CAPTAIN JASON D. GROSE
NPS, MONTEREY CA
November 19, 2001
How did technological advances in weapons and the ability to
logically support large forces over extended distances affect
strategic decision-making? Did the North or South benefit
the most from these developments?
During the four-year American Civil War, several key innovations
in weaponry required the leaders from both sides to adapt their
war strategies. Additionally, innovations in logistics
enabled the North to successfully supply men and material over
long distances thus taking the fight to the Southern enemy.
As a result, Northern forces prevailed in a war whose outcome
many modern historians believe could have easily ended in Southern
At the beginning of the war, both leaders and soldiers from
both sides had a simplistic and amateur view of the war to come.
Flush from the recent victory in the Mexican War in 1848, each
side foresaw easy victory and a chance to win glory in battle.
What they did not predict was a protracted war with grisly death
tolls and the need to supply large armies across great distances.
Ushering in this new generation of war was the great expansion
of industry and American financial success. The North,
with its expanding industry and innovative manufacturing processes,
made the conditions ripe for large scale production of war material.
Although the South enjoyed similar success on a smaller scale,
cotton was king and the sales of it made the South very rich.
Technology Changes the Rules
Two integrated technological developments changed the way
each side waged war. First, the advent of the rifled barrel
extended the battlefield, giving more range and accuracy to
the soldier than had ever been provided by smooth-bore weapons.
Second was a new bullet that prevented the new rifled muskets
from clogging with powder residue.
In 1861, neither the North or the South had very many rifles.
The average soldier used a smooth-bore musket and only the snipers
of each side employed the rifle because of the problems inherent
in the slow-loading weapon. As the advantages of a rifled
firearm became apparent, the North, with its large industrial
ability, became the first to mass produce the rifles for use
in the war. With its much smaller industrial base, the
South was slow to follow but by 1863, nearly all infantrymen
on both sides carried rifles. (McPherson, 475)
What hastened the transition was the introduction Minié
bullet which solved the problem of slow reloading. What
seems like painfully slow by today’s standards, the improved
reloading time to three shots per minute in addition to the
better accuracy and long range of the new weapon made the Minié
bullet revolutionary. The old problem of clogging the
rifling and requiring the soldier to use valuable time cleaning
the barrel was solved by making the round smaller and providing
a wooden plug at the base of the bullet that would expand upon
firing, thus “grabbing” the grooves of the barrel and cleaning
them on the way out. (McPherson, 474)
The transition to rifled rounds had a profound effect on
tactics and strategy. During the Mexican War, both sides
used smooth-bore weapons and with the shorter range of the weapon,
Napoleonic tactics proved very effective. The Americans
would mass together and march forward in “gentlemanly style”
while the artillery flew overhead to meet the enemy just prior
to the assault. The muskets were only effective as a precursor
to a bayonet charge because of the close proximity necessary
to shoot the enemy.
Rifled muskets changed that tactic during the Civil War
by expanding the battlefield. No longer was it wise to
march forward very deliberately into the teeth of the enemy
because they could pick the advancing soldiers off from great
distances of up to 400 yards. “In the first few months
of the Civil War, troops disdained cover, since they were accustomed
to tactics best suited for the smooth-bore musket. They
considered cowering behind cover during combat to be less than
manly.” (Koenig) While some thought that taking cover
behind logs and hunkering down for safety showed weakness, it
did not take long for both sides to realize the way war was
waged had changed
Another result of the greater range of these weapons was
that the artillery could no longer advance with the infantry.
The enemy could shoot the cannoneers as well as those on horses
from up to a half mile away and the old fashioned cavalry charge
became a thing of the past. Horses were soon relegated
to mere transportation rather than a weapon. (McPherson,
What had started off as a perceived limited war quickly
turned into a bloody stalemate. The increased distance
and improved accuracy of the rifle produced horrendous casualties
on both sides. During 1862 and 1863, the number of killed
or wounded numbered 89,000 for the South and 69,000 for the
North. The result was that the defense became stronger
by enabling the defender to engage the encroaching enemy from
much farther away. The defender, usually the South, adopted
the tactic of digging trenches and thus ushered in the era of
trench warfare seen most dominantly in the proceeding war.
