The United States and the Civil War





Americans on their homesteads or in the swiftly growing cities generally enjoyed a high standard of living, and of national output, relative to other countries. Already in 1800, wages had been about one-third higher than those in western Europe, and that superiority was to be preserved, if not increased, throughout the century. Despite the vast inflow of European immigrants by the 1850s, the ready availability of land in the west, together with constant industrial growth, caused labor to be relatively scarce and wages to be high, which in turn induced manufacturers to invest in labor-saving machinery, further stimulating national productivity. The young republic’s isolation from European power struggles, and the cordon sanitaire which the Royal Navy (rather than the Monroe Doctrine) imposed to separate the Old World from the New, meant that the only threat to the United States’ future prosperity could come from Britain itself. Yet despite sore memories of 1776 and 1812, and border disputes in the northwest, an Anglo-American war was unlikely; the flow of British capital and manufactures toward the United States and the return flow of American raw materials (especially cotton) tied the two economies ever closer together and further stimulated American economic growth. Instead of having to divert financial resources into large-scale defense expenditures, therefore, a strategically secure United States could concentrate its own (and British) funds upon developing its vast economic potential. Neither conflict with the Indians nor the 1846 war with Mexico was a substantial drain upon such productive investment.

The result of all this was that even before the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, the United States had become an economic giant, although its own distance from Europe, its concentration upon internal development (rather than foreign trade), and the rugged nature of the countryside partly disguised that fact. While its share of world manufacturing output in 1860 was well behind that of Great Britain, it had already surged past Germany and Russia and was on the point of overtaking France. The United States, with only 40 percent of Russia’s population in 1860, had an urban population more than twice as large, produced 830,000 tons of iron to Russia’s 350,000 tons, had an energy consumption from modern fuel sources fifteen times as large, and a railway mileage thirty times greater (and even three times greater than Britain’s). By contrast, the United States possessed a regular army of a mere 26,000 men compared with Russia’s gigantic force of 862,000. The disparity between the economic indices and the military indices of the two continent-wide states was perhaps never greater than at this point.

Within another year, of course, the Civil War had begun to transform the amount of national resources which Americans devoted to military purposes. The origins and causes of that conflict are not for discussion here; but since the leadership of both sides had determined upon a fight to the finish, and since each side could call upon hundreds of thousands of men, the struggle was likely to be prolonged. What made it more so was the distances involved, with the “front” ranging from the Virginia coast to the Mississippi, and even farther westward into Missouri and Arkansas—much of this being forest, mountain range, and swamplands. Similarly, the North’s naval blockade of its foes’ ports involved patrolling a coastline as extensive as that between Hamburg and Genoa. Crushing the South, in other words, would be an extraordinarily difficult logistical and military task, especially for a people which had kept its armed forces to a minimum and had no experience of large-scale war.

Yet while the four years of conflict were exhausting and fearfully bloody—the Union losing about 360,000 men to the Confederacy’s 258,000*—they also catalyzed the latent national power which the United States possessed, transforming it (at least for a short while) into the greatest military nation on earth before its post-1865 demobilization. From amateur beginnings, the armed forces of each side turned themselves into mass conscript armies, employing modern rifled artillery and small arms, grinding away in the siege warfare of northern Virginia or being shuttled en masse by rail to the western theaters, communicating by telegraph to army headquarters, and drawing upon the resources of a mobilized war economy; the naval campaigns, moreover, witnessed the first use of ironclads, of rotating turrets, of early torpedos and mines, and of swift, steam-driven commerce raiders. Since this conflict much more than either the Crimean struggle or Prussia’s wars of unification lays claim to being the first real industrialized “total war” on proto-twentieth-century lines, it is worth noting why the North won.

The first and most obvious reason—assuming that willpower would remain equal on each side—was the disproportion in resources and population. It may have been true that the South enjoyed the morale advantage of fighting for its very existence and (usually) on its own soil; that it could call upon a higher proportion of white males who were used to riding and shooting; that it possessed determined and good-quality generals and that, for a long while, it could import munitions and other supplies to make up for its matériel deficiencies. But none of these could fully compensate for the great numerical imbalance between the North and the South. While the former contained a population of approximately twenty million whites, the Confederacy had only six million. What was more, the Union’s total was steadily enhanced by immigrants (more than 800,000 arrived between 1861 and 1865) and by the 1862 decision to enlist black troops—something which the South avoided, predictably enough, until the last few months of the war. Around two million men served in the Union Army, which reached a peak strength of about one million in 1864–1865, whereas only about 900,000 men fought for the Confederate Army, whose maximum strength was never more than 464,500—from which “peak,” reached in late 1863, it slowly declined.

