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
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.
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
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.
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.
The fact that almost all of the war had been fought on Southern soil might seem like a disadvantage since a lot of farms and factories were destroyed, but they had the home-team advantage. A defensive war is easier both in terms of strategy and popular support. The Confederates didn't really have to win the war - they just had to outlast the North's will to fight it. They knew their land, could use it to their advantage and most of the population was united in trying to preserve it. On the other hand, the North was an invading army - far away from their supply lines, with little knowledge of the land. In order to win, they had to get every single Southern state to surrender, and not all of the population in the North was united behind the war effort - at least, not until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 injected slavery into the matter. With every battle, the troops lost morale and the politicians lost popular support.
The Confederacy was not recognized by any foreign nation and they never gained a political ally
But it was actually the political structure that gave the Union its one consistent edge throughout - and once the Southern opposition was gone, the United States Congress was remarkably productive. By contrast, no foreign nation ever recognized the Confederacy, and they never gained a military or political ally. But what if they had? Could the U.S. have fought off a foreign navy? Would they even have tried? And what if more states, like Kentucky and Missouri, had seceded, or Western territories had joined them? What if they had fought their way to the Pacific Ocean? These are questions we can never answer, but they certainly gave the South a reason for hope. And for all these reasons, the American Civil War would not be short and sweet.
When the first shots were fired on April 12, 1861, at Ft. Sumter, both sides expected the American Civil War to be short and sweet. They were wrong. The Union had many distinct advantages, such as manpower, industry and political structure. But the Confederacy was able to compensate for most of these, and they had some of their own strategic advantages, like military leadership, the Mississippi River and playing on the home field (so to speak). The South had plenty of reasons to keep fighting and believe they just might win.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the beginning of the Civil War with the attack on Ft. Sumter
- Explain the advantages and disadvantages of both the North and the South