Therefore, McPhereson writes, “the rifle and trench ruled Civil
War battlefields as thoroughly as the machine-gun and trench
ruled those of World War I.” (McPherson, 477)
Innovations appeared for the first time in warfare at an
astonishing rate and were not limited to land warfare.
The Merrimac and the Monitor, the two famous ironclads, made
their debut and in one day, revolutionized sea warfare by rendering
wooden navies of the entire world obsolete. (Fuller, 107)
In 1862, the Confederate ironclad, the Merrimac made its
debut by destroying the Union’s blockade at Hampton Roads.
Quick to realize the utility of such a revolutionary design,
the North had concurrently built its own version in a mere 101
days and sent it to battle the Southern ironclad. Having
already destroyed two Union ships, the Congress and the Cumberland,
the Merrimac was ready to destroy the Minnesota the next morning.
But when the Monitor showed up to intervene, naval history was
forever changed. For 3 ½ hours, the battle raged.
After turning on the Minnesota and running aground, the Merrimac
retreated, inflicting only one casualty; the captain of the
The fate of the two ships that ushered in the modern steel
Navy was grim. The Confederates destroyed the Merrimac
soon after to prevent its capture by Union forces. The
Monitor, victorious in its first battle, sank in a storm off
Cape Hatters, North Carolina. Forty-nine Monitor crewmen
Logistics and Railroads
The main strategic-level factor with respect to logistics
during the Civil War was the first large scale use of the railroad
to drive deep into the South to support the eventual defeat
of Southern forces. In fact, the American Civil War was
the first large scale war in history to be supplied over a long
distance and over a long period of time using the railroad.
(Weigley, 131) The railroad was such a key factor that
Weigley goes on to write, “… without the invention of the railroad,
Union operations over the extensive territory of the South might
well have been impossible.” (Weigley, 131)
Since the North needed the long supply tail to support their
engagements in the South, the logistical evolution was more
predominant and factored more in the Union strategy. Not
only did the immense logistical apparatus necessary to keep
the North fighting require soldiers from the infantry to fill
the billets of quartermaster, but the vulnerability of the rail
system in enemy territory siphoned off fighting men to guard
the valuable metal arteries. More so, Northern troops
found themselves repairing the sabotaged railways that the retreating
South wisely destroyed along the way. Unfortunately for
the Confederacy, the Unions Army's Construction Corps performed
extraordinary feats of bridge reconstruction and keeping supply
A prime example of railroad dependence is General Sherman’s
march to the sea which began by his seizing the vital railhead
at Chattanooga in 1863. His next step was to take Atlanta
and secure that railway in preparation to continue to the Atlantic
Ocean. Out-numbering his opponent by 60,000 men, Sherman
had to keep the railway clear in order to supply his army of
100,000 troops. But to accomplish this he had to detach
guards for the 250 mile link between Nashville and Atlanta which
cost him more manpower than actual battle losses and reduced
his strength to only 68,000. (Macksey, 19-20)
The South, conversely, enjoyed a close proximity to their
own bases and were more accustomed to living off the land.
This is not to say that they were without their own logistical
problems. The disproportionate size of Southern industry
and agriculture, mainly cotton, coupled with threats to and
losses of logistically critical areas such as Richmond, Atlanta,
and Petersburg meant that the rebel armies had to be more frugal
with their supplies. Poor management of their limited
resources, the systematic loss of their own transportation system,
and the Union blockade all made the Southern logistical effort
weaker than the industrialized North. But despite these
setbacks, the Confederates did not lose a single battle or campaign
due to logistical failures until the very end of the war.
McPherson claims that General Grant did not fight a war
of attrition but it was General Lee who employed this destructive
strategy. On page 734 of his book Battle Cry of Freedom,
Grant’s purpose was not a war of attrition —
though numerous historians have mislabeled it as such.
From the outset he tried to maneuver Lee into open field combat,
where Union superiority in numbers and firepower could cripple
the enemy. It was Lee who turned in into a war of attrition
by skillfully matching Grant’s moves and confronting him with
an entrenched defense at every turn. (McPherson, 734)
Attrition implies that one side uses its superior manpower,
finances, and industrial advantages to wear down the enemy until
it surrenders. Not only did Grant fight a war of attrition
but with an attrition mentality mixed with a “total war” attitude.
