Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

Lincoln and the Technology of War

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Abraham Lincoln’s America was an ever changing nation that provided various opportunities for both citizens and immigrants. Inventions like the cotton-gin, photography, steamboat, and the telegraph changed how people worked and communicated. Some new inventions, like the cotton-gin, lead to the economic growth of the south and the heavy reliance on slavery. With new innovations came the hope for a better society. A better society filled with new science and more educational opportunities. However, the issue of slavery and states’ rights would soon lead to a great war, the Civil War. By the time the Civil War broke out, visionaries and lunatics were both promising Abraham Lincoln ways to end the war quickly. Lincoln’s open door policies allowed these types of people an audience with the President at least for the first two years of the war. The Civil War was more than a war between the north and south. It was a conflict to preserve the Union. Abraham Lincoln believed in this with his whole heart. Even though military strategy was not his strong suite at the beginning of the war, he was able to help conduct a very high-tech Civil War. If he truly believed in a new weapon, he would find a way to get it to the troops. The same old strategies and maneuvers that had been used in the past needed to be analysis and replaced because of innovations. The printed telegraph messages, long-haul railroads, and many other innovations played a major role in the war. In order to save the Union, Abraham Lincoln had to utilize more than the old strategies and technologies of past. He had to look towards innovation. Abraham Lincoln was able to view new technology being tested at the Navy Yard. In some cases people would seek Abraham Lincoln out to showcase a new innovation. Abraham Lincoln was constantly at the telegraph office using it to keep in touch with generals that were on the battlefield. As president, commander, and chief, Lincoln relied on America’s vast tool box of technology in order to make us whole again.

Lincoln "the inventor"

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We are constantly reminded of Lincoln's famous words:
"Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way."

U.S. Patent Office Lincoln’s Patent "The patent system . . . secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things." — Abraham Lincoln, Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, Jacksonville, Illinois, February 11, 1859. All creation is a mine, and every man a miner. The whole earth, and all within it, upon it, and round about it, including himself … are the infinitely various 'leads' from which, man, from the first, was to dig out his destiny. — Abraham Lincoln Opening sentences of lecture 'Discoveries and Inventions', (1860) In the world's history certain inventions and discoveries occurred of peculiar value, on account of their great efficiency in facilitating all other inventions and discoveries. Of these were the art of writing and of printing, the discovery of America, and the introduction of patent laws. The date of the first ... is unknown; but it certainly was as much as fifteen hundred years before the Christian era; the second—printing—came in 1436, or nearly three thousand years after the first. The others followed more rapidly—the discovery of America in 1492, and the first patent laws in 1624. — Abraham Lincoln Excerpt from the Lincoln Lecture 'Discoveries, Inventions and Improvements' Next came the patent laws. These began in England in 1624, and in this country with the adoption of our Constitution. Before then any man [might] instantly use what another man had invented, so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. The patent system changed this, secured to the inventor for a limited time exclusive use of his inventions, and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things. — Abraham Lincoln Lecture 'Discoveries, Inventions and Improvements' (22 Feb 1860) in John George Nicolay and John Hay (eds.), Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln (1894), Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power—that is, power to move things. Take any given space of the earth's surface— for instance, Illinois; and all the power exerted by all the men, and beasts, and running-water, and steam, over and upon it, shall not equal the one hundredth part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same space. And yet it has not, so far in the world's history, become proportionally valuable as a motive power. It is applied extensively, and advantageously, to sail-vessels in navigation. Add to this a few windmills, and pumps, and you have about all. ... As yet, the wind is an untamed, and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of it. — Abraham Lincoln Lecture 'Discoveries and Inventions', (1860) in Discoveries and Inventions (1915).

Lincoln the Scientist?

