History

How American naval tech advanced during the Civil War

The land battles of the Civil War, like the Battle of Gettysburg, often draw much of the attention when discussing the war. And they should — many of these conflicts were massive in scope, accounting for tens of thousands of casualties.


However, the Civil War was also notable for the great leaps in naval technology that took place in just four years. At the start of the conflict, navies still relied on wooden ships powered by sails that used wind power to travel the seas. The wood was necessary, as it was light enough to be pushed by gusts at a decent speed.

The end of the Age of Sail: The frigate USS Cumberland is rammed and sunk by CSS Virginia on March 8, 1862. (Curier and Ives from Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of the conflict, ships were powered by coal-burning steam engines. This effectively liberated ships from the whims of the wind, allowing them to sail direct courses to their destinations. Even though the ships became heavier as a result, they would travel faster using a powerful engine.

The engines also allowed the ships to don armor to protect them enemy fire. Nowhere was that more evident than when the ironclad ram CSS Virginia attacked the Union fleet off Hampton Roads, Virginia.

These plans of USS Monitor show the advanced technology that the Navy adopted in the Civil War: Steam engines, iron armor, and a turret. (U.S. Navy photo)

Even the way naval armament was mounted changed, moving from lines of side-mounted cannon to two-gun turrets. In the old days, a ship had to turn to bring half their main battery's firepower to bear on the enemy. Turrets allowed a ship to hold its course and still bring all of its firepower to a fight.

USS Monitor was the first vessel to tie all these new technologies together. This made her the most powerful warship on the high seas from the time she entered the United States Navy to the time of her unfortunate sinking during a storm on Dec. 31, 1862.

Learn more about Civil War naval technology in the video below.

 

(Civil War Trust | YouTube)