Technological Advances in Agriculture and Industry

views updated

Technological Advances in Agriculture and Industry

The Civil War was the first "modern" war, in terms of its weaponry. Torpedoes, land mines, machine guns, ironclad ships all made their first appearance in the 1860s. But technological advances that helped determine the war's outcome went beyond military innovations. Some technological innovations did help the military effort. Others had no military value but created an economic value that was equally crucial.

It was the North that had the upper hand technologically when the Civil War began in 1861, and the North held that hand throughout the war. Both the North and the South were heavily dependent on agriculture. But in the South, agriculture was by far the key component of the economy. In the North, agriculture was important, but manufacturing was beginning to play a far greater role. By the time the Civil War began, the north had more than 110,000 factories; the South had only 18,000 (Stewart 2000, p. 15).

Cotton and the South's Agrarian Heritage

The South was not bothered by its agrarian character; in fact, it embraced it. In his inaugural address as President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis noted with no small amount of pride that Southerners are "an agricultural people—whose chief interest is the export of a commodity required in every manufacturing country" (Davis 1861). That commodity was cotton, and it was cotton more than anything else that determined the South's adherence to slavery.

References to "King Cotton" were no exaggeration: The cotton industry brought $100 million into the South annually (Stewart 2000, p. 45). To cultivate, King Cotton required human energy, and the cheapest and most plentiful form of human energy came in the form of slaves.

Because the South had always relied on cheap slave labor, it never bothered to mechanize its farming production. In the North, the Industrial Revolution had come full force and there was no financial need for slaves. In the largely agrarian South, by contrast, to abandon the slave system would not only break the plantations financially, it would let loose an entire new work force in the form of freed slaves, who might work for less than their white counterparts.

One observer, a writer named Samuel Powell pointed out in Notes on Southern Wealth and Northern Profits (1861) a key reason why slavery was never abandoned in the South for more technologically advanced means of farming: "A great secret of the productiveness of slave labor is that the tiller of the soil is nourished with the simplest, the coarsest, and the grossest fare" (p. 7). "The slave system," he continued, "builds no cities, few mills, few ships; it does little for common roads and bridges, canals, manufactures, trade, or commerce of its own—its gifts and its mission do not seem to lie in that way" (p. 8).

A Serious Miscalculation

The South believed—mistakenly, as it turned out—that its dominance of the cotton market would help it in two ways: First, the lack of cotton for Northern textile mills would put them into an economic tailspin and force them to make peace and accept the secession of the Confederacy. Second, countries like the United Kingdom, which used large quantities of cotton, would want to ally themselves with the South to ensure an uninterrupted supply.

What happened instead was that Northern textile mills substituted cotton with wool and began manufacturing woolen goods—which had added the benefit of producing record profits for sheep farmers (Catton 1971, p. 172). Meanwhile, Britain actually had a surplus of cotton at the start of the Civil War and thus had no reason to take sides in another nation's domestic battle (Stewart 2000, p. 16). The cotton surplus did not last, of course, and other countries besides the United Kingdom relied on Southern cotton. But as the war dragged on, the foreign markets decided to look elsewhere for their cotton, and they increased imports from India, South America, and Egypt (Danbom 2006, p. 115). This turn of events was a blow to the South, which simply lacked the means or the knowledge to create its own industrial boom.

Technology's Role in Agriculture

Many of the implements and devices used during the Civil War had been around for some time, but the presence of cheap labor in the North, as well as the South, kept farmers from taking any real interest in automation. As the Civil War drew thousands of young men and boys away from their homes and farms, it became clear that labor-saving devices might turn out to be a necessity.

Cyrus McCormick's reaper was developed in the 1830s and mass-produced beginning in the 1840s. It essentially increased the speed of cutting wheat by as much as fivefold. A farmer could clear a 15-acre field of wheat in a day with a McCormick reaper and just eight men. Using sickles or cradles (the older way), the farmer would need fifteen men (Danbom 2006, pp. 110–111). Because of the vast increase in productivity, farmers were able to satisfy the national need for wheat, and also to cater to a growing overseas demand for grains. Just before the Civil War, the United States was exporting eight million bushels of wheat per year; by the middle of the war, that number had risen to 27 million bushels per year (Danbom 2006, p. 111).

Other devices that were either created or perfected during the Civil War included improved plows, a corn planting machine, steam-driven threshing machines, and a two-horse cultivator (Catton 1971, p. 172). Those machines that had been driven by oxen in the past were now being driven by horses; the streamlined machines called for animals that were themselves more streamlined; faster and more efficient than the reliable but lumbering ox (Danbom 2006, p. 111).

Drawing the Country Closer Together

The Union government was concerned with more than mending the rift with the South. Expanding the nation's boundaries west of the Mississippi was a key concern, and new and existing technology was used to make this goal more reachable. Using relatively new technologies to assist in wartime efforts made those technologies more familiar and also more easy to assimilate into civilian use.

The telegraph had been invented by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1844, and its presence during the war provided something that to that point had been impossible to imagine: the ability to send news quickly from one point to another and, in this case, directly from the battlefield. Telegraph operators would travel with the troops and set up their equipment on the battlefield to send news, which could be reviewed by the government and by the press. A series of drawings in the January 24, 1863 edition of Harper's Weekly shows how the telegraph operators would move their equipment and send telegraphic messages once it was set up safely. During the course of the war, some 1,100 telegraph operators accompanied the troops, a number of which lost their lives along with the soldiers (Plum 1882, p. 376).

Photography, still new at the start of the Civil War, proved to be one of the most effective ways of capturing not only the events of the war but also the grim mood of the participants (Mindell 2000, p. 4). Photographers, the best known of which is Mathew Brady, accompanied the troops to the battlefields, often capturing the devastation left behind after particularly brutal fights.

Trains helped carry supplies to the troops during the Civil War, and extending rail service to the Pacific coast was considered essential to the economic expansion of the United States. Congress passed two Pacific Railroad Acts during the Civil War, one in 1862 and one in 1864. These acts extended rail service to Sacramento, California and Portland, Oregon. Without these railroads, it is doubtful that the Great Plains would have become an agricultural resource (Danbom 2006, p. 112).

Less glamorous, but nonetheless important, inventions also proved their value during the war. Signal flares, used by the U.S. Navy, were the invention of Martha Coston, who carried on the work of her late husband in perfecting the flares' performance. She patented the flares and sold the rights to the Union government, also acquiring the contract to manufacture the flares (Macdonald 1992, p. 182).

Although neither side could know it at the time, one legacy of the Civil War was that it served as a catalyst for a new national direction that would increasingly rely on machines and technology for economic growth and expansion.


"The Army Telegraph: Setting Up the Wire During an Action." Harper's Weekly, January 24, 1863, p. 53.

Catton, Bruce. The Civil War. New York: American Heritage Press, 1971.

Danbom, David B. Born in the Country: A History of Rural Life in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Davis, Jefferson. Inaugural Address of President Davis, Delivered at the Capitol, Monday, February 18, 1861, at 1 o'clock, p.m. Montgomery, AL: 1861.

Macdonald, Anne L. Feminine Ingenuity: Women and Invention in America. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

Mindell, David A. War, Technology, and Experience Aboard the USS Monitor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Plum, William R. The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States. Chicago: Jansen, McClurg, & Company, 1882.

Powell, Samuel. Notes on "Southern Wealth and Northern Profits." Philadelphia: C. P. Sherman and Sons, 1861.

Stewart, Gail. The Civil War: Weapons of War. San Diego: Lucent Press, 2000.

George A. Milite

About this article

Technological Advances in Agriculture and Industry

Updated About content Print Article