How Drones Would’ve Altered The Course Of The Civil War

We ask the experts how today's technology would've influenced the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War itself.

Last week marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. In the end, the battle halted an invasion of the north by General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army, and together with a Union victory at Vicksburg the day after, swung the momentum of the war firmly in the Union’s direction. The duration and outcome of the Civil War, and so too the Battle of Gettysburg, was influenced at least in part by the then-contemporary weaponry. That fact inspired a thought experiment: What if we fought the Civil War today, with modern technology? What if we kept the power balance the same, in addition to the sides’ respective resources, objectives, and generals, but introduced things like radios and Raven drones?

To answer these questions, we consulted four experts:

  • Peter Carmichael (no relation) is both a professor of history and director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.
  • Mike Forbes is an Army officer with a background in armored reconnaissance, which in civilian-speak means he has used tanks to scout for enemies.
  • Captain Brett Friedman is a field artillery officer with the United States Marine Corps, and makes his living figuring out how best to employ explosives in the service of the United States.
  • Crispin Burke is a helicopter pilot with the Army.

1. How would modern technologies have changed the course and length of the Civil War?

Peter Carmichael:

The profound difference would have been a move away from conventional warfare to guerilla warfare, or what some would call irregular tactics. The technological changes give individuals tremendous firepower that simply wasn’t present during the Civil War. So what we would consider to be conventional warfare, with the massive armies, would not have been possible at all with the airpower as well as the ground power that militaries across the world now have at their disposal.

…When you are able to give people who engage in irregular warfare that kind of firepower, with which they can almost hold hostage a superior force, then you’re looking at a conflict whose duration can continue and continue because it doesn’t demand what was demanded of the Confederacy during the Civil War in terms of resources and war power.

Mike Forbes:

With little more than a hand-held Raven UAV, Lee might have turned the tide of the battle.I think it would have shortened it, if for no other reason than motorization and mechanization would cut down on a lot of the time it took to walk from place to place. Also, modern weaponry would likely have brought many of the major Civil War battles to a decisive (and fiery) conclusion much more quickly than did dismounted infantry of the day with short-range, slow-firing small arms.

Crispin Burke:

[On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg] Robert E. Lee hoped to gain a quick victory for the Confederacy by sending one of his most trusted generals, Major General James Longstreet, through Devil’s Den and a nearby peach orchard in an attempt to roll up the vulnerable left flank of the Union Army.

Only the North’s flank wasn’t so vulnerable; along Emmitsburg road lay the Union Army’s III Corps. What Lee had hoped would be a quick envelopment instead became one of the most legendary battles in American history, as III Corps—including Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine—held the line in front of the Round Tops.

So why did Lee’s forces attack a heavily fortified Union position? One week prior, Lee had dispatched his cavalry, under the command of J.E.B. Stuart, to screen the northern flank of Lee’s Army, as it marched north. [Rather than directly screening and scouting for Lee’s force, Stuart plotted a riskier and ambitious path with plunder along the way.] That robbed Lee of crucial intelligence. In fact, a recent project from the Smithsonian indicates that, given the rolling terrain around Gettysburg, Lee simply could not see the bulk of the 90,000-strong Union Army, despite being little over a mile away.

It’s a question which has plagued generals and sergeants alike since the dawn of war—what’s over the next hill?

Forget Predator drones—with little more than a hand-held Raven UAV (current cost $20,000), Lee could have peered as far as Little Round Top, and might have actually turned the tide of the battle [and the war]. The 4.4-lb Raven sports cameras which can beam data back to a commander in both day and night conditions. And with a range of 10 kilometers, and a 90-minute battery, AeroVironment’s little drone might have revealed the entire bluecoated Union Army, perhaps changing the course of history.

2. In what ways would modern communications systems have altered the unfolding battle and its outcome?

Peter Carmichael:

The drone would’ve made everything on the battlefield irrelevant.They would have dramatically altered the way that armies on the offense operated, which, during the Civil War, often functioned without cohesion, cooperation, and coordination. Those three things were very difficult to achieve during the Civil War because the technology was simply not there to allow officers and subordinates to ensure that their maneuvers were in sync. At Gettysburg, the Confederate army often struggled to bring a degree of unity and purpose to their movements…

The real issue is, once an order is articulated whether on paper or in person, that situation has changed by the time the order makes its way down to the ground. While technology today doesn’t allow officers to anticipate the next step of the enemy, it certainly does allow for a quicker response. That’s a really key difference.

That’s the thing: We need to really have an appreciation and, I would say, an empathy for Civil War generals. Imagine the shards of information that these men received! I mean shards. That were often conflicting. With those shards, you have to be able to imagine the whole: not just of your army, but of where the enemy’s army is. Again, that information is so partial, so fragmentary, and so contradictory: it’s amazing that these men were able to move their armies with the effectiveness that they did.

Mike Forbes:

It’s hard to overstate the impact that something as simple as a [short-range tactical] radio would have had on a Civil War battle like Gettysburg, let alone more advanced systems.

Take Day One activities between Cashtown and Gettysburg along the Chambersburg Pike: A small handful of scout observation posts with radios could have reported accurate, near-real-time information about the Union forces entering Gettysburg and setting up defenses. This alone would have eliminated the need for the next morning’s “recon in force” that kicked off the battle before Lee would have liked.