For the very reason the Lee confronted him with entrenchments
caused Grant to resort to attrition. Furthermore, it was
the rifled muskets discussed earlier that led Lee to assume
trench defense and thus dragging out the war in bloody carnage.
What made possible this increased use of an old concept?
Prior to the Civil War, entrenchment tools were expensive and
hard to mass produce. Blacksmiths forged out spades independently
making their availability very limited and therefore digging
trenches was not an easy endeavor for an army. By the
time a trench system was accomplished, the army would pick up
and move, leaving their hard work behind them. With the
introduction of mass-produced spades, armies were now able to
quickly entrench themselves and require a higher ratio of attackers
to dislodge them from their earthwork. (Fuller, 104-105)
Grant had no choice but to engage in the attrition strategy
when faced with Lee’s persistence to dig in and repel wave after
wave of assault. Because the defense is stronger that
the offense (fueled by the increased lethality of the rifle),
no less that a 3 to 1 advantage to Grant could guarantee victory.
Benefiting from the perfected supply system over conquered territory,
Grant could continue to feed his war machine with men and supplies
until Lee’s forces simply wore out. Therefore the innovation
of the rifle discussed above resulted in Lee’s perseverance
while the logistical advantages of railroads enabled Grant to
overcome and emerge victorious.
Many factors leading up to and during the American Civil
War converged to create fertile conditions for innovations.
These innovations, in turn, changed the strategies and policies
of each side through out the entire conflict.
One of thee most dramatic and far-reaching innovations was
the rifle and the new bullets it used. By increasing the
range and lethality of each shot, the physical dimensions of
the battlefield were expanded. Artillery’s role had to
be remodeled. The centuries-old reign of cavalry on the
battlefield abruptly ended, and the huddled formations of advancing
infantry were replaced by trench warfare.
Naval inventions also changed the landscape of warfare during
the Civil War. With a single battle between the Merrimac
and the Monitor, the wooden fleets across the world became instantly
The widespread use of railroads made the Southern battles possible
by enabling the North to supply logistics quickly. While
the railroad provided a logistical lifeline never before seen
in its success, it turned the war into a series of battles
based on control of logistical lines.
Because Grant enjoyed this continued supply, he was able
to partake in a war of attrition. If the South could have
succeeded in cutting of the Northern supply trains, the Union
would have had no choice but to go home. Instead, the
Union continued to enjoy railroad shipment after railroad shipment
that fed their destruction of Confederate armies. Consequently,
the Confederates resorted to trench warfare in order to take
advantage of the defensive advantage but only succeeded in protracting
an already costly and bloody war.
Lee could not survive a war of attrition and it is questionable
to insinuate that his plan was to attrit Grant’s army.
With the overwhelming superiority in men, weapons, and supplies,
Grant could have withstood many more losses than Lee could and
Lee resorting to trench warfare showed that he had to find ways
to make up the uneven match between armies. It was Grant
who all but defined the concept of attrition warfare by seeking
open battle. He knew he could decimate the Confederate
line even at the cost of equal or increased Union losses.
When Lee wisely insisted on refusing battle, he only succeeded
in delaying the inevitable. The Confederates had lost
the war and the Union had used the innovations of the day in
weapons and logistics to overcome a tenacious enemy.
1. Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War. London: Eyre
& Spottiswoode, 1961.
2. Koenig, Alan. Civil War railroads did far more
than simply transport soldiers and supplies to the battlefield
[Online] 17 November 2001. <http://www.thehistorynet.com/AmericasCivilWar/articles/09962_text.htm>.
3. Macksey, Kenneth. For Want of a Nail : The Impact
of War on Logistics and Communications, Book News, Inc: Portland,
4. McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford
University Press: New York, 1988.
5. Safir, Ruben I. The USS Monitor [Online] 1998.
6. Weigley, Russell. The American Way of War. Indiana
University Press: Bloomington, 1973.