Although some contemporaries ot the conflict, as well as some later scholars, claimed that the war was inevitable, neither side had prepared for the conflict. Neither Northerners nor Southerners could foresee the consuming force of mobilization that affected both men and materials. Secessionists were, however, correct in believing that the South had been reduced to minority status. The fact that 23 states, including four border slave states, supported the Union and only 11 slates joined the Confederacy was confirmation alone of the accuracy of that perception.
With a total population in the United States of roughly 31.5 million people, once the political lines were drawn the Union comprised about 22.5 million people, of whom 3.5 million constituted a manpower pool for the armed forces. The Confederacy contained slightly over 9.1 million persons, of whom 3.5 million were slaves, leaving a manpower pool of roughly 1 million available for the armed forces. This constituted about 55 percent of the white population of military age serving in the Union armies.
The 4 to 1 edge in manpower was matched by some significant material contrasts between the North and South. Industrially, the North out-produced the South 10 to 1 in gross value of manufacturing. The Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, was the Confederacy's only major industrial factory. Tredegar's existence strengthened the Confederacy's will to defend its capital. The North's factories manufactured 97 percent of the nation's firearms and 96 percent of its railroad equipment. In the production of locomotives and firearms, the Union advantage was in excess of 25 to 1. Whether measured by the size ot manufacturing or manpower, the ability to replace or replenish industrial equipment destroyed in the course of the war clearly favored the North. Moreover, a majority of the country's textiles, shoes, iron products, and coal, corn and wheat came from Northern factories. In addition, the number of financial institutions and the value of bank deposits also favored the Union roughly 4 to 1.
Even in farm production the Northern states overwhelmed the Confederacy, as a majority of the citizens tilled the soil for a living. Northerners tilled 75 percent of the country's farm acreage, tended 60 percent of the nation's livestock, and harvested nearly 70 percent of its corn and 80 percent of its wheat. As the progress of the war upset Southern output. Northern farms managed to increase productivity, despite losing workers to the army. The Confederacy produced enough to meet minimal needs, but disruption along the rivers and rails caused shortages in main places, Meanwhile, the North produced a surplus of wheat for export at a time when drought and crop failures in Europe created a critical demand. Wheat became king during the war and supplanted cotton as the nation's major export, becoming the chief means of acquiring foreign money and bills of exchange to pay for imports from abroad.
The North's advantage in transport weighed heavily as the war went on. The Union had more wagons, horses, mules, and ships than the Confederacy, and an impressive edge in railroads of 2 to 1. The discrepancy was even greater, for Southern railroads were mainly short lines built to different gauges, and had few replacements for rolling stock that frequently broke down. The Confederacy had only one east-west connection, between Memphis and Chattanooga. The latter was an important rail hub with connections through Knoxville, into Virginia and down through Atlanta to Charleston and Savannah. Western farmers found numerous outlets to the eastern seaboard during the war, which lessened their dependence on the Mississippi River.
Perhaps the Union's greatest advantage was its potential to harness effectively the war machine that its economic superiority allowed it, since it was able to use and replenish war materials effectively if the war was long. Though small in number and pathetically underequipped, the Union began with at least some semblance of a professional army and navy. At the outbreak of the war, the United States army had 14,000 soldiers and 42 ships. The Confederate government, on the other hand, was forced to create in the midst of the war not only an army and navy, but also the industrial base to produce such entities.
Still, several factors served to reduce the material superiority of the Union and favor the Confederacy. The sheer size of the 750,000 square miles (nearly 2 million km2) of the Confederacy alone proved ominously perplexing for the Union. History provided lessons that countries far smaller than the Confederacy could successfully win or maintain their independence against invaders with larger armies and more material resources. The landscape was not only vast but also diverse, which made penetrating the interior of the region more complicated the further south Union armies traveled. If the Union were to attempt invasion over land or by sea, which stretched for 3,500 miles (5,600km), this could be difficult. Control of rivers and rails as well as strategic junctions meant that large armies would have not only to defeat the enemy, but also to occupy significant portions of the land to secure what they had conquered. The early
This hand-colored lithograph of the Union high command reveals the stark contrast between George B McClellan and Winfield Scott, who sit on opposite sides of a council of war. Portrayed here from left to right are McClellan, Silas H. Stringham, Irvin McDowell, Franz Sigel, John E. Wool, John A. Dix, Nathaniel Banks, Samuel P. Heintzelman, Scott. Robert Anderson, John C. Fremont, and Benjamin Butler. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection. Brown University Library)
campaigns in the west would necessitate changes in how Union armies conducted themselves as occupiers of Southern soil. Union soldiers had to protect supply lines, transportation and communication centers, and pacify the citizenry while administering loyalty oaths and protecting Southern Unionists from Confederate retribution.
