Disruptive Civil War Technology

If you manage any type of business, you likely have heard the term, “disruptive technology.” The term was first defined by Clayton Christensen in a 1995 Harvard Business Review article1 as having the following qualities.

  • A disruptive technology supersedes an older process, product, or habit.
  • It usually has superior attributes that are immediately obvious, at least to early adopters.
  • Upstarts rather than established companies are the usual source of disruptive technologies.

It is pretty easy to list some of these that have happened in the past few years: GPS, smartphones, Uber, blockchain… However, disruptive technologies have always been with us. I can easily imagine when prehistoric man discovered that he could hold his animal skins together by threading them with the gut of an animal rather than pinning them together with bird bones. He had found a way to pull the “thread” with another bone tool, and behold, sewing became a disruptive technology.

There was one technology developed prior to the Civil War that became a disruptor with deadly consequences.

A bit of background2… The primary battle tactic at the beginning of the Civil War was the same as in the Revolutionary War and was known as Napoleonic tactics. Infantry fought in “line of battle.” Soldiers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and marched or ran to the attack. This approach made sense given the inaccuracy of muskets and cannons at the time. We know the admonition of William Prescott at the battle of Bunker Hill; “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Muskets were only accurate to 50-75 yards, so it was wise to wait until the enemy was within that range. Infantry fired in volley, and it took 20 to 30 seconds to reload and fire again. Even though the first volley took down many of the enemy, the attacker had 20 seconds to rush the defense before they could fire another volley; plenty of time to cover 50 yards.

As the Civil War continued into the second and third years, disruptive technology appeared that countered Napoleonic tactics. This was the Minie 3ball and the rifled musket. The Minie ball was a true innovation from the round balls in use at the time. Round musket balls fit tight to the barrel to seal the discharge and maximize muzzle velocity, and with accumulation of discharge residue a lot of ramrod force was required to drive the ball home. The Minie ball was heavier and conical in shape which gave it better aerodynamics, with a conical depression in the back and three or four grooves in the circumference. The diameter of the Minie ball allowed it to fit loosely in the barrel and would fall all the way to the powder charge and when rammed, the powder would be forced into the conical space. When the musket was fired, the explosion expanded the skirt of the Minie ball tight to the rifling of the barrel, sealing the discharge and increasing muzzle velocity by two or more times. These two advances alone increased the accurate range of a competent infantryman from 100 yards to 500 yards.

The consequences of the heavier, higher velocity bullet caused wounds much more severe that those of the round musket ball. Where the musket ball could be easily deflected, and often did not penetrate deeply, the Minie ball ripped through the body shredding everything in its path. One of the reasons that Civil War amputation was so common was because bones hit by a Minie ball were not just broken, but completely shattered.

It is easy to see the potential devastation when one army could kill from a quarter-mile away while the opposition had to get within the length of a soccer pitch.

The 1861 Springfield used by the Union and the Pattern 1853 Enfield used by the Confederacy were the weapons of choice. Over 1 million 1861’s were produced by the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, but the Enfield imported from England was in short supply, it failed often and was difficult to repair. This discrepancy in weapons created a large advantage for the Union, and allowed them to largely abandon Napoleonic battle tactics.

Arms evolution continued. In May, 1862 the premier light infantry of the Union Army, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters was equipped with the breach-loading Sharps rifle. This rifle allowed a firing rate five-times that of the Springfield to 8 – 10 per minute.

As the Civil War entered the summer of 1863, the Spencer repeating rifle was beginning deployment with Custer’s Michigan Brigade for use at Gettysburg. With a 7-round tube magazine, it could sustain fire in excess of 20 rounds per minute with a 500 yard effective range. This only widened the technology gap between the North and the South.

The Minie ball and rifle along with the refinements that followed was the most deadly disruptive technology for war until the atom bomb.

Is it fair to say that disruptive technology gave the Union the victory? Not really. There were so many tactical mistakes made by both sides that rifled muskets were not a consistent tactical advantage. However in the hands of well-trained troops commanded by smart officers the results were often decisive.

  1. Bower, Joseph L., and Clayton M. Christensen. “Disruptive technologies: catching the wave.” Harvard Business Review, vol. 73, no. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1995, pp. 43+. https://hbr.org/1995/01/disruptive-technologies-catching-the-wave. ↩︎
  2. Civil War Battle Tactics from The American Battlefield Trust ↩︎
  3. The Minié ball does not refer to its size, but the name of its inventor, Claude-Étienne Minié, ↩︎

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