Cover: Battle of Gettysburg

Battle of Gettysburg

The Impact of Alternative Technologies on Civil War History

Published Sep 11, 2023

by Gian Gentile, David E. Johnson, Yvonne K. Crane, D. Sean Barnett, John Gordon IV, Mark Hvizda, Adam Givens


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Research Questions

  1. What could have happened if a few key technologies that were available for military use in the 1860s — such as observation balloons, telegraphs, Gatling guns, and repeating rifles — had been used at the Battle of Gettysburg?
  2. How can available technologies, if exploited, favorably change battlefield outcomes?

Gettysburg has been one of the U.S. Army's favorite staff ride locations for decades. It was the site of perhaps the pivotal battle of the U.S. Civil War, and General George Pickett's famous but disastrous charge marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. The authors of this report combine a staff ride with a consideration of alternative history: They examine what happened in the crucial 1863 Battle of Gettysburg and consider what could have happened if a few key technologies that were available for military use had been used in this battle.

Key Findings

Both Union and Confederate commanders faced challenges of understanding the disposition, actions, and intentions of the enemy army they confronted

  • If Confederate General Robert E. Lee had launched balloon reconnaissance in the early morning hours on the first day of the battle, the outcome at Gettysburg might have been different.
  • The telltale signs of an Army camp waking in the early morning would have been quickly apparent from an observation balloon near Lee's position in the early morning hours of the battle's first day.

Higher-level commanders lacked the ability to influence a tactical battle at the close fight

  • Commanders were unable to communicate perceptions of advantages to one another, particularly on the Confederate side.
  • Field telegraph machines could have assisted Lee in coordinating his corps and divisions on Day One of the battle.

Firepower and tactics were rigid and linear, resulting in vast death and destruction

  • New rifles and guns could have allowed greater freedom of maneuver.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by Headquarters, Department of the Army G3/5/7 Strategic Operations Directorate and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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