After receiving what claimed to be a more powerful type of gunpowder, Abraham Lincoln put it to the test. He wrapped some gunpowder paper and placed a live coal on it. After the sample quite burning, he stated, “There is too much left there.” He was very disappointed about the results of his experiment. Source: Browne, 502

The Crazy Nature of New Inventions

Abraham Lincoln was almost blown up in November of 1862. Little advance testing of new weapons occurred before the weapon demonstrations. The new innovation Lincoln was witnessing was a rocket. The rocket did not make it off the ground and blew up showering shrapnel on several people including Lincoln. Even though these “lunatics and visionaries” were creating some really good ideas, the ideas did not always translate to a “new and useful” weapon.


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“What became of our forces which held the bridge till twenty minutes ago..?” Telegraph message from Lincoln

Even at the start of the war, President Abraham Lincoln was able to utilize the new innovation of electronic communications. A thunder of cannon could be heard from the battlefield at Manassas by President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Manassas was only 30 miles outside of the capital. President Abraham Lincoln was very interested in hearing about updates from the battle, but Winfield Scott preferred to take a nap instead. The reason for this nap was that he was used to the fact that communication did not occur rapidly. This long held military tradition was outdated. During this battle, the two men received updates from the telegraph. The problem was that the telegraph line did not run all the way to the battlefield, so they used a hybrid approach. A messenger had to send updates by galloping 10 miles to the end of the telegraph line. The president and general received several updates throughout the battle. Even though Winfield Scott decided to take a nap, “Lincoln hardly left his seat in our office and waited with deep anxiety for each succeeding dispatch [sic],” recorded the manager of the War Department’s new telegraph office. What exactly was going through Lincoln’s mind might be a mystery. But he had to be upset with the lack of communication ability between the front lines and D.C. He could have been thinking of ways that he could better utilize the innovation of telegraphs. We do not know, but by the Second battle of Manassas only thirteen months later, Abraham Lincoln was actively involved with communication. He sent out a series of telegraphs in order to try and stay on top of the things that were going on during the battle. One message state, “What became of our forces which held the bridge till twenty minutes ago…?” Lincoln was open to the ideas of new technologies. By finding a unique way to communicate with his generals, he was able to become our “first electronic leader” according to Tom Wheeler.

The Path to an Instant Communication

The path to an instant communication network had several hurdles to overcome. The War Department did not have a telegraph line when the war broke out. In order to send a telegraph, they would have to go stand in line at Washington’s central telegraph office. This situation was unacceptable and wires were strung directly to the War Department, but not directly to the White House.

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New Warfare

New technology arises because of the act of war. During the Civil War, advancements in weapons were both a curse and a savior. New concepts and improvements occurred in a short time period. The results were mixed. Some new designs changed the face of warfare forever, while others did not pan out.

The battle between the states proved to be a brutal affair. Over 620,000 men died during the Civil War, that death total is more than all of America’s other wars combined. New innovations in the art of killing had a devastating effect on the military tactics that were being used by both sides. The Civil War scarred the landscape and the heart of America. War can be a catalyst for change.

After the war, people were left with countless wounds, physical and emotional. Civilians also suffered during the war and after. People faced death, starvation, and the destruction of battle. Disease was a major concern for everyone during and after the war.

The Stubborn Nature of Officers

Breechloaders were used during the early 1840s without success. These early breechloaders were not very reliable or safe. The reason was that gun makers did not have the technology to create such a precise weapon. The affects of this were that older officers created a prejudice against the innovation. Even after technological advance in the production, officers in the Civil War refused to use breechloaders. The stubborn nature of officers and bureaucrats proved to be very difficult hurdle for the new breed of breechloaders and even President Abraham Lincoln.

After months of delay in action by the chief of Ordnance, Abraham Lincoln finally stepped in and ordered twenty-five thousand breechloaders on October 14, 1861.

