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Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?) It is commonly believed that the North won the Civil War merely because of a larger manpower pool for its army and more industrial resources. Although both are true and were indeed crucial to the outcome, in isolation these advantages fail to fully explain the Union victory. The deficiencies of Confederate culture and the ineffective response of its government to myriad crises, which the North handled better, played important roles as well. Recent history shows that numbers alone are not determinative of the outcome of war: ask the Taliban and the Viet Cong. The Union had the advantages of an established country, including a fully functioning federal system and military, and all the foundations and resources of a vibrant economy and industrial system.  

The reasons the North won actually encompass numerous economic and political areas, including population considerations and huge economic, financial, industrial, and political strengths. Twenty general reasons are described below.

1. Population Discrepancy: The North had a much larger population and hence a larger manpower pool from which to build an army. North population 1860: 22 million; South population: 9 million (4.5 million whites), 4.5 million blacks of whom 4.2 million were slaves. So, the recruitable male population was roughly 11 million in the North and 2.2 million in the South.

2. Economic/Banking/Financial: The North had four times the deposits as the South at the start of the war. The CSA economy was built “on the fly”: quickly and in haste starting from scratch. Beyond the ethical concerns of owning humans, the selling and buying of slaves was a lucrative business. Much of the economic strength of the South was based on the value of slaves, their utility not just as a labor force but also as collateral for loans or payment of debts.

3. Dependence on Agriculture: The Southern economy was almost completely composed of agricultural products. This does not mean that the South was poor; it was in fact booming at the start. The cotton crop had doubled every decade from 1820 to 1860. Tobacco and rice were also booming. Once the war began, production plummeted, and with it, the tax base. With the war, the limited areas of food production in the south led to the bread riots.

4. Industry/Manufacturing: The North had a huge advantage in manufacturing, engineering and armaments. Besides armaments, the North produced 94% of all cloth and 93% pig iron, boats & ships, shoes. etc. The South had little industrial capacity or know-how. Sherman had this one right on the money.

5. Transportation: The North had 80% of the railroad miles, all of the same gauge. This allowed rapid transportation of men and supplies among the various cities and battle areas. In contrast, the Southern railroads were of different gauges and all led to ports, because their antebellum purpose was bringing crops and materials for commerce to transport, not interconnecting the cities of the South.

6. Logistics: The North had better plans and more options as to how to bring supplies to their armies. Adjutants Montgomery Meigs in the east and Lewis Parsons Jr in the west used railroads and rivers in ways no previous armies had used them. Samuel Cooper and Josiah Gorgas for the Confederacy were highly effective as well, keeping the confederates in the war far longer than could have been anticipated, but he had limited resources to work with.

7. Political: The North had an established, working two-party government. Lincoln was elected in a fair, free and universal election. The minority party could build a coalition and channel opposition. The South suppressed any overt opposition, recognizing only one center of political power. The South had to create a government, from a culture rooted in state’s rights and localism. There is no party system: how do you organize power, patronage, and loyalty; can you disagree without being disloyal? Jefferson Davis was appointed by a convention, without any  general election. There was no formal opposition.

8. Better Military Strategy: Lincoln, Scott and Grant recognized that this war was about supplies, transportation and defeating the other army, not the Napoleonic strategy of campaign to capture cities and capitals. The Anaconda Plan, the use of the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, and the use of the railroads, were critical to victory. In contrast, Davis never had a general in chief to coordinate strategy beyond a theater. His strategy involved defending wide swaths of territory, which could not be accomplished. He believed himself to be the grand strategist. Why he had no insight into his own limitations politically, economically, and militarily is a central question of the war.

Grant’s successful gamble: Porter’s gunboats night ran the Confederate gauntlet at Vicksburg on the Mississippi River.

9. Legislative: The North produced a revolutionary set of laws: the Homestead Act in the West, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Morrill Act of 1862–the Land Grant College Act–which created agricultural colleges across the country through federal money. In contrast,the CSA wasn’t an actual country but a collection of rebellious states, each of which was fighting for their own agendas more than the agenda of the Confederacy. In comparison, the South was unable to unitarily produce legislation that deals effectively with inflation, lack of gold reserves, and trade/commerce.

