Gatling guns, balloon corps, and other weapons introduced during the American Civil War

Originally published at:


Lately as pandemic background noise, I have been watching History Channel’s show Top Shot. One thing I found out from that show is that hand cranked Gatling guns were very prone to jams.


Harry Harrison wrote an interesting set of alternate history novels, the Stars and Stripes trilogy, that posits a combined Union and Confederacy fighting against Great Britain after the British declare war over the Trent affair. Does not end well for Great Britain.

The point he makes is that the technological advances of the Civil War combined with the hard-learned lessons about the increased range and lethality of the rifled musket firing Minie balls vs the old smooth bore musket made the American armies significantly more advanced than any European power of the time.

This link talks about The role European observers took in the war.

European view of the Civil War

In addition to the points mentioned in the post:

  • Largest battles by number of soldiers.
  • Large scale use of trains for moving troops around.
  • Use of telegraph for coordinating troop movements.
  • Discovering the necessity of trench warfare. Civil War troops learned very early on that you either dug in or died. No marching in ranks into massed fire, although there were tragic exceptions to this through out the war.

From a military history point of view, you can kind of make a case that the Civil War was a forerunner for WWI.


Minie rifles, explosive naval shells, and the use of trains, telegraphs and trenches were all features of the Crimean War (as well as the extensive use of photography). These were not American inventions.


Interestingly enough both sides were relying on firearms technology which was markedly inferior to what was available to civilians at the time, due to wartime financing/production issues. Limiting breech loading rifles strictly to specialized units. AFAIK The American Civil War was the first time nations tried to mobilize their entire industry towards a conflict.

1 Like

There wasn’t much risk of being shot down, since aeronauts were well behind friendly lines and a Civil War-era rifle could hardly hit a person on the ground effectively, let alone an airship.

Hm, in general, perhaps.



(Please take this not as picky criticism but as proof that we read your posts!)


Several historians have pointed out that much of the carnage of WW1 could be attributed to European armies adopting (and advancing) the newer, more lethal weapons developed in the Civil War, while adhering to essentially Napoleonic assault tactics. The latter stages of the Civil War gave hints of the horrors that industrialized warfare could produce.


I find that oft-repeated notion that war drives innovation to be tiresome. There’s a fallacious unspoken major premise that all that stuff wouldn’t have been invented anyway. All the stuff with peacetime applications, like radar and microwave ovens, were logical extensions of things being worked on anyway.

The cognitive error that I think people make is imagining “inventions” as springing from nothing (and thus wouldn’t have happened or happened sooner because war). Every invention is a tweak to something lots of people were already working on, and that tweak crosses the line into something generally useful. There’s no evidence to suggest war makes this process more efficient, except perhaps because governments invest more in science during war. In that case, that’s an argument for investing more in science, not starting more wars.


Not helping Europeans during WWI was learning the wrong lessons from observing the Russo-Japanese War. Especially the siege at Port Arthur. The Russians were defeated by a Japanese army using human wave attacks. But observers failed to note there was a huge disparity in medical/sanitation/hygenie conditions between the armies. The Japanese were losing fewer people to battlefield related disease than their Russian counterparts.


Yeah wow that’s … my very embarrassing bad.


Sadly, freeing the slaves was pretty much an afterthought. The main reason was “Who’s running this show: the Federal Government or the individual states?”

Are you sad they did it, or…?


I suppose it was, indeed, about who was running the show. The Confederate constitution made it clear that states were not to be allowed the right to decide for themselves whether or not to continue human slavery.

“In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”


The issue as to who’s running the show was resolved when the Constitution was drafted and the Articles of Confederation were supplanted. So nope.

It was about state’s rights all right. The right of a state to hold human beings as chattel property.


Freeing the slaves was sadly an afterthought for the north, whose first concern was probably more that traitors had attacked Fort Sumter.

On the other hand, making sure black people could be treated as property rather than humans was very definitively the entire issue for the south, as their own writings testify. And since they’re the ones who started the glorified temper tantrum over it, the article is not at all wrong.


No, you’re incorrect. Reputable historians of the civil war all agree that the heart of the thing was slavery. Only people wishing to whitewash the truth argue otherwise. The confederates themselves TOLD us it was about slavery. It was, from Alexander Stephens own words, the cornerstone of the confederacy. Go read the cornerstone speech. It’s all there.

Go peddle your lost cause bullshit lies elsewhere.


Yep; the South fought for their “states’ rights” to keep owning other human beings as property.


Not only that, but IIRC, they also wanted to force non-slaveholding states to return anyone fleeing enslavement, regardless of that state’s laws around slavery.


right, here’s a page that lauds the technological innovations of the crimean war.