The first modern war

The American Civil War is often cited as the first modern war because the belligerents involved wielded a wide array of weaponry and utilized systems of tactics which are more or less still in use today including advanced ballistics and rifling, mechanized warfare, aerial reconnaissance (via balloon), anti-aircraft artillery, land mines, iron-body fighting ships, advanced logistics including telegraph, railroad, and rapid communication signaling systems, universally drilled infantry part of a divisional army structure, and modern bombards and rail guns. The armies involved were vast and national as opposed to locally conscripted. The Civil War also saw the introduction of the first national draft when the Confederate congress passed one of three conscription acts starting in April of 1862. Most substantial of these technological innovations were the introduction of ironclad ships, the “Coffee Mill” gun, the Minie Ball bullet (and the rifled muskets that shot it), the electric telegraph and the railroad.

The ironclad ship would forever change military history. While ironclad prototypes had existed before the Civil War such as France’s La Gloire berthed in 1859[i] they saw their first extensive combat during the conflict. The ironclad ship was not simply a sail man-o-war with iron sheets stamped on, as had been the case in years prior, but instead a complete revolution in ship building to include rotating gun turrets armed with heavy howitzers, steam or diesel engines and fully articulated armor which made all previous combat vessels obsolete[ii]. In the famous Battle of Hampton Roads we see the paradigm shift from pre-Civil War technology to modern technology illustrated most effectively. The CSS Virginia, a fully armored ironclad, engaged a fleet of wooden Union frigates off Sewell’s Point, near the mouth of Hampton Roads, Virginia. The result was complete destruction (or grounding) of the Union fleet by the Virginia which suffered negligible damage and casualties. When the USS Monitor, a turret mounted ironclad designed by John Ericsson, arrived to save the remnants of the wooden fleet it engaged the Virginia but was unable to sink her. The age of the wooden ship had come to an end and the ironclads of the Civil War period heralded the arrival of the modern cruiser and battleship[iii].

The introduction of rifling in the production of muskets loaded with the .58 caliber Mine Ball round extended their effective range to 500 yards. The antebellum smoothbore musket on the other hand had a nominal range of 100 yards and could not be used in the same deadly effective fashion.[iv] This vast increase in weapon range revolutionized infantry warfare as slings were replaced by bows in ancient times. No longer was the Napoleonic tactic of mass linear frontal assault supported by quick cavalry strikes and canister-round cannonades viable: infantry were now able to inflict massive damage to cavalry before they were capable of meeting the line. Infantrymen were also now able to directly fire upon artillery positions, inflicting massive casualties to gun crews which were only capable of direct-fire cannonade from distances of 400 yards away from the target. To avoid eradication of their artillery sections Civil War commanders were forced to withdraw their canons and utilize indirect fire or “shelling[v].”

The result of this situation was weariness about waging offensive combat and a tendency to dig in, an environment which would precursor the trench combat of World War I and sound the death knell for Napoleonic rapid offensives on wide fronts. Instead of lining up across from one another and blasting away on open ground, as had been observed in previous conflicts, Civil War engagements tended to be, at least in the beginning, flanking armies attempting to surprise entrenched ones[vi]. At Sharpsburg, for example, five waves of Union infantry under General Hooker attempted to destroy the weak left flank of the Confederates under General Jackson, who fought from earthworks and trenches along a fortified plateau. The Union force, which greatly outnumbered the Confederates, was slaughtered. Later at Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg a Confederate force would attempt a similar attack on Union positions and would also be decimated. Frontal attacks were not again feasible in this new modern age of warfare until the introduction of tanks late in the course of World War I.

By the end of the war infantry tactics were evolving to a form which would seem remarkably similar to modern-day soldiers. By the end of 1864 during the Gettysburg campaign Union forces began to utilize open-order skirmish tactics which entailed a covering group supporting an assault group. This form of combat matured during the Second World War but has its roots in the Civil War, becoming the staple of all modern infantry combat. Instead of marching across an open field and exchanging fire with entrenched enemy positions, the mass lines were broken down into smaller companies which would interchangeably provide cover and assault during rapid advances[vii].

