War, the Mother of Invention

Our knowledge of the American Civil War has been greatly expanded thanks to a man who is often referred to as the ‘father of photojournalism’.

When the war erupted, Mathew Brady seized an opportunity and requested permission to photograph the fighting. The permission was granted – written and signed by Lincoln himself – and Brady was known to carry the slip of paper about with him most of the time.

Photography was still a very new innovation when the war came along. It had evolved out of capturing images called daguerreotypes, which were printed on tin. In the 1850s, Brady moved from producing daguerreotypes to ambrotypes (images created on sheets of glass) and albumen (prints that could be reproduced on paper).

Brady employed more than twenty men who went out on to the battlefields with travelling darkrooms. Brady himself usually stayed behind in his Washington DC studio where he co-ordinated the work. He and his team of photographers made more than 10,000 plates and spent more than $100,000 to document the war in pictures. But when the war ended, the government refused to reimburse Brady and he was left bankrupt.

The American Civil War saw a number of ‘firsts’. Two pieces of legislation that came out of the war continued to impact the United States beyond the end of the conflict. As a part of the Revenue Act of 1861, the United States Congress passed the first personal income tax on 5 August 1862 to help pay for the war. In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States made personal income tax a permanent part of American life.

The second piece of legislation to remain with American citizens beyond the end of the war was the first ‘compulsory military service’, more commonly known as the draft. Confederate president Jefferson Davis was the first to propose a draft in order to fill the ranks of the military. The Confederate Congress made it law in April 1862. The United States Congress followed suit in July 1862. The draft required young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five to register up until 1973, when the draft was discontinued.

The draft in the North was not well received. While many young men felt honour bound to join the military and defend their homes, many felt that the war had nothing to do with them. They did not own slaves and felt that if slavery ended, freed slaves would take jobs from Anglo-Americans. Riots erupted in the North and over a thousand people were killed or wounded.

Ideas to improve military equipment often come from those closest to it. Before he was general-in-chief of the Union army, George B. McClellan was already a career military man. In 1855, he toured Europe as part of a military commission charged with studying the latest developments in engineering and cavalry, including field equipment. McClellan came home with more than a hundred books and manuals, and in 1859 proposed a saddle design to be adopted by the United States army for cavalry units.

The McClellan saddle takes features from the Spanish tree saddle, with a high cantle to keep the rider in the seat, but usually lacking fenders and skirts which only added unnecessary weight. What was left looked something like the frame for a saddle, carved to the contours of a seat and covered with leather. It was so popular that the South adopted their own version. It was in use by the United States military until World War Two when the last US cavalry and horse artillery units were dismounted.


Drawing of the Gatling gun

Not all innovations that came out of the war were as innocuous as photography and the McClellan saddle. The Gatling gun (pictured above), named after its developer, Dr Richard J. Gatling, was the forerunner of modern-day automatic weapons. First used in combat during the American Civil War, the weapon was a series of rotating gun barrels, fed with ammunition by a hopper and operated by turning a crank. The gun could fire as many as 200 rounds per minute and could be used by an operator with little or no training.


Balloon ‘Intrepid’

The fact that aeroplanes and helicopters had not yet been invented did not stop the North and South from taking advantage of aerial surveillance. Observation balloons had been used during the French Revolution to keep track of the enemy’s movements. Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe (pictured above with his balloon, ‘Intrepid’) offered his services as an aeronaut to President Lincoln himself. In July 1861, Lowe was named Chief Aeronaut of the Union army Balloon Corps. By August of 1863, balloons for aerial observation had been discontinued, due in part to the inability of Lowe and commanding officers to work together.


CSS Hunley, drawing by R.G. Skerrett

The first successful attack on a warship by a submarine was during the American Civil War. A Confederate marine engineer name Horace Lawson Hunley built the submarine that bears his name in Mobile, Alabama. It required an eight-man crew, one officer and seven seamen to operate the crank-driven propulsion. It could move as fast as four knots and carry a spare torpedo attached to a spar, a long pole used by boats. In the case of the CSS Hunley (pictured above), the torpedo was attached to a spar mounted to the submarine. The Hunley then approached an enemy ship from below and attached the torpedo to the ship’s hull. The Hunley was then able to move to a safe distance before the torpedo blew.

The CSS Hunley sank three times during its brief career. The first sinking took the lives of five seamen, and the second took all eight on board, including Hunley himself. It was raised both times and put back into service. On 17 February 1864, the CSS Hunley rammed the USS Housatonicin Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The Housatonic was lost, as was the Hunley. It never returned to port and the reason for its loss is unknown.

The most famous sea battle of the American Civil War was the Battle of Hampton Roads, better known by the names of the two ironclads involved, the USS Monitor and the USS Merrimack. The concept of ironclad ships, ships reinforced with steel or iron plates, was a relatively new idea when the American Civil War began. When the Union forces were forced to abandon the Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, they attempted to destroy as much as possible before the facility fell into Confederate hands.

Among the destruction was the attempt to scuttle the USS Merrimack, which was about to be put back into service. But the ship burnt only as far as the waterline, and the Confederate navy recovered what was left to rebuild an ironclad they named the CSS Virginia. On 9 March 1862, the USS Monitor faced off with the Virginia, aka the Merrimack, at Hampton Roads. After three hours of battle, with no significant damage to either ship, both sailed home and claimed victory.

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