News | Sept. 13, 2022

The Civil War and Revolutions in Naval Affairs: Lessons for Today

By David C. Gompert and Hans Binnendijk Strategic Monograph

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The Civil War and Revolutions in Naval Affairs: Lessons for Today
The Civil War and Revolutions in Naval Affairs: Lessons for Today
The Civil War and Revolutions in Naval Affairs: Lessons for Today
Photo By: NDU Press
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At certain times, owing to new strategy, new technology, or the vagaries of war, the character of naval warfare and course of naval history undergo rapid, profound, and lasting change. Our thesis is that the American Civil War was one such time. It was the seminal revolution in naval affairs in the history of the United States. With its existence at stake, the Union doubled down on its plan to blockade the Confederacy even as the demands of doing so became clear. What followed was an American revolution in naval affairs with worldwide implications for the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

The war began suddenly, with South Carolina’s secession coming a mere month after Abraham Lincoln’s election. Hostilities commenced before North or South was prepared for what would come. As strategies took shape and requirements became clear, both sides scrambled to assemble experienced officers, recruits, and ships. Within a year, the inadequacies of these off-the-shelf capabilities forced leaders of both sides to find new ways of operating, new technologies offering better capabilities, and stellar leaders, all at once. Because the Union’s naval strategy was the more ambitious, and its technological and industrial capacities the more prodigious, it drove the Civil War’s naval revolution. Yet the Confederacy was so overmatched on water that it had to improvise tactics and weapons, some of them also revolutionary.

At the center of this revolution was the dramatic transition from old warships to new ones. Standard prewar “ships-of-the-line” were wooden-hulled, largely wind-dependent, and laden with large numbers of inaccurate broadside guns.1 By the war’s end and after, warships were sheathed in metal, propelled by steam-driven propellers, and equipped with fewer but much better guns mounted in movable turrets. In contrast with old ships, new ones were more maneuverable, versatile, survivable, lethal, and immune to currents and winds. They could operate in narrow and shallow inland waters, as their missions required. Soon, the sails that had replaced oars a millennium earlier were relegated to history.

The Civil War’s naval revolution began because the Union’s strategy was adopted before the capabilities needed to execute it were fully understood, much less at hand. Yet, before long Northern squadrons would be pummeling shore batteries to destroy Southern forts, control Southern harbors, and close Southern ports. Union gunboats would conduct amphibious landings, convoy troop ships, and wage riverine warfare. More accurate guns fired faster and caused greater destruction of intended targets.

As guns improved, the possession of ironclads became urgent, whereupon the difficulty of disabling ironclads prompted further improvements in guns. When the Confederacy deployed ironclads, the Union answered with more and better ones, which the Confederacy answered with the first combat submarine. As the efficacy of new capabilities became plain, the Union scaled up production at an unprecedented clip. This was possible because the Industrial Revolution was sweeping the North, while the South was preoccupied with growing cotton and using enslaved people to pick it.

In the era that followed the Civil War, its revolution in naval affairs would influence other navies, not least the British Royal Navy and Imperial German fleets that fought the Battle of Jutland in 1916. For its part, the United States, after recovering from the Civil War and stretching to continental width, would combine innovations made by both sides and aspire realistically to become a global sea power, as advocated by Alfred Thayer Mahan in The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783.2 American industry repeatedly rose to the task: the Union mobilization of 1861–1865 previewed that of 1917–1918.

Three other significant naval revolutions would follow, notably those brought about by the aircraft carrier following World War I, nuclear propulsion following World War II, and digital information networking in support of joint power projection, dramatized by the Gulf War. As this monograph is being written, the table is set for a fifth major naval revolution, as part of a revolution in joint all-domain warfare, necessitated by China’s growing military strength in the vital Asia-Pacific region.

There is no better time than now to learn lessons from examination of the Civil War’s naval revolution and those that followed. And no lesson is more urgent than the leverage of leadership. Even with clear strategy and requirements, promising technology, and commitment of industry, a wouldbe revolution headed up by risk-averse leaders, entrapped by bureaucracy and unwilling to slay politically sacred calves and buck Service tradition, will end up on the shoals. Sustaining America’s naval and military superiority today will take inventiveness and fortitude akin to what Union leaders displayed to preserve the Nation.

Our purpose is not to explain why naval superiority helped the Union win the war—historians James McPherson, Kevin Dougherty, and others have done that well.3 Nonetheless, it is useful for our purpose to examine how well the revolutionary capabilities of the Civil War performed relative to the demands of the battles and campaigns of the times. As we will see, they performed immeasurably better than those they replaced could have.

The Civil War revolution in naval affairs involved six distinct but related elements:

  • Fighting an unanticipated war required a new strategy.
  • That strategy in turn created new operational tasks and concepts of operation to execute those tasks.
  • New emerging technologies had to be identified and harnessed to meet these requirements.
  • These technologies then needed to be forged into useful capabilities, and operational concepts were further adjusted as those capabilities emerged.
  • Industrial mobilization was needed to turn new capabilities into a larger capacity to act across thousands of miles of water and shore.
  • Innovative leadership was required to encourage and support this entire process.

The relationship between strategy and technology is as fluid as it is complex. Sometimes, new strategy demanded by changing geopolitical realities presents demands that can only be met by developing new or exploiting existing technologies in revolutionary ways. Alternatively, exogenous technological change can excite thinking about capabilities to improve strategy. Often, both strategy-pull and technology-push are at work, which was evident in the Civil War and is so again today. At the nexus of strategy and technology are operating concepts—ways of using force—which are necessitated by strategic change and enabled by technological change. These, in turn, inform plans and programs to improve or replace capabilities. This innovation system is scaled up by mobilizing industry and driven by empowering bold leaders.

This formula for a revolution in naval affairs remains valid to this day.