics don't exist in a vacuum, they change because the battlefield itself has changed, and in the case of the Civil War, nearly all those changes were in response to the widespread use of long-range, highly accurate rifles.

The introduction of rifles in the Civil War set all of these things in motion. Cartridges and breech loading rifles, introduced near the end of the war, would push those trends even farther. By the time WWI rolls around, cavalry is nearly useless, standing in the open at any range is dangerous, massed infantry charges are incredibly costly, and almost all artillery has moved way behind the lines.


Railroads were far and away the most significant development in warfare since the invention of gunpowder. Since the beginning of recorded history, every general has faced two hard limits to what he and his army could do. First, 15 miles a day was the average distance an army could travel from the time of Alexander up to Napoleon. Second, 60,000-80,000 men was the largest army you could supply under average conditions; any larger than that and the supplies it consumed in one day would exceed the supplies it received. Also, keep in mind that armies were supplied by animals: mules, horses, oxen, etc. The more men you have at the front line, the more animals you need to supply them. The more animals you have going to the front, the more food you need to supply them. Food for animals at the front lines requires animals in the rear to bring it up, and the whole thing dominoes outward. It's easy to see how supply becomes incredibly difficult when all you have are wagons and mules to bring it up.

When you look at the most successful armies in history, most of them found a way to cheat one or both of those rules by a little bit. Napoleon typically managed 18 miles a day and through clever maneuvering could amass an army of 200,000+ on the day of battle. The Mongols moved at a staggering 40-50+ miles per day. The list goes on. Within the railroad lies the potential to go far beyond just stretching those rules, you can blow them completely out of the water.

For every ton of "fuel" a wagon of six mules could carry 500 tons of supplies, whereas a 15-car train could carry 5,250. The average train of the era moved at about 15mph, meaning it could travel the same distance in one hour that the average infantryman could move in an entire day on foot, and the soldiers on railcars wouldn't even be tired when they arrived. Railroads made some of the oldest rules of war almost meaningless. Huge armies could be supplied with minimal effort; armies over 100,000 now seemed trivial, armies in the millions now seemed feasible. Long "marches" over hundreds of miles could be done in days instead of weeks.

With railroads, war becomes less like a cat and mouse game between two opposing armies and more like a massive chess game between two opposing nations. The strength of your economy mattered as much as the strength of your army. There was no realistic upper limit to the number of soldiers you can recruit if you have the economy to supply them. The massive carrying capacity of railroads meant large battles can now stretch on for days, weeks, or even months without worrying about supplies. All of this began during the Civil War. To see what the use of railroads does when taken to the extreme, you need only look at WWI. Without railroads, it would have been impossible to supply millions of soldiers for years on end at the front lines of WWI. America in 1861 had far more miles of rail than any country on Earth, and the use of rail lines in the Civil War was a major impetus for European nations to expand their own rail networks. More than anything, I think the use of the railroad in the Civil War affected not only future wars, but the entire course of history along with it.


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The major difference between the American Civil War and earlier is that it was the first war where the full industrial might of a major nation was applied to a large war - here split between the two sides. The application of these technologies allowed the US to sustain large armies over even larger areas to force the South to admit that their goals were not achievable and give up the fight.

For this, the details of if they did a good job in exploiting a particular technology don't matter a lot, nor do the details of tactics, except that ineffective tactics make the job harder. But without the ability to move the men and supply them across the land, none of the rest matter much.

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British military historian JFC Fuller argued that the American Civil War was largely ignored, and European military leaders failed to learn the lessons of the war. The European attitude toward the American armies was one of condescension: the armies were irregular, volunteer armies rather than professional ones. Fuller wrote that this European attitude contributed to the tragedy of the WW1 trenches. He felt that a new kind of maneuver warfare was demonstrated in Grant's Vicksburg and Overland campaigns, and Sherman's campaigns against Atlanta, Savannah and North Carolina; and that this kind of warfare should have informed the tactics of WW1.

BH Liddell Hart had a similar opinion of Sherman.

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"Similar opinion" to whom exactly? –  Pieter Geerkens May 5 '14 at 21:21
I'd imagine to JFC Fuller –  Oldcat May 6 '14 at 0:22
Yes, an opinion of Sherman similar to Fuller's. Is it really that ambiguous? I'll re-read it more carefully. –  JimZipCode May 6 '14 at 3:30

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