Communication During the Civil War


The Civil War was the first war that was actually photographed. It allowed the rest of the United States, who were not fighting the war, to witness first-hand what was going on and how it looked. “Portraits of armed Union and Confederate soldiers preparing to meet their destiny; battlefield landscapes strewn with human remains; rare multi-panel panoramas of the killing fields of Gettysburg and the destruction of Richmond; diagnostic medical studies of wounded soldiers who survived the war’s last bloody battles.” (USA TODAY, 35) This was good for the education of the public but at the same time, some may not have been prepared for what they were going to see. The uses for photography were vast, this included: portraits of soldiers before going to war for the family to remember them by, many pictures within campsites, pictures of patients’ injuries for doctors to do medical examinations on, and panoramas of the battlefields.

The Railroad

The railroad system was a relatively new form of communication, especially when it came to war time. The north was much more technologically advanced when it came to the railroad compared to the south. “48.6 percent of free residents in the eleven Confederate states lived within fifteen miles of a railroad junction, while 85 percent of the northerners did the same.” (Majewski, 714) Because of this, the north targeted the South’s railroad system to gain an advantage during wartime. “As the war progressed Union generals such as William T. Sherman devised a “railroad strategy” focused on the capture and destruction of the southern railroad network.” (Majewski, 713) The uses for each side’s railroad system were different too. The north used the railroad to attempt westward expansion, while the south used it to transport cotton and for slavery. However by the end of the war, the south had improved their railroad system greatly. “By the outbreak of the Civil War the main railroad lines of North Carolina were already developed. Although only 283 miles of railroads spanned the state in 1850, a liberal policy of state aid enabled nine railroads to amass a total of 922 miles of track by 1860.” (Price, 298)The Piedmont Railroad is a specific example of the improvement in the south. It ranged from Greensboro to Danville, and was initially denied because of the concern that the smaller western stations would lose money because trains wouldn’t stop there as often. However it was eventually passed and the South benefited greatly from it.

The Telegraph

The telegraph was used more during the Civil War, compared to the Indian War, but it was used for the same reasons. The telegraph was used as a form of communication between soldiers and their families. The telegraph was also used as a way to discuss the position of enemies as well as the position of their own men. “Lee had no telegraphic communication north of Culpeper, and little need of any, prior to his advance. But the Federal telegraphic system, as heretofore, included all of their positions above indicated, and also, at times, as far out on the Orange and Alexandria road as Bealeton.” (Plum, 10)

Postal Service

Mail was still the most popular form of communication during the Civil War. Compared to the Indian War the delivery time shortened drastically. However the motive for writing letters remained the same. The soldiers and their families were constantly checking up on each other to make sure the other side was safe, and more importantly, still alive. Both sides also loved receiving letters because it showed that someone was still concerned about them and cared about them. “You cannot conceive how badly I feel when our Postmaster comes into Camp with no letters for me.” (Watson, 16)

People were extremely dependent of communication during the Civil War. It allowed the public to have a visual element with the war, it helped the armies strategically plan out their attack because of their knowledge of their position and the position of their enemy, and it served as a way for families to keep in touch within a decent amount of time. These came in the forms of: photography, the railroad, the telegraph, and the postal service. They were all very different but were all equally important.

Works Cited

-Majewski, John. Journal of Southern History. August 2013, Volume 79, Issue 3, pages 713-714.

-Price, Charles L. Civil War History: North Carolina Railroads During the Civil War. September 1961, Volume 7, Issue 3, p. 298-309.

-Plum, William Rattle. The military telegraph during the Civil War in the United States: with an exposition of ancient and modern means of communication, and of the federal and Confederate cipher systems; also a running account of the war between the states. 1882, 2 Volumes.

-USA Today (Magazine). The war between the states frozen in time: a landmark exhibition considers the evolving role of photography during the Civil War. July 2013, Volume 142, Issue 2818, p. 34-37.

-Watson, William. Letters of a Civil War surgeon. Edited by Paul Fatout. 1837.







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