The Age of Machines and Steel
It will hardly be revelatory to most people reading these pages to point out that the Civil War materialized on the cusp of a technological revolution. What may be surprising to some is the scope of this transformation, and the depth to which it affected everything from battlefield tactics and military strategy to politics and national leadership, media, art and even people’s taste in dinnerware. As you delve into the features this month, you might find it interesting to keep the impact of technology — both subtle and obvious — in mind.
Reading James McPherson’s illuminating discussion of the Gettysburg campaign, it is almost impossible not to think of the climax of that adventure — the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge — and the famous juxtaposition it offers of new world technology and old world valor. Over 12,500 Confederates stepped off Seminary Ridge into one of the last great frontal assaults in military annals, only to be decimated by new weapons technologies that had already relegated conventional infantry tactics to the pages of history. It is always striking to feel the sense of awe in the words of Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge as they were taken aback by the traditional grandeur and martial beauty of the scene — right before they rammed cartridges down the barrels of their rifled muskets and destroyed it.
The revolution in military technology was not limited to land. The grand age of the wooden ships would share a similar fate to the grand age of charges beginning on March 9, 1862 — the day Monitor and Virginia turned thousands of years of naval warfare on their head. But as Harold Holzer so adroitly explains, the famous duel of the ironclads affected more than naval technology. It revolutionized naval culture — something that was a larger part of 19th-century life than it is today — and even affected American culture as a whole. The artwork generated by the momentous battle at Hampton Roads reflected this sea change almost immediately, and had everyone from artists to admirals to authors contemplating what the future held not only in terms of industrialization and technology, but also honor, tradition and the constructs of society.
Tom Wheeler’s exploration of the telegraph and the manner in which it revolutionized military communication and the relationship between national leaders and combat commanders offers another example of the profound effect of technology on the Civil War that doesn’t garner as much attention as the mismatch between weaponry and tactics. Civilian innovations like the telegraph and the railroad took on new lives from 1861-65 and made things possible on and around the battlefield that Washington or Napoleon could have only dreamed about less than a century earlier. As fascinated as Abraham Lincoln was by weapons technology, the telegraph ultimately became his greatest weapon for imposing his will on his commanders, and its role in helping the Union prosecute the war is superseded by few other technologies — even in the age of machines and steel.