Why the North won the Civil War”You Are Bound to Fail.”
Union officer William Tecumseh Sherman to a Southern friend:
In all history, no nation of mere agriculturists ever
made successful war against a nation of mechanics. . ..
You are bound to fail. (Catton, Glory Road 241)
The American antebellum South, though steeped in pride and raised in
military tradition, was to be no match for the burgeoning superiority of
the rapidly developing North in the coming Civil War. The lack of
emphasis on manufacturing and commercial interest, stemming from the
Southern desire to preserve their traditional agrarian society,
surrendered to the North their ability to function independently, much
less to wage war. It was neither Northern troops nor generals that won
the Civil War, rather Northern guns and industry.
From the onset of war, the Union had obvious advantages. Quite simply,
the North had large amounts of just about everything that the South did
not, boasting resources that the Confederacy had even no means of
attaining (See Appendices, Brinkley et al. 415). Sheer manpower ratios
were unbelievably one-sided, with only nine of the nation’s 31 million
inhabitants residing in the seceding states (Angle 7). The Union also
had large amounts of land available for growing food crops which served
the dual purpose of providing food for its hungry soldiers and money for
its ever-growing industries. The South, on the other hand, devoted most
of what arable land it had exclusively to its main cash crop: cotton
(Catton, The Coming Fury 38). Raw materials were almost entirely
concentrated in Northern mines and refining industries. Railroads and
telegraph lines, the veritable lifelines of any army, traced paths all
across the Northern countryside but left the South isolated, outdated,
and starving (See Appendices). The final death knell for a modern South
developed in the form of economic colonialism. The Confederates were
all too willing to sell what little raw materials they possessed to
Northern Industry for any profit they could get. Little did they know,
“King Cotton” could buy them time, but not the war. The South had
bartered something that perhaps it had not intended: its independence
(Catton, Reflections 143).
The North’s ever-growing industry was an important supplement to its
economical dominance of the South. Between the years of 1840 and 1860,
American industry saw sharp and steady growth. In 1840 the total value
of goods manufactured in the United States stood at $483 million,
increasing over fourfold by 1860 to just under $2 billion, with the
North taking the king’s ransom (Brinkley et al. 312). The underlying
reason behind this dramatic expansion can be traced directly to the
American Industrial Revolution.
Beginning in the early 1800s, traces of the industrial revolution in
England began to bleed into several aspects of the American society.
One of the first industries to see quick development was the textile
industry, but, thanks to the British government, this development almost
never came to pass. Years earlier, England’s James Watt had developed
the first successful steam engine. This invention, coupled with the
birth of James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, completely revolutionized the
British textile industry, and eventually made it the most profitable in
the world (“Industrial Revolution”). The British government,
parsimonious with its newfound knowledge of machinery, attempted to
protect the nation’s manufacturing preeminence by preventing the export
of textile machinery and even the emigration of skilled mechanics.
Despite valiant attempts at deterrence, though, many immigrants managed
to make their way into the United States with the advanced knowledge of
English technology, and they were anxious to acquaint America with the
new machines (Furnas 303).
And acquaint the Americans they did: more specifically, New England
Americans. It was people like Samuel Slater who can be credited with
beginning the revolution of the textile industry in America. A skilled
mechanic in England, Slater spent long hours studying the schematics for
the spinning jenny until finally he no longer needed them. He emigrated
to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and there, together with a Quaker merchant
by the name of Moses Brown, he built a spinning jenny from memory
(Furnas 303). This meager mill would later become known as the first
modern factory in America. It would also become known as the point at
which the North began its economic domination of the Confederacy.
Although slow to accept change, The South was not entirely unaffected
by the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Another inventor by the name
of Eli Whitney set out in 1793 to revolutionize the Southern cotton
industry. Whitney was working as a tutor for a plantation owner in
Georgia (he was also, ironically, born and raised in New England) and
therefore knew the problems of harvesting cotton (Brinkley et al. 200).
Until then, the arduous task of separating the seeds from the cotton
before sale had been done chiefly by slave labor and was, consequently,
very inefficient. Whitney developed a machine which would separate the
seed from the cotton swiftly and effectively, cutting the harvesting
time by more than one half (“Industrial Revolution”). This machine,
which became known as the cotton gin, had profound results on the South,
producing the highest uptrend the industry had ever, and would ever,
see. In that decade alone cotton production figures increased by more
than 2000 percent (Randall and Donald 36). Enormous amounts of business
opportunities opened up, including, perhaps most importantly, the
expansion of the Southern plantations. This was facilitated by the fact
that a single worker could now do the same amount of work in a few hours
that a group of workers had once needed a whole day to do (Brinkley et
al. 201). This allowed slaves to pick much more cotton per day and
therefore led most plantation owners to expand their land base. The
monetary gains of the cash crop quickly took precedence over the basic
necessity of the food crop, which could be gotten elsewhere. In 1791
cotton production amounted to only 4000 bales, but by 1860, production
levels had skyrocketed to just under five million bales (Randall and
Donald 36). Cotton was now bringing in nearly $200 million a year,
which constituted almost two-thirds of the total export trade (Brinkley
et al. 329). “King Cotton” was born, and it soon became a fundamental
motive in Southern diplomacy. However, during this short burst of
economic prowess, the South failed to realize that it would never be
sustained by “King Cotton” alone. What it needed was the guiding hand
of “Queen Industry.”
