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American Civil War: The First Modern War

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America has been shaped by years of war, and one of the most significant was the Civil War. The Civil War established the political framework of America, allowing for the beginnings of social equality. The main catalyst of the war was the Southern belief and support in the institution of slavery, while Northerners believed in freedom for all. The 19th century saw the creation of numerous new technologies, many of which were first utilized during the Civil War. The sophistication of muskets, rifles and other weaponry were ground-­‐breaking compared to previous wars, consequently leading to a greater number of casualties never yet seen before. Evidently, due to the advancements in weaponry, battle strategies also become more refined and were utilized in subsequent wars. The high casualties called for better health care practices, and saw some of the first army nurses and doctors, as well as more polished procedures. Many mechanized and electronic devices were utilized in combat such as aerial observation, telegraphs, photography, torpedoes, submarines, and if not most important, the utilization of the railroad.

Therefore, due to the advancement in areas such as healthcare, technology, and weaponry, the American Civil War can be seen as the first modern war. War and healthcare are interrelated, where their results are mediated by each other. Indeed, for the Civil War, the many casualties during the war and the need for help for post-­‐war veterans expedited evolutions in the American healthcare system. The Civil War saw the formalization of the medical profession, and provided the foundation for modern treatment (Smith, 2005)1. Prior to the war, hospitals were viewed as a place to house the poor and those afflicted with disease, and as a place in 1 . Smith, Dale C. 2005. Military medical history: The American civil war. Magazine of 2 constant need of charity1. With over 6 million wounded, indeed there was a greater demand and level of importance placed on hospitals, doctors, and nurses, leading to the erection of even tent hospitals close to the battlefield in order to immediately treat the wounded. Ultimately, even though tent hospitals were convenient for time, their downfall was sanitation, as the majority of fatalities were due to disease. Due to this experience, for the next two generations, hospital architecture would be designed to be spacious, clean, and well ventilated to reduce disease related death1.

Nonetheless, the majority of Americans embraced hospitals positively post-­‐war, and helped facilitate the modernization of the medical practice. Moreover, military medicine worldwide was influenced by the development of the American Ambulance Corps. This division of the army would later work with local hospitals, leading to the development of urban ambulance systems being used throughout society for emergency purposes. The ambulance would hold two medically trained workers, and would hold supplies enough to stabilize a patient for transportation to a hospital for proper medical attention. In addition, the Civil War allowed for improvement of surgeries and amputations. Pre-­‐war, training of doctors typically included minor operations such as incisions, and proper bandaging. However, the Civil War created many major trauma victims suffering from large wounds due to bullets and major blood loss. While horrific, this allowed doctors to expand surgical remedies and improve future health care practices. Along with casualties, post-­‐war physical and mental health were examined in veterans, and reveled both phantom limb and reflex paralysis stress theories (Dean Jr., 1997)2.

Evidently, the medical profession became more sophisticated, and began to examine mental health issues developing theories with sound principles. Clearly, medicine in America was greatly influenced by the tragic events of the American Civil War, but it allowed for, the realization that the hospital is an important state institution, formalized medical practices, and improved on prior schools of medicine, ultimately leading to a level of medical care not yet seen before by soldiers. Another reason the Civil War can be viewed as the first modern war was because both sides relied heavily on industry, transportation, and telecommunications (Moorehead, 2004)3. This was the first war that utilized railroads for a strategic advantage in military conflicts, as well as being essential for the Northern tactic of cutting off the South from all sources of resources. Prior to 1830, the conventional way of transporting troops and materials was primarily on foot and animal pulled carriages. This often led to many casualties on the journey to battle due to poor weather, food shortages, excessive travelling, and once arrived, soldiers are too tired to wage war.

In addition, these transportation limitations often restricted how large an army can be, and how far away from home they can travel while still being affective. The utilization of the railroad allowed for rapid transportation of troops to and from the battlefield, as 2 Eric T. Dean Jr., Shook Over Hell: Post-­‐Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, And The Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). 3 Moorehead, Richard D. 2004. Technology and the American civil war. Military Review 84, (3) (May): 61-­‐63. well as their supplies. Consequently, troops arrived on the battlefield in better shape and more prepared, supplies were kept in better condition, and armies were capable of growing very large without the risk of being spread too thin3. The railroad was also capable of reinforcing, or evacuating troops that are under fire, making it even more difficult for a decisive victory. The railroad effectively changed prior military strategies, and allowed for modern armies and warfare to develop. Another note-­‐worthy mechanical device that greatly influenced the Civil War and society thereafter was the telegraph. To send messages by courier was the standard method of delivery, which could result in days or even weeks before a message is delivered, which could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

