Monday, November 3, 2008

The American Civil War: The Military Balance sheet of 1861: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Union and Confederacy

With the benefit of historical hindsight, it seems almost impossible to think that the Confederacy could have won the war against the Union. By surveying the balance sheet of both sides, it is possible to assess how far the Confederacy lagged behind the Union in both resources and economic development.

In terms of population, for every inhabitant of the Confederate States there were more than two Americans who lived in the Union. In addition, the Confederacy had more than three and half million slaves and 130,000 freed blacks. Slave labour also allowed white men to serve in the Confederate army, allowing for more than 80% of the military age population to be mobilised.

Economically, the North surpassed the South in almost every measure. Prior to the war, the South had relied upon the northern states and Britain for the iron and steel imports necessary for railroad construction. The North possessed 110,000 some factories and workshops of various sizes. By comparison, the South possessed barely a tenth of that number. Statistics for industrial workers further demonstrate that the American industrial basin was clearly concentrated in the Northern states. 1,300,000 workers in the North were employed in industry. By comparison, the south had only 110,000 workers. The predominance of manufacturing in the northern states gave the Union a huge advantage. In 1860, the North produced fifteen times the level of iron manufactured in the South. The arms industry was also concentrated in the North with 97% of all firearms produced north of the Mason-Dixie line.

Despite these massive material advantages, the war would be won by the side that could best concentrate their resources overwhelmingly against the enemy. Total war is only possible with the support of a banking and credit system to support the costs of war. It was in this field that the North excelled over the Confederacy. With 85% of all capital and 80% of all bank deposits, the North had a banking and credit system vastly more developed than anything in the South. The Federal government was therefore able to draw upon loans from private financiers in quantities which was simply impossible for the Confederacy.

Although many Southern politicians believed they had a predominance in agriculture (especially cotton, which they attempted to leverage to gain diplomatic recognition from Britain and France), the reality was that here too, the North had a clear advantage. The failure of Missouri and Kentucky to secede had deprived the Confederacy of another important agricultural basin that could have supplied the Confederate army. The South had also hoped to use cotton exports to obtain credit on the European markets. However, New Orleans, the largest port in the Confederacy fell into Union hands early in the war. The remaining important cities of Charleston, Galveston, Mobile and Wilmington were all vulnerable to naval and land attack.

Despite these inherent disadvantages, the South possessed strengths that they hoped would ultimately win them the war. In order to conquer the South, Federal armies would have to subdue an area the size of Western Europe. In 1860, the Federal army was only 14,000 strong. Those few troops were scattered across various parts of the continental United States. Both North and South would therefore have to start from scratch in raising the large armies that would ultimately be required to fight the war. It was hoped that the Confederacy would therefore have sufficient time to make allies and involve international powers such as Britain to turn the tide against the Union. Furthermore, Federal troops advancing into the South would have to deal with the problems of over-extended lines of communication and the estimated thirty or so supply wagons required for every thousand troops. Countryside and enemy strongholds would need to be pacified, drawing yet more troops away from the front. If the Confederacy could drag out the fighting for long enough, they hoped to be able to tire out the Union, just as the American colonists had tired out a militarily superior British force ninety years before. Although the North had a larger population, one in five (four million people) were foreign immigrants. Such a large diverse population might be more difficult to keep together in comparison to the more homogeneous Southern population.

Given the weaknesses of the South, the historian must ask how the Confederates could have rationally believed that they could make and win a war against the Union?
The answer lies perhaps in the fact that many of the technologies and tactics of Total War later seen in the US Civil War were not immediately apparent to commanders on both sides. The potential of railway to change the nature of battlefield logistics had yet be discovered. It is important to remember that many of the relative strengths and weaknesses of both sides were only fully realised later in the war.

Adam I.P. Smith, ‘The American Civil War’, (New York, 2007)

Mark E. Neely, ‘Was the Civil War a Total War?’, Civil War History 37 (1991)

Ronald N. Current, ‘God and the Strongest Battalions’ in David Hubere Donald, ed, ‘Why the North won the Civil War’ (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1960)

James M. McPherson, ‘Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction’ (New York 1982)

James Huston, ‘Calculating the value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

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