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Civil War Begins: Northern and Southern Advantages Compared

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  • 0:05 The Outbreak of Civil War
  • 1:53 Northern Advantages
  • 3:42 Southern Advantages
  • 5:23 What If?
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, both the North and South believed the conflict would be over quickly. But advantages for both the Confederacy and the Union meant a prolonged war between the states. In this lesson, discover some of the advantages that the North and South had.

The Outbreak of the Civil War

When South Carolina seceded, six other states joined in to form the Confederate States of America
Confederate States of America

Following President Lincoln's election, leaders of South Carolina met on Christmas Eve, 1860, to adopt articles of secession. Within six weeks, six more states had joined them, and they formed the Confederate States of America. Confederate President Jefferson Davis demanded the immediate surrender of all federal troops stationed in Southern territory. Instead, Union Major Robert Anderson garrisoned himself inside of Ft. Sumter and awaited reinforcements. Meanwhile, the Confederacy decided to act. On April 12, 1861, they attacked the fort, leading to Anderson's surrender. Southern hopes were high that their sovereignty would be respected. Even when President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to crush the rebellion, both sides expected that the dispute would be quickly resolved in their favor. They were wrong. What unfolded over the next four years was the deadliest war in American history, taking the lives of as many as 750,000 soldiers.

Of course, we know how the war ended: the Union won, the Confederacy was destroyed and slavery was abolished. I hope I didn't spoil that for any of you. But why did it take so long and have such high costs? Because (despite what some people believe) the North didn't have all the advantages. A simple bulleted list might make it look like they did. Yet for just about every factor in their favor, there was a big 'but.' For example, the North had twice as many men, but most able-bodied men were conscripted in the South, leveling the size of the armies. So how did the U.S. finally win? That's a long story that will take several lessons to discuss. For now, let's start by looking at what each side had going for them.

Northern Advantages

The North had the numbers - period. When it came down to men of fighting age, the Union had the edge by about two to one. But, like I just said, a lot more Southern men were willing (or even excited) to fight. The North also had greater industrial capacity. In war, this meant more and better weapons, like cannons. In fact, in 1860, Northern factories made 97% of the nation's firearms. The combined factors of manpower and weaponry might seem to imply that the Union's infantry would dominate the battlefield. But the Confederacy immediately ramped up manufacturing and established foundries that used repurposed bronze from things like church and plantation bells. And, like the American Revolutionaries a century before, they discovered their own strengths. Before the war, many Southerners knew how to hunt and ride a horse. So the Confederacy developed a skilled cavalry with good aim that could run circles around the Union's big, slow infantry, and they could evade and sabotage the North's powerful artillery.

One of the advantages the North had was their industrial capacity, which meant better weapons
North Industrial Advantage

All of the U.S. navy remained in federal hands, and they instituted a blockade of the South shortly after the war started. The blockade certainly cut off their income stream from cotton exports, but the Confederacy didn't need to import much for survival. Their agricultural economy kept the army fed, at least for a little while. And blockade runners managed to supply enough of the necessary foreign goods to keep them fighting for at least four years.

A bigger problem for the South was transporting all of these men and goods to the battlefields. There were half as many developed roadways and train tracks in the South, but they had an intimate knowledge of the waterways and used them efficiently, and once the Union army was on their turf, the South might have even had a slight advantage in terms of transportation. The same was true for communications.

Southern Advantages

Not only was the South able to compensate for all of these seeming disadvantages, they had many strategic advantages that actually gave them the upper hand early on. For example, a majority of the nation's experienced military leaders were Southerners, and seven of the nation's eight military colleges were in Southern territory. While the Union ran through several generals before finding a few effective leaders, the Confederacy had Robert E. Lee and many of his brigadiers almost from the start. They also controlled the Mississippi River Delta, and the Union devoted enormous resources to capturing it. This was critical not only for an effective blockade but also to thwart the Confederacy's plan to push west through New Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.

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