American Civil War Considered the First Modern War; Ballooning, Communication & More


The U.S. Civil War is considered by many to be the first or beginning of modern warfare. Many elements, albeit in their infancy had the beginnings in the American Civil War.

Civil War Ballooning

Take aviation, few know that the first aviation units were Union observation balloons used to spot artillery and observe enemy movement. The Balloon Corps served from October 1861 to August 1863. These were hydrogen gas filled, not hot air balloons. Eight aeronauts where assigned to the Topographical Engineers under a civilian contract. There were small one-man balloons and larger balloons that were used and had a telegraph operator and keyset. Balloons operated tethered by cables to the ground. Little known fact is that the Civil War saw the first use of a naval carrier. The General Washington Park Custis, was a converted coal barge used for balloon operations and was positioned in place by tugs. Interesting is that fact that the U.S. is the premier aircraft carrier operator in the world today. Because of the effectiveness of the Union’s Balloon Corp, the Confederates tried hot air balloons using oil-soaked pinecones for fuel. Like most leading technologies the Balloon Corp was never widely accepted by the conservative military, and that lead in part to the ending of balloon operations in 1863.

Civil War Communication Technology

Communications, in a military sense carries to meanings. Signaling was via flags, drums and horns. But the Civil War added long range communications via the telegraph. Messengers were the only long-range method prior to the telegraph. Bugles and drums where close in signaling used by field commanders. Flags where used for open moderate range signaling. Heliograph (sun and mirrors) during the day and signal lamps at night extended communications, but line of sight only. The telegraph extended communications over the horizon and across mountains. Their downside they were subject to being cut or intercepted. The Confederates where known to climb telegraph poles hook up the sounders and intercept Union communications, thus cutting the lines.

Steamboats, Railroad & Other Transportation During the Civil War

Another Confederate tactic involved the theft and interception of the next military communications area, transportation. Armies need transportation to support logistics, the movement of troops and supplies. The steam locomotive played a major role in maintaining logistics, particularly for the Union forces and their extensive rail system. Steam power was a new aspect that dominated military logistics up through World War 1 tactically and strategically through mid to late twentieth century. The railroad accommodated rapid resupply and reinforcement of military operations. The Northern States had a more extensive railroad system than the South. But many trains served the Confederacy. The problem with railroads is that they are subject to interdiction. Confederate troops would tear up a miles of track. They would then use their horses to bend the tracks around trees, and thus rendering the spur unusable until repairs and new track where shipped in. They would also blow bridges, wreck water tanks (steam engines needed to resupply their water in the boiler every 100 miles or so) and other support structures for the railroads. This diverted Union troops to railroad security assignments and away from the battlefield. Not only the railroads but naval warfare was revolutionized by steam and exemplified by the Monitor and Merrimack ironclads. Extensively armored navy vessels where employed for the first time, and in the case of the Merrimack housed its primary weapons in a rotating turret. The Confederates where confounded when their naval artillery shells bounced off the Monitor’s hull and turret.

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