The Union had large advantages in men and resources at the start of the war; the ratio grew steadily in favor of the Union.
By any measure of military strength, the South should not have gone to war against the North in 1861. The odds were too heavily stacked against it. Military armaments were one key measure and certainly one that spoke to the disparity of strength between the two regions. The North manufactured over 90 percent of all firearms produced in the United States. The rail lines intersecting the nation lay mostly in the North in almost as one-sided a proportion, 75 percent. This capacity spoke to the advantages of industrial development in the North that far exceeded that of the South. Add in the vastly superior textile production of the North, and it was clear that this part of the United States could equip more soldiers with uniforms, arms, and provisions, than the South could hope to do. Since the North also had three times the population of the South, translating into a man- power advantage of at least three to one, the North would be able to field an army that far outnumbered the South. Additionally, the South would possess virtually no navy, conceding a significant military advantage to the North. Given the odds, the South was foolish, reckless, and perhaps unbal- anced to contemplate a war against its neighbor.
The military imbalance grew out of a larger economic disparity. Canals in the South, much like rail lines, accounted for a pitifully small number of the nation’s total, just 14 percent. Transportation was not in high demand given that, by 1842, the South was home to less than 18 percent of the nation’s manufacturing capacity. This number helped explain Northern population growth, a 20 percent advantage over the South in the 1840s alone, much of it from Southerners moving north looking for employment. A concerted effort in the South to increase industry there took hold in the 1850s. Manufacturing doubled as capital investment rose by 75 percent, and labor in the industrial sector climbed by 25 percent. But the South made little progress in comparison to Northern gains. The disparity remained.
The South could point to the cotton boom as proof of its economic vitality, and this certainly was true since the boom reached its height in the decade before the Civil War. However, a dependence on agriculture meant more economic disadvantages. Southern staples, cotton, tobacco, and sugar, overwhelmingly went for export. These commodities traveled on Northern rails and boats. Starved of capital, the slave owner turned to Northern banks for money. This financing then went to purchasing more slaves and land. It was a cycle that held the slave owner in financial bondage to Yankee interests to the amount of $100 million annually. Still, plantation owners did better than the rest of the South since a large majority of whites enjoyed no access to monetary resources at all. This rebounded with another economic negative. Southerners had no money to buy consumer goods, so no industry rose in the South to meet this demand because there was no such demand. A small Southern elite imported its finished goods. In sum, Yankee economic strangulation of the South was complete, and it imposed a binding constraint on the entire South, not just the upper class. Preemption was needed to break these bonds and achieve economic self- sufficiency to recoup funds totaling millions of dollars.
Many Southerners believed that more land would cure these ills by allowing a greater number of whites to enjoy the fruits of the cotton boom. But Northerners refused this courtesy. Restricted in acquiring new slave lands, the South saw only conspiracy. The Wilmot Proviso in 1846 was one important example where indignant Yankees refused to allow slavery in any land seized from the war with Mexico. Yet, these same detractors sought to admit California to the Union as a free state four years later. The South fought in vain to head off this disaster. In Congress, the House already did the North’s bidding, given that the North enjoyed much more representation. The Proviso was stopped in the Senate. To lose control of the Senate with the admittance of both California and New Mexico as free states would be disastrous for the South. Defeat in territorial expansion meant only more tyranny in the absence of political representation. The increasing number of free states would ensure a defeat of Southern interests in Con- gress, no matter how these interests were defined. Clearly the South could not stay within the democratic process to secure its welfare because that right of representation had been eliminated by Yankee control of Congress, or soon would be.
A few brave souls tried to get past the barriers imposed on the South by the North. These intrepid adventurers looked to Latin America as a means to expand slave lands. William Walker is one very good example, given that his exploits in the mid-1850s carried him first into Mexico and then Nicaragua. In each locale he and his “army” of not quite one hundred men established free republics. In Nicaragua, he also openly declared in favor of slavery. Here was an invitation to the South to join him in turn- ing Central America into a fertile ground for Southern expansion. There were many other such men advocating the expansion of slavery into Central America; the favored target was Cuba. Due to their actions, Mani- fest Destiny became a Southern burden, one Southerners believed they carried nobly. Yet the schemes came to nothing. Mexican authorities forced Walker from that country and the Nicaraguans eventually did the same. Honduran authorities finally executed this hated gringo. In other instances, the Northern-dominated US government interfered and stopped these endeavors, branding them unlawful. However, Southerners watched as Northern vigilance relaxed when it came to enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, the key concession the North granted to the South in the Compromise of 1850. Numerous instances of slaves escaping into Canada due to aid from sympathetic Northerners, or of slaves continuing to hide in the North and not facing the legal sanctions of the fugitive slave law, enraged Southern sensibilities. Better to leave the Union and make laws for the betterment of the South than to bow before an arbitrary enforcement of laws that reflected an abusive Northern rule.