The second advantage for the South was the defensive nature of the war itself. The Confederacy's primary strategic goal was to defend the territory that it held at the outbreak of war and to prolong the conflict until the Union grew weary of war and acknowledged Confederate independence. Unlike the Union, which sought the political objective of reunion, Southerners did not have to subjugate Northerners. Victory or even stalemate on the battlefields would more than likely have resulted in the
Confederacy's independence. The Northern aims of conquest required far more troops than the defensive war pursued by the Confederacy. Fighting against invasion tended to elevate morale and also allowed the armies the advantage of utilizing the topography that was familiar to them.
The third major factor that enabled the Confederacy to reduce the material odds against its armies was the presence of slavery. Southern whites concluded that the slaves themselves provided a decided military advantage. They freed up considerable manpower to fill the volunteer ranks, provided the unskilled labor left behind, produced the foodstuffs, worked as laborers, teamsters, boatmen, and cooks, and were responsible for repairing railroads and bridges, and reconstructing cities destroyed by Union armies. Still, even with the assistance of slaves, roughly 75 percent of Southern white males of military age served in the Confederate armies.
Perhaps more influential in determining the war's outcome than material imbalances and geographical advantages were the soldiers and commanders themselves. Although many commanders North and South shared an identical military heritage, more often than not generals alone could determine the difference between success and failure. To sustain a total commitment to the cause required effective leadership, not only from Washington or Richmond but also from the ranks. Although Lincoln and Davis shared some military credentials - Davis was a graduate of West Point and participated in the Mexican War, and Lincoln had served in the Black Hawk War of the 1830s - neither man was prepared for the daunting task required of a commander-in-chief during wartime.
While Davis was hardworking and committed to the cause, his temperament was not well suited to his new post. He possessed a weakness for friends and gave them special consideration, sometimes against his better judgement. He took his role as commander-inchief literally and frequently interfered with commanders. To further complicate his task, Davis faced an institutional crisis. Because the Confederacy had been founded on the ideology of states' rights, the demands of war would require that he strengthen the authority of the central government beyond anything that the South would accept. Lincoln, on the other hand, was a shrewd judge of character and was not as proprietary over his generals or armies. Leading a nation instead of states greatly advantaged him in controlling Northern armies. Although frequently the target of scathing attacks, Lincoln never wavered in his ability to see the larger political objectives of the war and seldom allowed personal feelings to blind him. 'This is essentially a People's contest,' he asserted at the beginning of the war, and he never let the populace or the commanders forget this fact.
Although economic factors dictated that Europe, particularly Great Britain, stay out of
This photograph captures Mississippi recruits being mustered in at the Natchez courthouse in early 1861. Mississippi military population at the outbreak of the Civil War was estimated to be 70.000. (Review of Reviews Company)
the contest, so did considerations of power politics, despite the fact that the British imported more than 80 percent of its cotton from the American South. British officials recognized the legality of the Confederacy as well as the legality of the Union blockade, but the North probably benefited more from Britain's neutrality than the Confederacy.
In the end, the very nature of the Civil War would reveal much about the societies waging it. It was indeed a 'people's contest', and essentially the military regiments were small communities at war. Ultimate victory would be won by the nation that effectively marshaled its resources, maintained popular support for the war, developed a strategic plan that blended political and military objectives, and possessed the economic endurance to stay the course. The fact that they would come to believe much about themselves through the experience of war was as much a consequence as it was a cause of war.
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