Technology, Industry, & Innovation
The U.S. faced several logistical challenges in supplying Union soldiers with the necessary weapons, uniforms and modes of transportation and communication to effectively fight in the Civil War. Regiments had to be organized, provisioned and transported to areas of military operations. As President Lincoln admitted in the spring of 1861,
“The plain matter of fact is our good people have rushed to the rescue of the Government faster than the government can find arms to put into their hands.”
Mass Production Of Weapons
The U.S. Ordnance Bureau undertook efforts to provide the army with American Springfield and British Enfield muskets, the two most effective rifled muskets. While the U.S. had about 250,000 muskets in storage at the start of the war, most of these were antiquated smoothbores. Using interchangeable parts and increased working hours, the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts began producing 10,000 rifled muskets each month by January 1862.
In the summer of 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron signed contracts with the West Point Foundry in New York to produce rifled artillery. West Point would produce the bulk of northern ordnance throughout the war.
New Styles Of Combat
The rifled musket changed the nature of combat, giving advantage to the tactical defensive. Cavalry charges and frontal assaults could be cut down by the increased range and accuracy of rifled weapons. The constant clash of armies with these weapons led to the construction of new types of field fortifications.
Fieldworks evolved from simple earth pits to elaborate systems featuring flank protection and head logs. By the end of 1864, a network of trenches stretched through Virginia, from Petersburg to Richmond. Private James T. Miller of the 111th Pennsylvania Infantry noted that these structures made frontal charges suicidal:
“Our division is still busy making earthworks and cutting down the timber in front of our line of defence [sic] and doing every thing to make our position impregnable … I for one dont [sic] believe that we will ever see an enemy in front of our earthworks except … as a prisoner.”
The elaborate trench systems of the Civil War foreshadowed the deadly conflict in Europe during World War I.
Soldiers’ Uniforms Coin The Term “Shoddy”
Besides weaponry, U.S. soldiers needed clothing, knapsacks, canteens, mess gear, tents, horses, mules and portable repair shops. Initially, state governments provided uniforms for their own regiments. Pennsylvania soldiers wore blue while Minnesota soldiers donned black pants with red flannel shirts.
By the end of 1861, the war department took over, specifying the standard blue uniform now associated with the Union army. Secretary Cameron initiated a large number of contracts for such items in his home state of Pennsylvania.
Clothing manufacturing, seeking to maximize production and profit, made uniforms from pressed cotton lint called “shoddy.” Soldiers complained that the clothing disintegrated with minimal use, resulting in the use of the word “shoddy” as a euphemism for poorly constructed gear.
When President Lincoln replaced Cameron with Edwin M. Stanton as the Secretary of War in January 1862, Stanton and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs quickly improved the production and distribution of goods. Meigs provided clothing producers with a series of standard measurements so manufacturers could produce uniforms in different sizes. The concept of sizes was new to many businesses, which would adopt Meigs’s design for civilian use after the war.
Railroads Pave The Way For Advancements In Technology
Stanton also made changes in the operation of railroads. The 1862 Railroad Act, introduced by Benjamin F. Wade at the behest of Stanton, established the United States Military Railroad Department, giving the department control of railroads in areas of military operations. The bill also gave the government authority to take control of private lines when public safety necessitated such an action. Stanton used this clause to negotiate favorable rate charges and ensure that military needs took precedence over civilian traffic.
He appointed Pennsylvania Railroad engineer Herman Haupt as chief of construction and transportation for the Department of the Rappahannock in Virginia. Haupt established rules for the use of railroads in theaters of operation and used the telegraph to coordinate transfers of men and material.
After the Second Battle of Bull Run, Haupt explained to President Lincoln that the performance of his railroad network was one of the few bright spots for the Union:
“Our telegraph operators and railway employes [sic] are entitled to great credit. They have been advanced pioneers, occupying the posts of danger, and the exploit of penetrating to Fairfax [to] bring off the wounded when they supposed that 20,000 rebels were on their front and flanks, was one of the boldest performances I have ever heard of.”
Colonel D.C. McCallum further demonstrated the success of U.S. Military Railroads in 1863 when he transported 22,000 soldiers with artillery, ammunition and supplies to relieve Union forces under siege in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The telegraph machine, which provided instantaneous communication across long distances, was crucial to the smooth operations of railroads and the provisioning of Union soldiers. Soon after joining the war department in August 1861, Thomas A. Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company directed the formation of a transportation and telegraph bureau to take charge of rail and water transportation, appointing a transportation officer to the staff of each military department. Scott selected Pennsylvania Railroad supervisor Andrew Carnegie to establish telegraph communications between Washington, D.C. and the battlefields in Northern Virginia.
Thereafter, President Lincoln spent many nights at the telegraph office in Washington waiting for news of battle. One of the most important messages came in 1864, when William T. Sherman informed the president of the successful capture of Atlanta. “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” Sherman proclaimed on Sept. 7. This information enabled Lincoln to point to war successes in a close election race with former General George B. McClellan.
Information for this section was contributed by Adam W. Dean, University of Virginia.
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- William Bender Wilson, History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company with Plan of Organization, Portraits of Officials, and Biographical Sketches, Volume 1, (Henry T. Coates & Company, 1895).