The utilization of the electric telegraph allowed army commanders to communicate between different command posts over a thousand miles away, allowing for almost real-­‐time communication and coordination3. Over the course of the Civil War, over 4000 miles of telegraph lines were laid down in an effort to establish proper strategic plans, pursuit tactics, and even repositioning of outposts. The usage of the telegraph allowed for armies to grow as large as possible with complete coordination between all levels, something that prior armies and wars never witnessed. The Civil War was also the early testing ground of many modern inventions. Aerial balloons were utilized for scouting enemy locations of armies, supplies, or even their escape route. An aerial balloon corps was even established within the American 3 Moorehead, Richard D. 2004. Technology and the American civil war. Military Review 84, (3) (May): 61-­‐63. military. Submarines were also used during the Civil War, and the invention of torpedoes in an effort to win the naval battle. These submarines would be the early prototype for the eventual development and successful launch of submarines years later by the American Military. Another naval invention during the Civil War was the introduction of Iron-­‐Clad as well as steam powered ships. Iron-­‐Clad warships were much more powerful than the usual wooden hull ships, and these quickly became the norm for future naval battles (Harvey, 2012)4.

In addition, steam powered became widely prevalent post-­‐war, as it was a novel form of transportation that was shown to be quite effective during its time. Another important invention was the camera, and its introduction of photojournalism. This was the first war that was massively documented, giving the public as much information about the war as possible, and in a new form of media. Clearly, the early 19th century sparked many new inventions, allowing for the Union and Confederates to capitalize and improve military regimes, ultimately becoming the most sophisticated war that had ever been seen. One of the most important reasons that the American Civil War can be considered the first modern war, is it’s drastic improvement of artillery, in particular the rifle. Previous military strategies were tailored to rifles that had a range of 100 yards, leading to battles of linear frontal assault, backed by direct-­‐fire artillery, and quick charges from small military groups (Gable, 1997)5.

However, the rifle being used during 4 HARVEY, A. D. 2012. Was the American civil war the first modern war? History 97 (326): 272-­‐80. 5 Christopher R. Gable, Railroad Generalship: Foundations of Civil War Strategy (fon Leavenworth, KS: CGSC, 1997), 1; 2-­‐4; 3; 4. the Civil War had a range of 500 yards, rendering all previous military tactics useless. Better arms are also the cause of the highest casualties seen within this war. Using previous military plans resulted in heavy casualties for the attacker, and direct frontal assaults were shown to be least effective3. Battle plans such as building trenches, and fortifying defenses with logs were shown to be most effective in reducing casualties, and increasing positional security, while attacking before defenses were set-­‐up was the preferred method of attack. Another weapon utilized was the Gatling gun, the earliest form of a rapid firing machine gun. The Gatling gun would remain stationary, and would be used to fortify defenses because of its immense weight. Clearly, the advancement in weaponry set the Civil War apart from all previous wars, and is the first modern war. The American Civil War is one of the most influential wars in American history.

Creating the rifled musket and Gatling gun would forever change military tactics, in order to avoid such heavy losses. These guns would be continued to be improved upon for usage in later wars, and put America ahead of the world in military power. Moreover, the 19th century saw the proliferation of inventions such as the telegraph, railroad, naval ships, submarines and photography, all of which made an influential impact on the war. The telegraph allowed for unprecedented coordination between all military personnel in any location, and a sense of real-­‐time communication. Likewise, the railroad allowed for armies to mobilize at an exponential rate, providing supplies as well as reinforcement quicker, and making complete victory all that much harder for both sides. Obviously, the Civil War witnessed an unprecedented amount of casualties, requiring the beginnings of modern medical practices. This would include the schematics for proper hospitals, and an urban ambulance system, better training for doctors and nurses, and the start of focusing on mental health issues. Although tragic, the Civil War can clearly be seen as the first modern war due to its advancements in areas such as health, technology, and weaponry, and will continue to influence future generations.


1. Smith, Dale C. 2005. Military medical history: The American civil war. Magazine of History 19, (5) (09): 17-­‐19. 2. Eric T. Dean Jr., Shook Over Hell: Post-­‐Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, And The Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). 3. Moorehead, Richard D. 2004. Technology and the American civil war. Military Review 84, (3) (May): 61-­‐63. 4. HARVEY, A. D. 2012. Was the American civil war the first modern war? History 97 (326): 272-­‐80. 5. Christopher R. Gable, Railroad Generalship: Foundations of Civil War Strategy (fon Leavenworth, KS: CGSC, 1997), 1; 2-­‐4; 3; 4.

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