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The American Civil War

The American Civil War is widely regarded as the first great war of the industrial age. The impact of industrialization is most obviously seen in the introduction of new types of weapons, particularly at sea: the first battle between ironclads; the first ship sunk by a submarine; the use of mines (then called "torpedoes"). Except for the ironclads, however, these maritime innovations were too primitive or experimental to have much impact on the outcome.

The impact of industrialization upon the Civil War, it has been argued, was far more crucial on the logistic and strategic levels than in weapons deployed on the field of battle. Put in brief, the Civil War has been widely understood as a war between an industrial power--the North--and a largely pre-industrial society, that of the South. The contrast in their industrial capabilities showed most directly in the scale and conditions of their respective railroad networks.

We are interested in two aspects of this familiar analysis. First, was it true? Second, and more subtly, to what degree were contemporaries aware of it? To the first point we must return at the end of this essay; we will only pause here to note that the Union's industrial superiority has become, along with the Confederacy's structural internal weaknesses, the standard explanation for the outcome of the war. The second question is an interesting and important one in its own right; moreover, it bears upon the first. We have become accustomed to what may broadly be called an economic interpretation of war, and it is a modern commonplace that an industrial power has an overwhelming military advantage over a nonindustrial society. The more industrialized power can call upon both superior technology (e.g., advanced jet fighters) and upon a much greater and more reliable supply of materiel of all sorts.

However, in the mid-nineteenth century, industrialization and modern technology were too new to h...

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The American Civil War. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 22:36, November 30, 2021, from