Why the North Won the Civil War


"In all history, no nation of mere agriculturists ever made successful 
war against a nation of mechanics. . . .You are bound to fail"
-Union officer William Tecumseh Sherman to a Southern friend.

 The American antebellum South, though steeped in pride and 
raised in military tradition, was to be no match for the burgeoning
superiority of the rapidly developing North in the coming Civil War. 
The lack of emphasis on manufacturing and commercial interest, 
stemming from the Southern desire to preserve their traditional 
agrarian society, surrendered to the North their ability to function 
independently, much less to wage war. It was neither Northern troops 
nor generals that won the Civil War, rather Northern guns and 

 From the onset of war, the Union had obvious advantages. Quite 
simply, the North had large amounts of just about everything that the 
South did not, boasting resources that the Confederacy had even no 
means of attaining (See Appendices, Brinkley et al. 415). Sheer 
manpower ratios were unbelievably one-sided, with only nine of the 
nation's 31 million inhabitants residing in the seceding states (Angle 
7). The Union also had large amounts of land available for growing 
food crops which served the dual purpose of providing food for its 
hungry soldiers and money for its ever-growing industries. The South, 
on the other hand, devoted most of what arable land it had exclusively 
to its main cash crop: cotton (Catton, The Coming Fury 38). Raw 
materials were almost entirely concentrated in Northern mines and 
refining industries. Railroads and telegraph lines, the veritable 
lifelines of any army, traced paths all across the Northern 
countryside but left the South isolated, outdated, developed in the 
form of economic colonialism. The Confederates were and starving (See 
Appendices). The final death knell for a modern South all too willing 
to sell what little raw materials they possessed to Northern Industry 
for any profit they could get. Little did they know, "King Cotton" 
could buy them time, but not the war. The South had bartered something 
that perhaps it had not intended: its independence (Catton, 
Reflections 143).

 The North's ever-growing industry was an important supplement 
to its economical dominance of the South. Between the years of 1840 
and 1860, American industry saw sharp and steady growth. In 1840 the 
total value of goods manufactured in the United States stood at $483 
million, increasing over fourfold by 1860 to just under $2 billion, 
with the North taking the king's ransom (Brinkley et al. 312). The 
underlying reason behind this dramatic expansion can be traced 
directly to the American Industrial Revolution.

 Beginning in the early 1800s, traces of the industrial 
revolution in England began to bleed into several aspects of the 
American society. One of the first industries to see quick development 
was the textile industry, but, thanks to the British government, this
development almost never came to pass. Years earlier, England's James 
Watt had developed the first successful steam engine. This invention, 
coupled with the birth of James Hargreaves' spinning jenny, completely 
revolutionized the British textile industry, and eventually made it 
the most profitable in the world ("Industrial Revolution"). The 
British government, parsimonious with its newfound knowledge of 
machinery, attempted to protect the nation's manufacturing preeminence 
by preventing the export of textile machinery and even the emigration 
of skilled mechanics. Despite valiant attempts at deterrence, though, 
many immigrants managed to make their way into the United States with 
the advanced knowledge of English technology, and they were anxious
to acquaint America with the new machines (Furnas 303).

 And acquaint the Americans they did: more specifically, New 
England Americans. It was people like Samuel Slater who can be 
credited with beginning the revolution of the textile industry in 
America. A skilled mechanic in England, Slater spent long hours 
studying the schematics for the spinning jenny until finally he no 
longer needed them. He emigrated to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and 
there, together with a Quaker merchant by the name of Moses Brown, he 
built a spinning jenny from memory (Furnas 303). This meager mill 
would later become known as the first modern factory in America. It 
would also become known as the point at which the North began its 
economic domination of the Confederacy.

 Although slow to accept change, The South was not entirely 
unaffected by the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Another inventor 
by the name of Eli Whitney set out in 1793 to revolutionize the 
Southern cotton industry. Whitney was working as a tutor for a 
plantation owner in Georgia (he was also, ironically, born and raised 
in New England) and therefore knew the problems of harvesting cotton 
(Brinkley et al. 200). Until then, the arduous task of separating the 
seeds from the cotton before sale had been done chiefly by slave labor 
and was, consequently, very inefficient. Whitney developed a machine 
which would separate the seed from the cotton swiftly and effectively, 
cutting the harvesting time by more than one half ("Industrial
Revolution"). This machine, which became known as the cotton gin, had 
profound results on the South, producing the highest uptrend the 
industry had ever, and would ever, see. In that decade alone cotton 
production figures increased by more than 2000 percent (Randall and 
Donald 36). Enormous amounts of business opportunities opened up, 
including, perhaps most importantly, the expansion of the Southern 
plantations. This was facilitated by the fact that a single worker 
could now do the same amount of work in a few hours that a group of 
workers had once needed a whole day to do (Brinkley et al. 201). This
allowed slaves to pick much more cotton per day and therefore led most 
plantation owners to expand their land base. The monetary gains of the 
cash crop quickly took precedence over the basic necessity of the food 
crop, which could be gotten elsewhere. In 1791 cotton production 
amounted to only 4000 bales, but by 1860, production levels had 
skyrocketed to just under five million bales (Randall and Donald 36). 
Cotton was now bringing in nearly $200 million a year, which 
constituted almost two-thirds of the total export trade (Brinkley et 
al. 329). "King Cotton" was born, and it soon became a fundamental
motive in Southern diplomacy. However, during this short burst of 
economic prowess, the South failed to realize that it would never be 
sustained by "King Cotton" alone. What it needed was the guiding hand 
of "Queen Industry."