Eli Whitney soon came to realize that the South would not readily
accept change, and decided to take his inventive mind back up to the
North, where it could be put to good use. He found his niche in the
small arms business. Previously, during two long years of quasi-war
with France, Americans had been vexed by the lack of rapidity with which
sufficient armaments could be produced. Whitney came to the rescue with
the invention of interchangeable parts. His vision of the perfect
factory included machines which would produce, from a preshaped mold,
the various components needed to build a standard infantry rifle, and
workers on an assembly line who would construct it (“Industrial
Revolution”). The North, eager to experiment and willing to try
anything that smacked of economic progress, decided to test the waters
of this inviting new method of manufacture. It did not take the
resourceful Northerners very long to actualize Eli Whitney’s dream and
make mass production a reality. The small arms industry boomed, and
kept on booming. By the onset of the Civil War, the confederate states
were dolefully noting the fact that there were thirty-eight Union arms
factories capable of producing a total of 5,000 infantry rifles per day,
compared with their own paltry capacity of 100 (Catton, Glory Road 241).
During the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution dug its spurs deep into
the side of the Northern states. Luckily, immigration numbers were
skyrocketing at this time, and the sudden profusion of factory positions
that needed to be filled was not a big problem (See Appendices and
Randall and Donald 1-2). The immigrants, who were escaping anything
from the Irish Potato Famine to British oppression, were willing to work
for almost anything and withstand inhuman factory conditions (Jones).
Although this exploitation was extremely cruel and unfair to the
immigrants, Northern businessmen profited immensely from it (Brinkley et
By the beginning of war in 1860, the Union, from an economical
standpoint, stood like a towering giant over the stagnant Southern
agrarian society. Of the over 128,000 industrial firms in the nation at
this time, the Confederacy held only 18,026. New England alone topped
the figure with over 19,000, and so did Pennsylvania 21,000 and New York
with 23,000 (Paludan 105). The total value of goods manufactured in the
state of New York alone was over four times that of the entire
Confederacy. The Northern states produced 96 percent of the locomotives
in the country, and, as for firearms, more of them were made in one
Connecticut county than in all the Southern factories combined (“Civil
War,” Encyclopedia Americana).
The Confederacy had made one fatal mistake: believing that its thriving
cotton industry alone would be enough to sustain itself throughout the
war. Southerners saw no need to venture into the uncharted industrial
territories when good money could be made with cotton. What they failed
to realize was that the cotton boom had done more for the North than it
had done for the South. Southerners could grow vast amounts of cotton,
but due to the lack of mills, they could do nothing with it.
Consequently, the cotton was sold to the Northerners who would use it in
their factories to produce wools and linens, which were in turn sold
back to the South. This cycle stimulated industrial growth in the Union
and stagnated it in the Confederate states (Catton, Reflections 144).
Southern plantation owners erred in believing that the growing textile
industries of England and France were highly dependent on their cotton,
and that, in the event of war, those countries would come to their
rescue (“Civil War,” World Book). They believed that the North would
then be forced to acquiesce to the “perfect” Southern society. They
During the war years, the economical superiority of the Union, which
had been so eminent before the war, was cemented. The Civil War gave an
even bigger boost to the already growing factories in the North. The
troops needed arms and warm clothes on a constant basis, and Northern
Industry was glad to provide them. By 1862, the Union could boast of
its capacity to manufacture almost all of its own war materials using
its own resources (Brinkley et al. 415). The South, on the other hand,
was fatally dependent on outside resources for its war needs.
Dixie was not only lagging far behind in the factories. It had also
chosen to disregard two other all-important areas in which the North had
chosen to thrive: transportation and communication.
. . . the Railroad, the Locomotive, and the Telegraph- -iron, steam,
and lightning-these three mighty genii of civilization . . . will know
no lasting pause until the whole vast line of railway shall completed
from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (Furnas 357)
During the antebellum years, the North American populace especially had
shown a great desire for an effective mode of transportation. For a
long time, canals had been used to transport people and goods across
large amounts of land which were accessible by water, but, with
continuing growth and expansion, these canals were becoming obsolete and
a symbol of frustration to many Northerners. They simply needed a way
to transport freight and passengers across terrains where waterways did
not exist (Brinkley et al. 256-59).
