Civil War and Industrial and Technological Advances

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The Civil War used the advances of the Industrial Revolution to foster great changes in industrial and technological development. Both the North and the South made use of advances in railroad and riverine transportation. The Union, however, was far more advanced technologically than the Confederate states. Consequently, the Union made greater and more effective use of progress in transportation, military medicine, and field artillery than did the Confederacy. Indeed, the industrial might of the Union states proved a major factor in the northern victory.

Historians generally agree that the Civil War was the first modern war, meaning the first in which technology and industrial strength played a significant role. But the nature of their industry and technology distinguished the two sides, which represented different economic conditions and ways of life.

The North had developed a mixed economy that was becoming increasingly industrialized. By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, large factories and facilities to house workers sprang up there. Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, had enormous textile mills employing hundreds of laborers, many of them women. Moreover, most of the prospering merchant shipping industry was located in the North.

The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of great expansion and improvement of transportation

systems, again, mainly in the North and upper Midwest. States chartered and built overland roads and turnpikes. Canals, such as the 364-mile Erie Canal, tied New York City to the Great Lakes in 1825. Steamboats and railroads improved the movement of goods and people, forging ties that served both sides well during the Civil War. Better transportation fostered increasing trade within the country but brought little government regulation.

To be sure, the industrial revolution fostered social problems. Urban poverty became a growing concern. Factory wages were scarcely adequate for family survival, and many urban residents experienced hunger and destitution. Among the poor, child labor was common. Southerners often cited these factors as well as urban crime whenever the North challenged its institution of slavery. White southerners claimed that their slaves were far better off than were wage workers in the North.

The Industrial Revolution brought Southern landowners an invention that they adopted and embraced: the cotton gin. The cotton gin made slavery profitable and made cotton the nation's number one export before the Civil War. The South also adopted the steam engine, mainly to aid the cotton gin and to use on steamships to transport cotton. Ironically, the success of the cotton gin, by fostering slavery, helped to separate the two sides of the country and bring about the Civil War.

The federal government began to encourage agriculture and science well before the Civil War, though its efforts were generally modest. For example, in 1839, Congress voted $1,000 for the patent office to collect agricultural statistics and conduct investigations for promoting agriculture and rural economy. In 1829, a French-born Englishman and scientist, James Smithson, left his fortune to the people of the United States (about $500,000 in the currency of the day) to found an institution for the greater "increase and diffusion of knowledge." President Andrew Jackson announced this bequest in September 1835. After some wrangling between northern and southern senators, the money was accepted and used to found the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1846.

The pace of immigration also stimulated economic growth while increasing differences between North and South. Immigrants, mostly from Europe at this time, supplied low-cost labor and had an enormous impact on the Industrial Revolution in America. Most immigrants settled in the North where jobs were available. The use of standard, interchangeable parts, especially important in the manufacture of guns, clocks, and sewing machines, allowed the nation to advance technologically by using unskilled workers. The pace of immigration slowed during the Civil War but the North's victory in 1865 and the growing demand for cheap and plentiful labor increased the flow of immigration in the post war years.

Also aiding economic expansion in the North and Midwest was the mechanization of farming. By 1861, 125,000 McCormick reapers manufactured between 1856 and 1861 were in use, mostly in Northern states. During the Civil War, another 230,000 reapers were sold. Wartime devastation led to increased demand for agricultural mechanization by the 1870s. The number of farms in the country increased greatly in the post war years, as did industrial expansion in general.

During the Civil War, with Southern members of Congress gone and the Republican Party controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, the government set about to aid business and technology. In 1862, the Department of Agriculture was founded. It provided a national center to coordinate agricultural development and promote scientific farming. Additionally, scientific farming received a further boost from the idea of land grant colleges through the Morrill Act, which Congress passed that same year. It provided federal land for colleges in order to stimulate agricultural and technical development and represented a new role for the federal government. When the war ended, the practical results of the Morrill law became evident.

Industrialization and technology that helped ensure Northern victory continued after the war. The United States began to make enormous strides in the world of science, technology, and industry. Many pre-Civil War institutions and initiatives continued through the Gilded Age in the late nineteenth century. Robber Barons made use of growing concentrations of business capital and of the nation's extensive natural resources. Cheap immigrant labor again flooded the nation's markets, enabling the building of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, of more factories, and of America's expanding cities. The Civil War furthered the expansion of the Industrial Revolution and eventually made the United States the most powerful industrialized nation in the world.


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Frank A. Salamone and

Sally G. McMillen

See also:Medicine and Health; Railroads.

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Civil War and Industrial and Technological Advances

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Civil War and Industrial and Technological Advances