Astride Two Ages: Technology and the Civil War

Travis panorama: Union forces and wagons crossing on a pontoon bridge

Toward the end of the Civil War, William D.T. Travis was commissioned to paint a 32-panel, 500-foot long panorama to commemorate the service of Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland. Panel 17 shows the army crossing the Tennessee River early in September 1863 on its way to Chattanooga.

A Smithsonian Institution Civil War Sesquicentennial Symposium
9–11 November 2012


A symposium on technology and the American Civil War will comprise part of the Smithsonian Institution’s contribution to the war’s sesquicentennial commemoration. It will be hosted by the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, and will take place in the Warner Bros. Theater, 9–11 November 2012.

Military technology narrowly defined—weapons, equipment, accoutrements—will form a key part of the symposium. We are particularly interested in the way new or newly improved weapons affected the conduct of war at all levels. But that was only part of the story. Technological changes remote from the battlefield also shaped the conduct of war. Agricultural mechanization permitted larger armies to be fed; growing industries provided them with arms and supplies; steam-powered transport helped deploy and sustain them. The beginnings of mass production in some industries, notably small arms and clothing, made an appearance, as did new techniques of food preservation. So too did photography, telegraphy and various signal devices using flags and lamps, and aerial observation from fixed balloons. Yet here, as with narrower military technology, novelty hardly ruled unchallenged. Horses still mattered more than steam engines and more soldiers still died of disease than wounds.

Registration is free of charge, but we would like to know who’s coming. Please RSVP using this form.




Friday, 9 November, 6:30-7:30 pm

Keynote Address. Technology and the Civil War
Merritt Roe Smith (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)


Saturday, 10 November, 10:15-12:15

Session 1. Technology on the Battlefield
The Captain and the Professor: Inventing the Parrott Gun before the Civil War
Steven A. Walton (Michigan Technological University)

“Quaker Gun” vs. Observation Balloon: Confederate Deception and Union Strategy
John Macaulay (Erskine College)

If You Can Be Seen, You Can Be Killed: Mechanical Fuzes and Rifled Artillery
Edward B. McCaul, Jr. (Ohio State University)

Progressive Entrenchment: The Rise of Trench Warfare in the American Civil War
Philip Shiman (Department of Defense) and David Lowe (National Park Service)


Saturday, 10 November, 12:15-1:30



Saturday, 10 November, 1:30-3:00

Session 2. Communications, Front and Rear
The Portable Printing Press in the Civil War
Joan Boudreau (National Museum of American History)

Communication and Innovation in the American Civil War:
Comparison of Union and Confederate Implementation of Telegraph Technology
John Miller (Georgia Institute of Technology)

Command, Control, and Communications during the American Civil War:
Information Flows and Field Armies
Seymour E. Goodman (Georgia Institute of Technology)


Saturday, 10 November, 3:00-3:30



Saturday, 10 November, 3:30-5:30

Session 3. Naval Technology
USS Cumberland—Why She Really Lost to CSS Virginia on 8 March 1862
Gordon Calhoun (Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

From Chicora to David:
Confederate Naval Construction in 1862 and 1863 Charleston, South Carolina
Charles Wexler (Auburn University)

Southern-built Iron:
The Union Blockade and the Confederate Ironclads’ Constructed to Break It
Jesse Heitz (King’s College London)

“Five of These Will Conquer any Ironclad”:
The Spar Torpedo Boat in the American Civil War
Jorit Wintjes (University of Würzburg)


Sunday, 11 November, 10:15-11:45

Session 4. Science and Invention
“Great Changes Were Necessarily Consequent”:
The Coast Survey, the Civil War, and the Cartographic Revolutions of the 19th Century
John Cloud (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Astride Two Ages: The Civil War and the Transformation of Cartography
Susan Schulten (University of Denver)

Civil War Planes: Dreams of Aerial Navigation, 1861–1865
Tom D. Crouch (National Air and Space Museum)


Sunday, 11 November, 11:45-1:00



Sunday, 11 November, 1:00-3:00

Session 5. Manufacturing, Medicine, and Death
Between Home Front and Battlefield: Clothing Manufacture in the Civil War Era
Sarah Jones Weicksel (University of Chicago)

A Blot on the Army: Veterinary Care in the Union Cavalry, 1861–1865
David J. Gerleman (Papers of Abraham Lincoln)

From Bureaucracy to Efficiency:
Technological Reform of the U.S. Army Medical Bureau and Soldier Care during the Civil War
Jeffrey Larrabee (National Guard Bureau)

Miracles Abounding:
Civil War Deaths, Technology, and the Changing Nature of Religious Belief in Postbellum America
Kent A. McConnell (Phillips Exeter Academy)