The first glimmer of hope came as America’s first primitive locomotive,
powered by a vertical wood-fired boiler, puffed out of Charleston
hauling a cannon and gun crew firing salutes (Catton, Glory Road 237).
Ironically enough, this revolution had begun in the South, but there it
would not prosper. The Railroading industry quickly blossomed in the
North, where it provided a much needed alternative to canals, but could
never quite get a foothold in the South. Much of this can be accredited
to the fact that Northern engineers were experienced in the field of
ironworking and had no problem constructing vast amounts of intricate
rail lines, while Southerners, still fledglings in the field, simply
This hobbling was quite unmistakable at the outbreak of the Civil War.
The Union, with its some 22,000 miles of track, was able to transport
weaponry, clothes, food, soldiers, and whatever supplies were needed to
almost any location in the entire theater. Overall, this greatly aided
the Northern war effort and worked to increase the morale of the
troops. The South, on the other hand, could not boast such logistical
prowess. With its meager production of only four percent of the
nation”s locomotives and its scant 9,000 miles of track, the Confederacy
stood in painful awareness of its inferiority (Randall and Donald 8).
Trackage figures alone, though, do not tell the entire story of the
weakness of the South”s railroad”s system. Another obstacle arose in
the problem of track gauge. The gauge, or width of track, frequently
varied from rail to rail in the South. Therefore, goods would often
have to be taken off one train and transferred to another before moving
on to their final destination. Any perishable goods had to be stored in
warehouses if there were any delays, and this was not an uncommon
occurrence. There also existed a problem in the fact that there were
large gaps between many crucial parts of the South, which required
suppliers to make detours over long distances or to carry goods between
rails by wagon (Catton, The Coming Fury 434). As the war progressed,
the Confederate railroad system steadily deteriorated, and, by the end
of the struggle, it had all but collapsed.
Communication, or rather lack thereof, was another impediment to
Southern economical growth. The telegraph had burst into American life
in 1844, when Samuel Morse first transmitted, from the Supreme Court
chamber in the capitol to Alfred Vail in Baltimore, his famous words
“What hath God wrought!” (Brinkley et al. 314). The advent of this
fresh form of communication greatly facilitated the operation of the
railroad lines in the North. Telegraph lines ran along the tracks,
connecting one station to the next and aiding the scheduling of the
trains. Moreover, the telegraph provided instant communication between
distant cities, tying the nation together like never before. Yet,
ironically, it also buttressed the growing schism between the two
diverging societies (314). The South, unimpressed by this new modern
technology and not having the money to experiment, chose not to delve
very deeply into its development. Pity, they would learn to regret it.
By 1860, the North had laid over 90 percent of the nation”s some 50,000
miles of telegraph wire. Morse”s telegraph had become an ideal answer
to the problems of long-distance communication, with its latest triumph
of land taking shape in the form of the Pacific telegraph, which ran
from New York to San Francisco and used 3,595 miles of wire (Brinkley et
al. 315). The North, as with all telegraph lines, embraced its
relatively low cost and ease of construction. The Pacific telegraph
brought the agricultural Northwest together with the more industrious
Northeast and the blossoming West, forming an alliance which would prove
to break the back of the ever-weakening South (324-25).
The Civil War was a trying time for both the Union and the Confederacy
alike, but the question of its outcome was obvious from the start. The
North was guaranteed a decisive victory over the ill-equipped South.
Northerners, prepared to endure the deprivation of war, were startled to
find that they were experiencing an enormous industrial boom even after
the first year of war. Indeed, the only Northern industry that suffered
from the war was the carrying trade (Catton, Reflections 144). To the
South, however, the war was a draining and debilitating leech, sucking
the land dry of any semblance of economical formidability. No financial
staple was left untouched; all were subject to diminishment and
exhaustion. This agrarian South, with its traditional values and
beliefs, decided not to cultivate two crops which would prove quite
crucial in the outcome of the Civil War. Those crops were industry and
progress, and without them the South was doomed to defeat. A wise man
he was, that Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. A wise man indeed.
(Note: appendices taken from Brinkley et al. 315-17, 415)
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City, New York: Doubleday, 1967.
Brinkley, Alan, et al. American History: A Survey. New York: McGraw,
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York: Doubleday, 1952.
—. The Coming Fury. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961. Vol 2
of The Centennial History of the Civil War. 3 vols. n.d.
—. Reflections on the Civil War. Ed. John Leekley. 1st ed. Garden
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“Civil War.” Encyclopedia Americana. 1987 ed.
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Furnas, J.C.. The Americans: A Social History of the United States
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Paludan, Philip Shaw. A People”s Contest. New York: Harper, 1988.
Randall, J.G., and David Herbert Donald. The Civil War and
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