The American Civil War, which occurred in an industrialized nation in the middle of the nineteenth century, is a remarkable window on the technologies of the steam age and their usefulness in war. And though one might well debate the accuracy of calling the Civil War the “first modern war” (a popular title for it in some circles), there is a reason why there is such a strong association between the Civil War and the concept of modern war. Like the Crimean War before it, aspects of the Civil War anticipated the structures of wars to come in the twentieth century.
Because of this cross between anticipation of future wars and Victorian-era technology, the American Civil War is a wonderful and fertile ground for exploring steampunk in the midst of an historical event. And while great mechanical monstrosities and terrifying super-weapons are all well and good, a study of history shows them to be unnecessary for the purposes of Civil War steampunk. The historical fact often reads like fiction, and with only a slight heightening of the application of certain technologies, this “war between the states” quickly takes on a steampunk appearance.
One thing that has consistently set modern wars apart from pre-industrial conflicts is the issue of mobility. Cavalry has traditionally been fast and mobile, but even cavalry-heavy armies are still tied to their supply lines, which are far slower. The difficulties inherent in moving supplies, infantry, and artillery across land (now solved by the use of motor vehicles and air transport) first found an industrial-age solution in that most iconic image of the steam age, the railroad. During the Civil War, rail transportation was used primarily within friendly territory, owing to the vulnerability of train tracks and depots, but this meant that massive numbers of soldiers could be moved from one place to another in a fraction of the time required by marching or wagons. For the South, this meant the possibility of counteracting superior Northern numbers through the use of interior lines to shift a concentration of forces from one battlefield to another. For the North, this ultimately meant that the fruits of industrial society (mass production and a proportionally larger population) could be marshaled and then brought to bear quickly enough to have a direct effect on the war effort.
As in all conflicts, the Civil War was affected by the problem of how to transmit orders from commanders down to their subordinates, and how to send information on the situation in the field back up the chain of command. In the mid-nineteenth century, the new technology of the electronic telegraph suddenly made it possible to communicate almost instantly over vast distances. President Lincoln capitalized on this new technology to a remarkable degree, corresponding with his generals, and sometimes even subordinate officers, as he issued orders from the top and assembled information on battlefield conditions. The possibilities provided by the telegraph, if expanded to be more prevalent, are an excellent place to start Civil War steampunk with an advanced level of telecommunications.
While the Civil War was not the first war to feature war correspondents (that distinction goes to the Crimean War only a few years earlier), they were present in the American conflict to a previously unseen degree. In addition to news reporters (who could pose a significant risk to military secrecy), photographers allowed the grim reality of the battlefield to be carried back to the home front in ways that could not have been imagined half a century before.
While air combat and military airships would not come into use until the turn of the century, the Civil War witnessed a remarkable advancement in the application of air power to help decide the outcome of battles. Balloons had initially been used for scouting purposes prior to the Civil War, but in a piecemeal fashion. In contrast, the Union formed a specific Ballooning Corps intended for use scouting enemy positions and movements in an organized and strategically viable manner (incidentally, this led to the creation of the first aircraft carrier, a ship used for tending balloons on the Potomac River). While the project was ultimately shut down midway through the war, had it remained in place and been expanded to its full potential, it would have been a real-life example of the steampunk dream of a nineteenth century air force.
Although the machine gun would not be adopted as a standard military weapon until later in the century, the Civil War saw the development and limited use of this incredible and destructive piece of hardware. Richard Gatling’s automatic weapon is undoubtedly the most famous and effective of the pre-Maxim machine guns, but there were others as well, such as the Agar “coffee mill” gun, so named because its loading port resembled the kind of wide hopper used in coffee grinders. The Gatling was by far the most effective, as it completely integrated and enclosed the loading process, while others required multiple parts to be loaded separately. The machine gun’s limited use demonstrated its terrible effectiveness, but it was never put into large-scale application during the war. Had the new technology been applied to its full potential, the devastation would likely have been tremendous.
The lethality of combat in the Civil War was compounded by the use of quick-loading rifled muskets using the Minié ball, which allowed soldiers to fire with the same speed as a non-rifled musket but with the accuracy and range of a rifle. Though this technology was significant, it had already been adopted as standard by the armies of France and Britain a decade earlier. Instead, America’s contribution to mid-century rifle development came in the form of repeaters, like the Volcanic, Henry, and Spencer Rifles. These weapons were breech-loaders (a technology implemented much earlier in weapons like the Dreyse needle gun) that combined this loading method with internal magazines capable of holding multiple cartridges. The result was a weapon capable of firing several shots in the time it would take a conventional infantryman to load and fire once. While repeating rifles were not widely adopted until after the war, the Spencer was employed by the Union forces for use with certain units such as cavalry.
The Civil War was not the first conflict to use trench lines, nor did it put them into effect on as large a scale as the First World War. Nevertheless, the application of trench warfare in the Civil War, limited though it was, proves to be a startling parallel to 20th century conflicts. In particular, the scale of entrenchment and counter-entrenchment during the Siege of Vicksburg was dramatic. The Confederate trenches that protected the rail line linking the cities of Richmond and Petersburg bring to mind the great entrenchment of the first World War’s western front, where trench lines extended far beyond the boundaries of cities, in order to prevent the movement of the enemy. Given the increased accuracy and lethality of rifled weapons during the Civil War, the use of entrenchments and field fortifications were perhaps more necessary than most commanders gave them credit for.
One of the most iconic technological images of the Civil War is the ironclad warship. The battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, is one of the most famous engagements in the Civil War, even though its overall impact on the war was fairly negligible. The invention of ironclads predated the American conflict—they traced their lineage back to French armored floating batteries deployed during the Crimean War, and the first true ironclad warship, France’s La Gloire, was launched in 1859—but the Civil War was the first time such ships were used in any quantity, primarily being deployed as river gunboats. Although the Monitor and Virginia were the most famous, both the Union and the Confederacy deployed numbers of these ships of varying classes and designs, especially in the western theatre of the war in the Mississippi region. These armored warships anticipated the future of naval warfare, but the most incredible futuristic development was likely the Monitor class’s revolving turret, a method for maximizing the efficient placement of guns still in use today.
All of the technologies available during the American Civil War prefigured later developments that would become standard in twentieth century conflicts such as the First World War. Although both the Union and Confederate armies were reluctant to fully adopt and adapt to these various inventions, the war clearly demonstrates their potential for application. The Civil War presents itself as a delightful case study into the steampunk genre, making it easy for authors and fans alike to explore how nineteenth century science fiction could have grown directly from historical fact.
G.D. Falksen is an author and historian who has spent years discussing the complexities of the 19th century world and its relationship to the steampunk genre. More information can be found on his Twitter and Facebook.