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Civil War Trust

Technology and Casualties in the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg - www.civilwar.org

The battle of Gettysburg is famous for its role as the turning point of the Civil War that had seemed to favor the South up to that point and for being the battle with the most casualties of the war. Part of the reason for incredible casualty rate – some 46,000 to 51,000 in a battle that included roughly 165,000 – was that field medicine and medical practices at the time had not advanced nearly as quickly as the technologies of war had.

Some call the Civil War the first “modern war” because so many new technologies were premiered, developed, or perfected during the four-year engagement. To be sure, old standbys such as knives, swords, and bayonets played a role in the war, as did older muskets and cannons that had been around for decades. However, the Civil War also saw some of the first widespread use of the Gatling gun, faster-loading rifles with rifling in the barrels, and the new, deadlier ammunition called the min-ball.

This bullet revolutionized warfare because of its increased range and the havoc it wrecked on the human body, which field surgeons struggled to remedy. Later on in the war carbine rifles came into use, allowing soldiers to fire six or seven rounds before reloading at the breech. Though these rifles never overtook the standard musket for widespread use or number of casualties caused, they represented a significant technological advancement for the soldiers that had them.

Another relatively new technology played an important role in the war: the modern railway. Railroads had already been in use for years, supplying raw materials to factories, delivering manufactured goods to population centers, and agricultural products, mainly from the South, to cities. Once the war broke out, these relatively new supply routes began to provision armies. They moved large numbers of troops quickly and kept them fed and supplied across long supply lines during multi-year deployments. This facilitated the previously-unseen scale of the battles that defined the war.

In the case of technology that would show up on a detailed map of the Gettysburg battlefield, some of the most significant pieces of technology were breech-loading rifles and small arms, both major types of artillery, and the relatively newly organized ambulance corps. These two technologies saw some of their first major use at this huge battle. On the other hand, archaic medical practices were still present at the battle of Gettysburg, as were outmoded battle tactics that further pushed up the ghastly casualty rate. Battle lines evolved based on muskets with a range less than 100 yards. With both armies at Gettysburg continuing to form lines based on this paradigm, but many soldiers carrying rifles with an effective range close to 400 yards, the result was horrific.

As in the case of the battle of Gettysburg, many of the staggering figures that made the Civil War unique were a product of rapidly advancing weapons, juxtaposed against a lack of evolution in practices and techniques to keep soldiers alive.

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