The Union Repeating Gun

It is hard to say who invented “the Union Repeating Gun”, but the two people who battle over the patent rights were Edward Nugent and William Palmer. While this skirmish over patent rights was taking place, J.D. Mills a gun salesman for Nugent was trying to convince Abraham Lincoln about the merit of the new innovation. This weapon was only a single rifled barrel, but had a breech mechanism with a hopper. The hopper was filled with .58-caliber paper cartridges. In order to fire the weapon, a crank had to be turned and the cartridge cases would drop through the grooves of the revolving cylinder. After Abraham Lincoln fired the new weaponry, he referred to it as a “Coffee Mill Gun.” The name stuck.

Even though it was a promising new weapon, the North needed to rely on battle tested and reliability weapons especially at the start of the war. A common belief at this time was the war would be over soon. Also, the entire operation could be jeopardized by experimental weapons. After the battle of Bull Run, Mills wrote Lincoln a letter and urged him to purchase the weapon. President Abraham Lincoln did not respond to the letter and sent it to the Ordnance Office. Even if an innovation showed promise, it took influence to obtain an order from the War Department for the construction of a new innovation.

J.D. Mills did not give up though and came to Washington with ten of his coffee-mill guns. President Abraham Lincoln hadn’t forgotten about him. By the end of the day, President Abraham Lincoln bought all ten of the guns. However, these weapons were very expensive at $1,300. Another issue was a question of reliability. One of the first ten guns had to be repaired at a cost of $172.91. By late 1861, fifty more of these new weapons would be purchased at $735. Colonel John Geary tested two of these guns, but stated that they were “inefficient and unsafe to the operators.” President Abraham Lincoln was willing to take responsibility for the purchase of new weapons like this because he was the only person to not try and hide behind old technology. Even if something failed, he was willing to at least try. Even though these types of machine guns were not used extensively during the Civil War, they have a place in modern military history for their destructive nature.

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A bulletproof chest protector

One inventor sent him an example of a cuirasse. It was not a new invention, but was the name of the steel breastplate worn by the heavy cavalry of European armies. Lincoln was not impressed and said, “Well, the inventor must be a queer ass to think a man could lug that thing on a march in a hot sun, or on the double-quick.”

Source: William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War-Times (New York: 1880), 20.


The idea of flamethrowers has been around for centuries. Abraham Lincoln only took one of these fire weapons seriously. Levi Short, an inventor, referred to his weapon as a modern version of “Greek Fire”. The gun used a thirteen-inch incendiary shell that would explode and burn for up to 10 minutes. Two public demonstrations of the new weapon occurred on the evening of January 14, 1862, but Abraham Lincoln was not impressed. The fire did not have a very large radius and did burn for long enough. He could not foresee any use for such a weapon in battle.

Levi Short did not give up. He rented part of house and created a workshop to make his “Greek Fire” from Mrs. Evalina D. Porter of Delaware. Mrs. Evalina D. Porter was the mother of Rear Admiral David D. Porter. He commanded the Mississippi squadron, who were equipped to throw the kind of shells that Levi Short was currently making. He was currently making an improved version of his cartridge that he referred to as “solidified Greek Fire”. The cartridge was made of tin cylinders that were three inches long and five-eighths of an inch in diameter.

A request was made by Admiral Porter for an order for ten gross of Short’s canisters for the Mississippi flotilla. The “solidified Greek Fire” was used during the battle of Vicksburg. A few of his shells was shot over the town and caused considerable damage. The battle was over really quickly and not many of the cartridges were used. However, Admiral Porter gave this new invention a glowing testimonial.

Private correspondence between Admiral Porter and his mother paint a different opinion on Levi Short.

I would be very glad to oblige you in the case of Short, but my conscience will not permit me to recommend his greek fire, which I Know to be good for nothing. If he wants me to do anything for him, let him first pay you what he owes you, and when I see the receipt I may perhaps change my mind.

Abraham Lincoln was right all along. “Greek fire” would put on a great fireworks show, but did not do much on the battlefield.

