For the past two weeks students in the American Seminar have discussed some of the major issues from the Civil War. One of them is the supposed certainty of Union victory. Viewed in hindsight, the prospects of fighting a successful war for independence were slim indeed for the infant Confederacy. The eleven seceded states had a population of nine million, of which three to three and one-half million were slaves. There was a small white Unionist minority, but it was concentrated in the mountainous Appalachian belt of the eastern seaboard states, adding a political and ideological barrier to the topographical one that divided the two regions. The south suffered from a huge manpower imbalance against the twenty-two Union states with a population of twenty-two million. Continued European immigration added to Union military strength. The North had a far better rail network, which was close to maturity by 1860, and linked the Midwest with the Northeast, Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Its manufacturing capacity was far larger than the South’s. Based on the industrial census of 1859 it could be said that while the South had ten thousand factory workers, the North had ten thousand factories. The North’s financial system, its banks and overall wealth, also dwarfed what the Confederacy could claim. The United States was recognized by all major European powers, and many others worldwide. In 1861, the Confederacy had full diplomatic recognition from no major nation. All of the governmental systems, and private institutions, that were in existence in 1860 just had to keep functioning for the Union cause to maintain itself.
The benefits of hindsight are said to be twenty-twenty, but the retrospective view occasionally misses important features of the historical landscape. The Union fought to bring the South back; victory meant conquest, and occupation. Like Greta Garbo, Confederates only wanted to be let alone. Their war aims were different. Many hoped they could be achieved by staying on the defensive, and fighting along interior lines, which would require less manpower to hold a smaller land area than the North occupied. The South’s rail net was skeletal, but by 1861 its major cities were linked, and during the war it used what railroads it had as well, and possibly better, than did the north, until its infrastructure began to collapse. Its agricultural economy would be able to feed the southern population. Trade with Europe, chiefly in exchange for cotton, would bring the additional manufactured goods that were needed. If that trade was stopped by a Union blockade, it might bring European diplomatic recognition, or military intervention, or both. Within weeks after Lincoln and Seward declared a paper blockade of the Southern coast in 1861, the European powers granted belligerency status to the Confederacy, a step toward full recognition. The South’s white male population of military age was but a fraction of the North’s, but more of it could fight, because fewer men were needed for food production, with the slave labor force. Its people were mostly united for the cause of Southern independence. By 1865 one in three white adult males had been killed, hardly a sign of a half-hearted commitment. Southern leaders and their people knew of many instances in history where the weaker combatant had defeated the stronger. Today one can point to the Vietnam War as another such example, and possibly the ongoing struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global hot spots. The Confederacy had unexpected, and unprecedented success at improvising industries, developing a munitions capacity, building iron warships, making medicine from roots and herbs, and creating new government departments, among many other examples.
The items above are a brief list of a few of the many factors that favored the North, which are balanced if not negated by an equal number of other factors favoring the South. A Union victory was not inevitable. The North on several occasions came close to losing the war. As late as mid-summer of 1864 Abraham Lincoln, as shrewd and careful a politician as America has yet produced, thought he would not be reelected president. Grant was bogged down around Petersburg; Sherman had not taken Atlanta. Confederate raiders roamed the seven seas, devastating the American merchant marine, which never recovered. The Northern public was weary of the staggering casualties that continued to mount from a war with no end in sight. Americans should be cautious about assuming that they are always destined to triumph, regardless of whether their ancestors were Yankees or Rebels.