The state-of-the-art battlefield communications system of “runner carrying a note” and its more advanced counterpart “dude on a horse with a note” also contributed to things like the infamous “Take Cemetery Hill if practicable” incident, which could have turned out very differently had Lee and his subordinate generals been able to have a simple two-way conversation.

Brett Friedman:

The South had far less access to then-modern technology than the North and less resources with which to acquire said technology. Assuming that even with the addition of today’s modern technology that the North would have better access to that technology it would not change the outcome. It may change the length [of the war] as airpower would give the South another option when it came to getting supplies from outside the country.

3. What challenges would tanks and modern artillery face on a battlefield like Gettysburg, and what challenges would they create?

Peter Carmichael:

My understanding of the capabilities of those weapons is pretty limited. But, I would say that the kind of technology that I believe is at our disposal–whether it’s tanks or drones–would have faced absolutely no impediment [on the Gettysburg battlefield].

What technology would have enabled Civil War officers to do here at Gettysburg is nullify the ground. I don’t think the strong, commanding position of the Union army at Gettysburg would’ve mattered much.

Mike Forbes:

First of all, tanks, other armored vehicles, and modern indirect fire systems like mortars, cannon artillery, and rocket artillery would have vastly expanded and enlarged the engagement areas. Cashtown and Gettysburg are well within cannon artillery range of one another, for example. There would be no way for two large armies to gather like that prior to the battle if both sides could simply rain 155mm shells down on soldiers trying to dig in a defensive position, or assembling to march into an attack. And that’s just cannon artillery. Modern rocket artillery could hit Gettysburg from Harrisburg, Hagerstown, or Baltimore.

Gettysburg as a hypothetical tank/ armored vehicle battlefield would be unrecognizably different from what it actually was. The entire length and width of the July 2 and 3 battlefield, from Round Top to Gettysburg city limits, and from Seminary Ridge to the opposite side of Cemetery Hill, could be ranged with a tank cannon or anti-tank guided missiles. In practice, this would have the effect of dramatically expanding the battlefield space, and shrinking the size of units engaging one another in a comparable space. Along the Chambersburg Pike avenue of approach, for example, a modern mechanized engagement there would be company-sized (battalion-sized at the most), not the division-on-division fight of the 1860s.

Brett Friedman:

Artillery today is a vastly different than it was then. Civil War cannoneers could only hit what they could see and even then the fire was inaccurate. Gunners were ignorant of the vast majority of factors that affect the strike of the round and thus were unable to account for them. The most important change is not the artillery itself, but the communications technology that allows an observer to see the strike of each round and report back to the gun how to better hit the target. During the Civil War, troops could be stationed behind ridges, hills, rocks, towns, etc. and be untouchable by enemy forces. With indirect fire, troops can be hit anywhere and anytime. A sustained modern artillery bombardment would have swept the 20th Maine from Little Round Top before Longstreet’s troops even arrived. Artillery fire concentrated on the Union center on the third day would have allowed Pickett’s division to assault a bloody hole in the Union line rather than a fortified defense. In short, modern artillery makes the linear tactics and troop concentrations common in the Civil War suicidal.

4. What is one piece of modern military technology that would ensure victory in a battle like Gettysburg if only your side possessed it?

Peter Carmichael:

Well, the drone. The use of the drone would’ve made everything in the field irrelevant. Not just because of the technology, but because this creates a side that now can wage war as if it’s a war game or a video game. The other side would’ve been utterly helpless because, simply, if you control the air, you control what’s on the ground. Not just in the sense that you can annihilate the enemy’s force, but you can also cripple lines of communication. And the drone offers that kind of command and control of the ground, and at the same time it has a degree–and I want to emphasize–a degree of precision. To the idea that it surgically strikes: All we need to do is ask the 20 percent of civilians–innocent men, women, and children–who have been killed by U.S. drone strikes if they are truly surgical.

Mike Forbes:

Gettysburg was a close fight, and could have tipped either way at a number of key points. So really, ANY piece of kit that gave one side a huge technological advantage over the other would probably have proved decisive: A handful of radios. Longer-ranged or faster-firing infantry weapons. Indirect fire capability. Mechanization or motorization. Drones. Any one of those things, employed properly, would have tipped the scales considerably.

Brett Friedman:

I hate the idea that one piece of tech can erase the inherent probability and chance of war. Sorry.

Crispin Burke:

Forget machine guns and tanks—an 18th-century army armed with canned goods, vaccines, and chemical latrines could have conquered the entire globe.Gunpowder, aviation, and internal combustion are often listed among the most significant military innovations. Few, however, acknowledge the advancements made in field feeding and preventive medicine, despite the fact that, for millennia, malnutrition and disease have been arguably as dangerous as enemy action. During the Civil War, it was estimated that nearly two-thirds of all deaths were caused by disease!

The Confederate Army, like armies centuries before it, was forced to live off the land. Horses needed to spend the late afternoon grazing, while the men halted, lit cooking fires, and feasted on moldy bread, salt tack, and dried pork. Daily bivouacking—pitching tents, cooking dinner and breakfast, and so forth—cut hours off of an army’s available marching time. Fast-forward to today, when a modern Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE)—loaded with 1,200 calories each—can be heated in minutes.
Not to mention, modern sanitation, medical care, and immunizations could also have staved off many casualties. Camp life often featured dysentery (caused by latrines dug far too close to streams), and communicable disease—conditions only exacerbated by the dearth of qualified surgeons in the ranks.

Forget machine guns and tanks—an 18th-century army armed with canned goods, vaccines, and chemical latrines could have conquered the entire globe.