I know that headline seems a little ridiculous: why were there no tanks in the Civil War? Most of you are likely thinking ‘because nobody built any, idiot.’ While you’d be absolutely right to think that, I still find the question interesting, because I’m pretty sure the Union was shockingly close to building one; they just never knew it.
In fact, the Union was already building, on a regular basis, pretty much all the components needed to make a viable, usable tank, in the sense we understand a tank to this day: a mobile, motorized, armored land vehicle with a rotating turret housing some sort of big gun.
It could even be argued that there was a viable reason for the Union (or the Confederacy, for that matter) to actually want a tank, thanks to the very early use of trench warfare. Trench warfare is normally associated with World War I and some of the most grim, dehumanizing, and brutal fighting mankind has known, but it was part of the Civil War as well, a solid 50 years before the start of WWI.
The battle of Petersburg, a 292-day long nightmare spanning 1864-1865 made extensive use of trench warfare, as did, to a lesser extent, the battle of Vicksburg. When the tank as we know it was developed by the British in WWI, it was largely as an attempt to find a solution to the issues of trench warfare.
So, I think there would have been a real use for tanks in the Civil War, but mechanized warfare was still so new, I’m not sure anyone at the time was able to put the elements together to imagine something like a tank as a solution.
In hindsight, this is sort of maddening, because the Union (and, to a much lesser extent, the Confederacy) was building or had access to machines that could have been combined to form something remarkably tank like.
Here, I’ll break it down for you, and show you what components I’m talking about:
The Civil War was the first time that ironclad warships battled one another, and in doing so, spelled the end for traditional wooden warships. The John Ericsson-designed ironclad, the USS Monitor, was the first all-steam-powered warship, and the first with a powered, rotating turret. It was, essentially, an aquatic tank.
It was covered in iron armor, it had a swiveling turret mounting two 11-inch cannons, forced-air ventilation, and even flush toilets. While a land-based tank would, of course, be much scaled-down and likely not require any sort of toilets, it’s very easy to look at the USS Monitor and the later turreted ship classes that followed it, called monitors after the original, and imagine it on wheels, as a sort of tank.
The Confederates had ironclads as well, but not turreted ones; the South preferred casemate ironclads, which were big armored, sloping ships with many guns and portholes through which to fire them. A casemate tank could have been possible, but a turreted tank is more true to what we know a tank to be.
Railroads were a rapidly maturing but still quite advanced technology in the Civil War era, and the rail network was used extensively throughout the war by both sides. This included the development of special armored and armed railcars, which were, let’s face it, an awful lot like tanks that ran on tracks.
The parallels between the rail-based and sea-going ironclads were not lost on the soldiers of the era. The Union called theirs ‘railroad monitors’ after the naval vessels, and the Confederates called their rail-based armored cannon platform – the first armored railcar used, in 1862 – the “Dry Land Merrimack,” after their famous casemate ironclad ship.
So, it’s clear during the Civil War the idea of a land-based mechanized, armored artillery platform was appreciated and understood.
So, we’ve got tank-like machines that travel on water and on rail, meaning the missing piece is a platform that can traverse rail-free dry land, on and off-road. These existed, and were known as traction engines and steam plows.
Traction engines were essentially rail-less locomotives, used for agricultural and hauling use, sort of the pickup truck and tractor of the mid 1800s. These were becoming common in England around the 1850s, and while not unknown in the United States, they certainly weren’t in as widespread use.
Steam tractors and plows were very similar, and designed to traverse difficult terrain a bit better, and to pull farm implements like plows. One notable American design is Joseph Fawkes’ 1859 Steam Plow.
Fawkes’ steam plow design can be seen clearly in patent drawings, revealing a simple, robust design that seems quite capable of being adapted to other uses, like, say, carrying armor and a small turret with a cannon.
President Lincoln was certainly aware of the development of self-propelled steam agricultural equipment, mentioning such machines in an 1859 speech at the Wisconsin State Fair:
The successful application of steam-power to farm work is a desideratum - especially a steam plow.
If Lincoln knew about this stuff, it’s safe to say that the existence of self-propelled steam machinery was no secret.
So, let’s recap: we have here, spread among these three types of machines, mechanized armored (rail-based) mobile gun platforms, steam-powered rotating turrets, and self-propelled steam vehicles capable of carrying heavy loads over rough terrain.
Put all these things together, and you’ve got yourself a tank.
So, what would a hypothetical civil war tank have looked like? I think we can come up with a pretty plausible design for a Union Civil War Rail-Less Land Ironclad.
We’ll use the basic chassis design of the Fawkes steam plow, and on that we’ll mount a small timber-and-iron hull, angled like a casemate, and designed to house the driver and a stoker for the steam engine.
There’s a small turret in the middle, mounting a single smallish naval gun – maybe something like a 4.6" bore Dahlgren boat howitzer, which would have weighed 300 lbs -430 lbs, depending on type, or something of a similar size.
That turret is essentially a monitor ironclad warship-type turret, scaled down to one smaller gun, and with room for one gunner. It would have a grated roof for airflow, like the original USS Monitor, and also like the original Monitor, the pilothouse would be in front. Later monitors, like the Passaic class, placed the pilothouse on top of the turret, but I thing that would have made our Land Ironclad too tall and top-heavy.
The turret would have a restricted field of fire to the rear, where the steam engine section was; this was a factor of most ocean-going monitors as well, unless they wanted to perforate their smokestacks with cannonfire.
This Union ur-Tank would likely have used large wheels to get around; caterpillar treads (continuous track) were known since the late 1830s, but they seem a bit complex for this use. Dreadnaught Wheels were also available and may have been simple enough to use, but I suspect big iron steam tractor-type wheels would be more likely.
I really believe that tanks could have been built by the Union, and possibly simpler casemate tanks could have been built by the Confederacy – hell, the Confederates managed to build a crude submarine during the Civil War – why not a tank?
Would it have worked? How would it have affected the war? Would lives have been saved, or would the war have been over with quicker, or would it have just sparked an arms race that would have dragged the carnage out even longer?
I have no idea. But I really do think that, technically, a Civil War tank was not just possible, but actually baffling that it was never realized, when bothe sides were building machines that so closely approached what a tank could be. I can’t believe that soldiers stuck in the trenches of Petersburg never daydreamed of one of the railroad ironclads jumping off the rails and tearing through the battlefield, breaking the deadly monotony of trench warfare.
In the end, it didn’t happen, for better or worse. It seems so obvious to our modern eyes, that I can’t help but wonder what innovations may be staring us in the face right now, there but not there, waiting for just that right spark to bring it to reality.