10. Superior political leadership:  If I was restricted to one answer to this question, my answer would be Abraham Lincoln. The advantage in leadership he provided over Jefferson Davis is incalculable. Lincoln swiftly and effectively managed the problems created by the war, including financing the war, maintaining morale at home, providing supplies to the populace, and supplying the troops, whereas Davis’s response to these same issues were weak and disastrous.

11. Diplomacy. Britain did not take sides or join the war. Charles Francis Adams, son and grandson of two presidents, performed superbly.

12. Military leadership: In the end, the Union had better military leaders (Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas). Frankly, Ulysses Grant was the difference.

13. A universally accepted moral goal: Emancipation of the slaves, while not at the outset a universally agreed upon goal, became the central ideological purpose. A new meaning of liberty and freedom.

14. Geographical advantage: The South comprises a huge territory, but despite a 1500 mile coastline, the ports could be blockaded by the Federal naval force – the Anaconda plan. The rivers ran north/south allowing them to be used as a transportation and supply road, an observation for which General Grant should get full credit.

Anaconda Plan

15. Squandered military advantage: The South had an advantage as a revolutionary insurgency; it didn’t have to win, just had to outlast the North. It had better officers and better soldiers at the start but they could not be replaced. In a short war, this might have been decisive but Davis selected a wide defense and Lee a fighting strategy that paradoxically played to its disadvantages. Other disadvantages: supply; no navy, no armament production at the start (then Tredegar).

16. Communications: The use of the telegraph as a means of instantaneous communications between military commanders in the field strategically with their civilian leadership in Washington changed warfare. As the 19th century “Information highway”, the telegraph was used during battles from time to time where the lines permitted. The Lincoln administration had the advantage over the Davis administration in being able to receive and deliver information to and from its commanders the field instantly, especially at crucial moments. Grant was able to communicate with his subordinates in other theaters almost instantly while campaigning in Virginia in1864. The telegraph enhanced the concept of military “Command and Control”.

17. Psychological advantage: The South at the start had an advantage in a clear cause or purpose – independence.  Did the South lose the Civil War because it ultimately lost its will to sustain the fight? In an insurgency, why didn’t the populace hold out? Where was its sense of nationalism?

18. Class Distinctions & Power:  Both sides were capitalistic. Less than one percent of property, in both South and North, was held by approximately fifty percent of free adult males. The richest one percent in both sections held twenty-seven percent of all the wealth. While both had oligarchies based on wealth, their foundations, and hence their aspirations, were different and distinct. 

The Old Southern society, both its leadership and its people, were anti-modernism. It was an agrarian, rural society that intrinsically resisted what they perceived as the corruptions of modern commercialism. Southern slaveholding leadership, in particular, were very suspicious of the spread of literacy. The North had democratic tendencies that were spreading literacy, and eventually the right to vote more widely. Democracy was a threat to the Southern hierarchy. 

The North was a market economy: a commercial, consumer mentality with technological innovation and work available for everyone. Cities were growing and becoming manufacturing and commercial centers. Immigrants settled in the North where there was opportunity, expanding its population.

19. Inability to run the infrastructure: As the war continues, able bodied men can not return to the farm to produce the supplies needed to continue the economy. Who is going to watch over the slaves if everyone is at the front? What about the farms whose male owner has been killed in the war? Who is going to protect against a slave rebellion?

20. Desertion: Confederate desertion rates were much higher than the Union especially during 1864 and 1865, as the war effort seemed to be failing and the bankrupt CSA began to reduce and  withhold pay for the Confederate soldiers. A lot of Confederate soldiers also eventually came to realize they were fighting a rich man’s war and their death wouldn’t benefit anyone besides wealthy slave owners so they deserted. This led to notable criminal behavior that stressed the home front even further.

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?) Written by Dr. Lloyd Klein

Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco. He is a nationally recognized cardiologist with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise. He is also an amateur historian who has read extensively and published previously on the Civil War, with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications.
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