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The Civil War, North vs. South

South Carolina capital, Union dead, Tennessee rivers, Cold Harbor, General Ulysses

On paper, the North possessed overwhelming military superiority over the South. The North had a free population of about 22 million. The South had a population of 9 million, including almost 4 million slaves. The North was a modern industrial power; the South was overwhelmingly rural. The North possessed nine–tenths of the nation’s industrial capacity, four–fifths of its bank capital, and three–fourths of its taxable wealth. The North financed 60 percent of its war effort through the sale of bonds in its prosperous region. Its paper currency inflated by only 80 percent during the whole war. The South, on the other hand, had to finance the war by printing paper money that inflated 9,000 percent in four years.

Yet the South had advantages as well. To succeed, the South did not have to invade and conquer the North. The South had only to prevent the North from invading and conquering the Confederacy. In a similar situation during the American Revolution, the British had far greater military superiority over the Americans than the Union possessed over the Confederacy, but the British failed to subdue the American revolutionaries. Many predicted that the Union would fail as well. The South had only to prolong the war until the North gave up and went home. In addition, the South’s economic backwardness was an advantage: Northern armies had to operate in hostile territory in which transportation and communications were very difficult. Finally, improved weapons (most notably rifled muskets that were accurate at more than 300 yards) gave a lethal advantage to entrenched defenders over opponents who attacked them across open ground. Union soldiers did most of the attacking.

Differing objectives of North and South and the topography of the contested ground helped determine the nature of the war. In the west, Northern armies used the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers (navigable streams that ran into the South) to capture Confederate territory and to control the river system. By the spring of 1863 the Union controlled all of the Mississippi River except a Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi. That city fell in July, and the Confederacy was cut in half.

In northern Virginia, however, the South defended land with Chesapeake inlets and east–west rivers that the Union had to cross. In this theater the South also had General Robert E. Lee, an almost mystically skilled commander who constantly outthought his attackers and forced them to assault him under bad conditions. On two occasions, Lee invaded Northern territory. He suffered defeats at the Battle of Antietam (in Maryland) in 1862 and the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863. For the remainder of the war he fought defensively. General Ulysses S. Grant took control of the Union Army opposed to Lee in early 1864 and attacked Lee that spring. In horrific battles at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor (all in northern Virginia), Grant took heavy casualties before trapping and besieging Lee at Petersburg, south of Richmond, Virginia.

At the same time, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia. After a monthlong siege, he captured and burned Atlanta. While Atlanta and Petersburg were besieged, Northern voters reelected Lincoln in 1864 in an election that was regarded as a referendum on the war. The South had succeeded in avoiding defeat and in turning the contest into a war of attrition. But it had not, as Southerners had hoped, broken the North’s will to continue fighting.

While Grant and Lee faced each other at Petersburg, Sherman left Atlanta and set out across country to Savannah, Georgia, destroying everything in his path that was of military value and much that was not. Sherman then turned north, burned the South Carolina capital at Columbia and kept moving into North Carolina. Before Sherman could join Grant, Lee’s army fled Petersburg. Grant caught him at Appomattox, and Lee surrendered. At a cost of 360,000 Union dead and 260,000 Confederate dead, the United States had been preserved.

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