The Civil War: Means Versus Ends

The Civil War began this week (April 12) in 1861 with the shelling of the Union fort, Ft. Sumter, by Confederate troops in South Carolina.   Four years later that war ended with the total defeat of the Confederacy, and in the war’s wake many historians have concluded that a Union victory was inevitable given the huge advantages that the Union North had in terms of manpower, weaponry, manufacturing and industrial capacity.

The North comprised more than 20 million people, compared with the South’s 9 million people, of whom just over 5 million were white.   Also, the North had a better than two-to-one advantage in terms of military manpower, its weaponry was superior, and during the war the North’s ability to produce new, advanced war-making technology far exceeded the South’s.   Indeed, in terms of overall manufacturing, the North had as many manufacturing establishments as the South had people working in manufacturing.

But war-making capacity is one factor.  War aims are another, and here the South had such a tremendous advantage that, seen from its perspective, the North’s victory was far from a foregone conclusion.

To begin with, the South only had to defend itself to win the war.   The North had to invade the South, capture cities, defeat armies fighting on their home turf, and destroy the South’s war-making capacity, morale and will to win.   What is more, a tie was as good as a win for the South because if it could just stay in the field — and throughout history soldiers defending home and hearth tend to fight harder and longer — northern public opinion might eventually weary of the war’s cost and clamor for a negotiated settlement.

Speaking of home turf, the states of the Confederacy comprised a very large nation that the North had to conquer.  In size it nearly equaled Western Europe and included a coastline approximately 3,500 miles long with about 200 inlets and bays.  That meant the North’s navy, which was never very large, faced a Herculean task.

Also, on your home turf you fight better because you know the lay of the land better.  Confederate soldiers knew where the navigable rivers and roads were, where the mountain passes were, and so on — and when they didn’t know, the locals did, and the locals were on the Confederacy’s side.   As for communications, supply lines and general logistics, those of the invading North were far more vulnerable and difficult to maintain.

To repeat, when war capacity is balanced by war aims, the outcome of the Civil War was far less certain than conventional wisdom supposes.   So what ultimately decided the war in the North’s favor?   My answer is the civilian and military leadership of one man.   Abraham Lincoln.