Astride Two Ages: Technology and the Civil War Symposium

November 11, 2012

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

Military technology narrowly defined—weapons, equipment, accoutrements—formed a key part of the symposium. We were 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.

Watch videos from the symposium