The Act of Bribes

Bribes were common during the Civil War. Inventors would set out to bribe generals in order to get their inventions into battle. By January 1862, Abraham Lincoln was losing both his patience with the art of the bribe and the unsavory nature of some inventors. Abraham remarked” witheringly that all the charlatans came to him with their worthless inventions because they knew he could be easily imposed on”. Even though this was totally out of character for Abraham Lincoln, it gives good insight into the phrase, “Lunatics and Visionaries”.


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For attorney Abraham Lincoln, the invention of trains proved fortunate. He had been riding the state judicial circuit for many years as a lawyer. These journeys were a way to make a living, but meant that he was away from home for up to six months out of the year. At this time travel was limited to horse dawn or horseback travel, boat travel or travel on foot. The new invention of trains provided a faster way to move around a state. Abraham Lincoln used them to be able to be home more with his family. During the 30s and 40s, the U.S. government gave subsidies and land grants for the formation of more railways. The trains became a vital part of the American way of life. As Lincoln’s law career was grew so did the innovation of trains. For that reason one of Lincoln’s clientele was the Illinois train companies.

Did you know?

*The first passenger train in the United States was known as the “Best Friend of Charleston”. It was a steam-powered train and carried 141 passengers a total of six miles in Charleston, South Carolina in 1830. Passenger trains soon sprung up in Baltimore and in Boston.

*By 1840, 2,800 miles of train track was in place in the United States. At the start of the Civil War, 30,000 miles of track were being used.

During the Civil War, trains became very valuable to both the North and South. They were strategic resources and an obvious military target. The North and South used trains to supply the war effort. They transported materials, food, and even soldiers. Especially in the North, trains were heavily relied on and one of the keys to success for the North. Two-thirds of the 30,000 miles of track were located in the North along with four-fifth of the manufacturing power. Abraham Lincoln was able to take full advantage of the North’s transportation and productive abilities.

Did you know?

*There were two hundred railroads in both the North and South. In the North, the rails were four feet eight and on-half inches apart. On the other hand, the South rail system was not as uniform. The gauges of the rails varied widely. A uniform system provided the North with an advantage.

*The first Battle of Bull Run was won by the South because they were able to use their rail system strategically. The battle occurred near the rail center of Manassas near the tributary known as Bull Run. A smaller southern force was able to defeat a larger northern force because the South was able to transport their troops to the battle by rail.

Railways and Telegraph Act of January 31, 1862

Corruption in the rail industry forced President Abraham Lincoln to enact the Railways and Telegraph Act of January 31, 1862. The northern railways were controlled by companies. Their executives were more concerned with rates and profits rather than the war effort. In order for the north to be able to fully utilize the rail systems, the President needed to be in control. This act allowed the president to take possession of the railroads and run them as required to preserve public safety. Even though this act went into place, few northern railroads were seized. However, the act forced the northern railroads to fall into line and help the war effort. It was a scare tactic that actually worked.

Military Strategy

The use of railways was so important for Union General William Sherman that he ordered the training of 10,000 troops in the art of railroad repairing. The reason for this was a military strategy to keep supplies moving in 1863. Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea” would not have been possible without the help of railway. His troops were very efficient at repairing tracks; it would take them usually on a day or two to repair the tracks that had been damaged by the Confederate forces. Another military strategy General William Sherman used when he reach Savannah was to destroy the South’s rail lines. The tactic they used was to heat the rails and bend them on a nearby tree. The “Sherman’s Bowties” were created. The south could not keep up with this type of destruction.


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19th century photography was still in its infancy when the Civil War broke out. As a military tool, it had little value. The only direct military use was to use photography to reproduce a few maps. The reason is that exposure times were so long. If a subject moved, the picture would blur. That means all the famous battlefield photos that we see today, were taken after the battle had already taken place. Photography provided an audience with a glimpse into an event or at a person. Instead of just relying on sketched drawings, a person could actually view a picture of a real person, place, and event.