But there was, as usual, more to war than sheer numbers. Even to reach the army size it did, the South ran the risk of taking too many men away from agriculture, mines, and foundries, thus weakening its already questionable capacity to fight a prolonged war. From the very beginning, in fact, the Confederates found themselves disadvantaged economically. In 1860 the North possessed 110,000 manufacturing establishments to the South’s 18,000 (and many of the latter relied upon Northern technological expertise and skilled laborers); the Confederacy produced only 36,700 tons of pig iron, whereas Pennsylvania’s total alone was 580,000 tons; New York State manufactured almost $300 million worth of goods—well over four times the production of Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi combined. This staggering disparity in the economic base of each belligerent steadily transformed itself into real military effectiveness.

For example, whereas the South could make very few rifles (chiefly from the machinery captured at Harper’s Ferry) and heavily relied upon imports, the North massively expanded its home manufactures of rifles, of which nearly 1.7 million were produced. The North’s railway system (some 22,000 miles in length, and fanning out from the east to the southwest) could be maintained, and even expanded, during the war; the South’s mere 9,000 miles of track, and inadequate supplies of locomotives and rolling stock, was gradually worn out. Similarly, while neither side possessed much of a navy at the outset of the conflict, the South was disadvantaged by having no machine shop which could build marine engines, whereas the North possessed several dozen such establishments. Although it took time for the Union’s maritime supremacy to make itself felt—during which period blockade runners brought European-made munitions to the Confederate Army, and Southern commerce raiders inflicted heavy losses upon the North’s merchant marine—the net slowly and inexorably tightened around the South’s ports. By December 1864 the Union’s navy totaled some 671 warships, including 236 steam vessels built since the war’s beginning. Northern sea power was also vital in giving its armed forces control of the great inland rivers, especially in the Mississippi-Tennessee region; it was the successful use of combined rail and water transport which aided the Union’s offensives in the western theater.

Finally, the Confederates found it impossible to pay for the war. Their chief income in peacetime came from the export of cotton; when that trade dried up and when—to the South’s disappointment—the European powers did not intervene in the struggle, there was no way to compensate for the loss. There were few banks in the South, and little liquid capital; and taxing land and slaves brought little revenue when the productivity of both was being hard hit by the war. Borrowing from abroad produced little, yet without foreign currency or specie it was difficult to pay for vital imports. Inevitably, perhaps, the Confederate treasury turned to the printing press, but “overabundant paper money combined with severe commodity shortages to create rampant inflation”—which in turn dealt a severe blow to the populace’s will to continue the fight. By contrast, the North could always raise enough money, from taxation and loans, to pay for the conflict; and its printing of “greenbacks” in some ways stimulated further industrial and economic growth. Impressively, the Union’s productivity surged again during the war, not only in munitions, railway-building, and ironclad construction, but also in agricultural output. By the end of the war, Northern soldiers were probably better fed and supplied than any army in history. If there was going to be a particularly American approach to military conflict—an “American way of war,” to use Professor Weigley’s phrase—then it was first forged here, in the Union’s mobilization and deployment of its massive industrial-technological potential to crush its foe.

If all the above sounds too deterministic an explanation for the outcome of a conflict which seemed to sway backward and forward for nearly four years, then it may be worth stressing the fundamental strategical problem which faced the South. Given the imbalances in size and population, there was no way in which it could overrun the North; the best that could be achieved was to so blunt the enemy’s armies, and willpower, that he would abandon his policy of coercion and admit the South’s claims (to slavery, or to secede, or both). This strategy would have been greatly aided if the border states like Maryland and Kentucky had overwhelmingly voted to join the Confederacy, which simply didn’t happen; and it would have been helped beyond measure if a foreign power like Britain had intervened, but to suppose that was likely was a staggering misreading of British political priorities in the early 1860s. With the exclusion of those two possibilities of swinging the overall military balance in favor of the South, the Confederates were simply left with the strategy of resisting the Union’s pressures and hoping that a majority of Northerners would tire of the war. But that meant, unavoidably, a long-drawn-out conflict—and the lengthier the war was, the more the Union could mobilize its greater resources, boost its munitions production, lay down hundreds of warships, and inexorably squeeze the South, by naval blockade, by unrelenting military pressure in northern Virginia, by long-range campaigning in the west, and by Sherman’s devastating drives through enemy territories. As the South’s economy, morale, and front-line forces waned—by the beginning of 1865 its “present for duty” troop total was down to 155,000 men—surrender was the only realistic choice left.

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