The abolitionist drive in the North to end slavery struck at the core of Southern existence, both monetary and cultural. Deprived of its labor force, the Southern economy would collapse. With such an economic downturn, how would the South incorporate some four million ex-slaves into its society? This problem included the practical aspect of labor and the cultural bomb of assimilation, since emancipation necessitated some accommodation with former slaves. What the North was asking for was a revolution. The South turned to preemption as a means of counter-revolution. The South believed that it must strike first to protect the status quo before the destructive forces of revolution arose. Slavery would remain in place to ensure economic vitality, of course, but also to stop the prospect of racial barbarity. Southerners would thwart the Northern perversion of their lifestyle. Waiting invited disaster.
Slavery boiled down to a question of defining freedom, not for slaves, but for Southerners. The very essence of democracy was at stake. The South needed slave labor to ensure its economic vitality that in turn ensured upward mobility. The “Southern gentleman” was a goal all Southerners aspired to. Land made this happen. As much as landed wealth was an ideal, Southerners believed that toiling the soil necessitated a debasing of the human condition. Should whites have to conduct this labor, the great ill of democracy would soon become apparent; a labor class would emerge to challenge the social order. Slavery avoided this pitfall by assigning one race to the role of day worker, and in turn raising the condition of the entire white race. In the South, slavery meant a certain stability of the social class, and therefore of democracy. By acknowledging the fate of some group having to inevitably exist at the bottom of society, Southern introspection rationalized slavery and therefore saved democracy.
Other considerations substantiated Southern claims of the “good” of slavery. Northern exaggerations of the abuses of slavery, perhaps best captured in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hid the supposed inferiority of the Negro race that justified its subservient role in Southern society. In the view of Southerners, slavery was a humanitarian gesture they bestowed unto a race of people struggling to survive when forced to live on their own. In the South, slaves enjoyed security for life. This Southern success contrasted mightily with the perversion of democracy unfolding in the North. There, industry relied on a labor force clearly suffer- ing abuse at the hands of manufacturers. A business elite ruled Northern industry in tyrannical fashion, certainly in undemocratic fashion, and these men pointed to the South as a means to deflect criticism from their own exploitative practices. These were undemocratic in the extreme, a limited number of cartels colluding with one another to dominate the proceeds of business. The South had achieved a true democracy, one the North looked to destroy since the Southern model had embraced a Jeffersonian ideal that reflected the true virtues of democracy.
These facts were obscured by a Northern cultural domination of the South. The many Northern books and magazines in the South were there because of successful business tactics that crowded out the numerous and outstanding Southern periodicals, not because of a conscious choice by the Southern reader. This cultural reach extended into the classroom, where textbooks represented abolitionist views willingly emphasized by teachers from the North. Nor did the South enjoy a reprieve when it came to higher education since so many of its youths went north to gain a college education. A homegrown education at all levels, a faculty that came from the South, a body of literature written by men from the South that spoke of Southern ideals such as the agrarian livelihood, all of these steps would ensure the intellectual independence of the South from the North. Ending this cultural oppression by separating from the North gave the South as much cause to act preemptively as did reasserting its economic and political freedom.
Even a firm conviction in the necessity of acting preemptively could do little to offset the glaring realities of the military disadvantages the South faced in comparison with the North. However, as it considered a preemptive strike, Northern material superiority barely upset the calculations of Southerners pushing for secession. These “fire-eaters” were confident of victory because they believed that a number of intangibles mitigated the unfavorable military circumstances. In the first place, the South would be defending its homeland and gain two advantages from this circumstance. One, they would enjoy a boost in morale. Two, they would know the terrain. Both factors bolstered defense, the posture the South assumed it would adopt in the event of hostilities. In related fashion, those Southerners demanding war could tell themselves that for the South to be defeated, the North would have to occupy the entire South, an enormously difficult thing to do given the expansive land mass. At the very least the onus of winning the war fell on the North. This reality again favored defense. In the second place, the Southerners counted on the indomitable Southern spirit, a warlike quality normally muted within a gentlemanly ease, but once called into battle it was a fearsome quality to reckon with. Such militarism would translate into outstanding leadership, worthy of leading the dedicated Southern soldier in battle. The combination of these factors was thought to more than offset Northern material advantages and for this reason a great many Southerners welcomed a conflict with the North.