"Home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war"

One of the first visionaries of photography was Mathew Brady. During the Civil War, he would take pictures of the aftermath of war. Dead bodies were the main subject in these photographs. Mathew Brady created an exhibition called, “The Dead of Antietam”. Even though it repulsed people, it did create sympathy for the Union cause. By creating powerful images of war, it made people realize that the war was real. Photography gave them a direct connection to a war that was mostly fought in the South. He was able to bring "home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," according the New York Times.

A Scene from a Photography Studio

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The innovation of photography created a new tool for people like Samuel Morse to explore. Samuel Morse is credited with bringing the innovation from France to America. One of his first apprentices was Mathew Brady.

After a year of learning the art of photography from Morse, Brady decided to strike out on his own and create his own photography studio. He designed his studio like a painter’s workshop, so employed a whole staff made up of various photographers, chemists, and even makeup artists. Mathew Brady had been plagued by poor eyesight since childhood, so it is said that he would set up the shot, but studio personnel would take the picture. They would pose their subjects in order to inject personality into the images. He was much like an artist of old, creating perfect images for the whole world to view. However, he was using the new medium of photography to produce his masterpieces.

“Carts de visite”

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Brady’s studio was extremely busy. Many of the soldiers wanted to show off their ranks and pose for pictures. At common custom during that time was to create “carts de visite”. These were tiny cards with photographs on them. Brady’s studio was able to produce them making Brady’s work more accessible to the general public.

Civil War and Brady

There are over 3,500 pictures of the Civil War bearing Brady’s name on them. Even though he did not actually take most of the pictures, his studio was either directly responsible for them or Brady purchased the pictures from other freelance photographers. Mathew Brady thought he had a responsibility to preserve these footnotes to history. He was able to galvanize an anti-war movement in the North because of his gruesome battlefield scenes that he put on exhibition.

“To preserve the faces of the historic men and mothers”

Mathew Brady was able to set up a second studio in Washington, D.C. in 1858. By moving to a place of power, he was able to take pictures of some of the more famous people of the era. He had great interest in taking pictures of the notables of the time period. Some of the notables were John Quincy Adams, Dolley Madison, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Jenny Lind, Sojourner Truth, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, William Cullen Bryant, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and two actors, Edwin Booth and his brother John Wilkes Booth.


Samuel Morse is credited with bringing photography to the United States. They type of photography was referred to as the Daguerreotype. Samuel Morris is more famously known for inventing the electric telegraph and Morse code.

"Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president"

During the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s opponents wanted the general public to believe that he was just a wild frontiersman. They created outlandish caricatured of him and used it as a political propaganda tool. In order to get his face out to a wide audience, the Republican Party sent Abraham Lincoln to Mathew Brady’s studio on Broadway in New York City on February 27, 1860. He was in town to give the Cooper Union address, one of his most important campaign speeches.

Mathew Brady was able to create the perfect picture of the presidential candidate even though Lincoln was very tall, gangly man with the rugged, clean-shaven face. In order to prevent him from looking so tall, Brady was able to pull his shirt collar so that Lincoln’s neck would not appear so long. Brady even retouched the picture during developed to make his facial lines no so harsh. This picture was used for engravings and reprinted in the major weeklies of the day (Harper’s Illustrated) and the campaign button. Abraham Lincoln later said, "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president."

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Acknowledgments and Thanks

This exhibit was made possible through the hard work of the following individuals and organizations.

Jonathan Smallwood: Guest Curator

Ashley Evans

Barbara Garman

Daniel Madison

Michelle Ganz

The National Firearms Museum—Douglas Wicklund

The Vicksburg National Military Park—Elizabeth Joyner

The B&O Railroad Museum—David Shackleford

The Tennessee State Museum—Brad Kavan, Ron Westphal

The Northern Indiana Center for History—

Annalyse Moncriet

Willian Moura

Thomas Mackie

Duane Roop

Emily Blankenship

April Schuer

Jean Hendrick

Ashley Bonney

Rachael Williams

Scott Bryant