Wilson Ager’s “Coffee Mill” gun saw action during the Peninsula Campaign when it was deployed by the inept Union General McClellan[viii]. The introduction of the Coffee Mill gun and other repeating weapons preceded the introduction of the Gatling gun and eventually modern machine guns. One man could now kill dozens by simply turning a crank and later, by holding down a trigger. The Civil War was the first major conflict to see such a devastating weapon deployed and proved their combat viability, inspiring the hellish trench combat to follow in the First World War and also inspiring military engineers to see to the creation of more advanced killing machines. War could now produce massive injuries and the pretensions of humanity and intimacy in previous wars was now vanquished.

The electric telegraph also fundamentally changed the way warfare was conducted. Prior to the Civil War messages were relayed by courier or pigeon. Introduction of the telegraph allowed for telegrams to be relayed instantly across hundreds or even thousands of miles[ix]. Soon it became standard practice for Union armies to construct extensive telegraph networks which extended from Washington and to all areas of the front[x], allowing for rapid communication and tactical cohesion among the Union force. This rapid communication allowed for the implementation of complex tactical maneuvers, reinforcing and coordination. This innovation in communication also sounded the death of an era in which officers lead their own men into combat, as high ranking generals could now command from a headquarters instead of risking peril on the battlefield. While during the Civil War officers did lead personally onto the field, by World War I this trend had ended.

Finally the railroad brought about the introduction of mechanized warfare and rapid deployment of force. Before introduction of the railroad armies moved on foot or by animal and were supported by local foraging, rarely exceeding 30,000 men[xi]. The railroad allowed for deployment of vast armies which arrived on the field fresh (not exhausted by travel) and with a ready supply of rations and supplies, unharmed by overland attrition. This transport increased an army’s logistical capacity ten fold and when attached to a headquarters allowed for rapid reinforcement and extraction. The railroad of the Civil War increased geographical deployment range as drastically as the introduction of the Bell UH-1 helicopter did during the Vietnam War: armies could now relocate hundreds of miles in a matter of hours and no longer were confined to their geographical region. A city suddenly found to be under siege two hundred miles away could be relieved within half of a day if it was relatively close to the ever-increasingly large rail system. A said geographical region no longer had to support the supply demands of a force, as supplies could now be transported in.

These technological innovations did not give the Civil War armies an edge in combat but essentially redefined the fundamental nature of warfare: the gunpowder age of musket charges and grand offensives was humbled by devastating modern technologies and wars would now be won by grand strategy involving complex logistics systems supporting massive divisions rather than individual field engagements. Warfare would never be the same.

[i] Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare 1815-1914, 73-4

[ii] Soundhaus, 86.

[iii] Sondhaus, 78-81

[iv] J.F.C. Fuller, War and Western Civilization 1832-1932: A Study of War as a Political Instrument and the Expression of Mass Democracy (Andover, England: Chapel River Press, 1932), 99.

[v] Robertson; K. Jack Bauer, “The Battles on the Rio Grande: Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, 8-9 May 1846,” in America’s First Battles, 77.

[vi] Larry H. Addington, The Patterns of Warfare since the Eighteenth Century, 2d ed. (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994)

[vii] Addington, 76; Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1982), 100.


[ix] Larry H. Addington, 49; Noah Andre Trudeau, “The Walls of 1864,” in The Evolution of Modern Warfare, 373; Trudeau, 373-75; 373; Addington, 76.

[x] David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1939), 32, 26-27; 32; John Emmet O’Brien, Telegraphing in Battle: Reminiscences of the Civil War (Scranton, PA: The Raeder Press, 1910), 106.

[xi] Christopher R. Gable, Railroad Generalship: Foundations of Civil War Strategy (Fort Leavenworth, KS: CGSC, 1997), 1; 2-4; 3; 4.