 Eli Whitney soon came to realize that the South would not 
readily accept change, and decided to take his inventive mind back
up to the North, where it could be put to good use. He found his niche 
in the small arms business. Previously, during two long years of 
quasi-war with France, Americans had been vexed by the lack of 
rapidity with which sufficient armaments could be produced. Whitney 
came to the rescue with the invention of interchangeable parts. His 
vision of the perfect factory included machines which would produce, 
from a preshaped mold, the various components needed to build a 
standard infantry rifle, and workers on an assembly line who would 
construct it ("Industrial Revolution"). The North, eager to experiment 
and willing to try anything that smacked of economic progress, decided 
to test the waters of this inviting new method of manufacture. It did 
not take the resourceful Northerners very long to actualize Eli 
Whitney's dream and make mass production a reality. The small arms 
industry boomed, and kept on booming. By the onset of the Civil War, 
the confederate states were dolefully noting the fact that there were 
thirty-eight Union arms factories capable of producing a total of 
5,000 infantry rifles per day, compared with their own paltry capacity 
of 100 (Catton, Glory Road 241).

 During the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution dug its spurs 
deep into the side of the Northern states. Luckily, immigration
numbers were skyrocketing at this time, and the sudden profusion of 
factory positions that needed to be filled was not a big problem (See 
Appendices and Randall and Donald 1-2). The immigrants, who were 
escaping anything from the Irish Potato Famine to British oppression, 
were willing to work for almost anything and withstand inhuman factory 
conditions (Jones). Although this exploitation was extremely cruel and 
unfair to the immigrants, Northern businessmen profited immensely from 
it (Brinkley et al. 264)

 By the beginning of war in 1860, the Union, from an economical 
standpoint, stood like a towering giant over the stagnant Southern 
agrarian society. Of the over 128,000 industrial firms in the nation 
at this time, the Confederacy held only 18,026. New England alone 
topped the figure with over 19,000, and so did Pennsylvania 21,000 and 
New York with 23,000 (Paludan 105). The total value of goods 
manufactured in the state of New York alone was over four times that 
of the entire Confederacy. The Northern states produced 96 percent of 
the locomotives in the country, and, as for firearms, more of them
were made in one Connecticut county than in all the Southern factories 
combined ("Civil War," Encyclopedia Americana).

 The Confederacy had made one fatal mistake: believing that its 
thriving cotton industry alone would be enough to sustain itself
throughout the war. Southerners saw no need to venture into the 
uncharted industrial territories when good money could be made with 
cotton. What they failed to realize was that the cotton boom had done 
more for the North than it had done for the South. Southerners could 
grow vast amounts of cotton, but due to the lack of mills, they could 
do nothing with it. Consequently, the cotton was sold to the 
Northerners who would use it in their factories to produce wools and 
linens, which were in turn sold back to the South. This cycle 
stimulated industrial growth in the Union and stagnated it in the 
Confederate states (Catton, Reflections 144). Southern plantation 
owners erred in believing that the growing textile industries of 
England and France were highly dependent on their cotton, and that, in 
the event of war, those countries would come to their rescue ("Civil
War," World Book). They believed that the North would then be forced 
to acquiesce to the "perfect" Southern society. They were wrong.

 During the war years, the economical superiority of the Union, 
which had been so eminent before the war, was cemented. The Civil War 
gave an even bigger boost to the already growing factories in the 
North. The troops needed arms and warm clothes on a constant basis, 
and Northern Industry was glad to provide them. By 1862, the Union 
could boast of its capacity to manufacture almost all of its own war 
materials using its own resources (Brinkley et al. 415). The South, on 
the other hand, was fatally dependent on outside resources for its war 

 Dixie was not only lagging far behind in the factories. It had 
also chosen to disregard two other all-important areas in which the
North had chosen to thrive: transportation and communication.
. . . the Railroad, the Locomotive, and the Telegraph- -iron, steam, 
and lightning-these three mighty genii of civilization . . . will
know no lasting pause until the whole vast line of railway shall 
completed from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (Furnas 357)

 During the antebellum years, the North American populace 
especially had shown a great desire for an effective mode of 
transportation. For a long time, canals had been used to transport 
people and goods across large amounts of land which were accessible by 
water, but, with continuing growth and expansion, these canals were 
becoming obsolete and a symbol of frustration to many Northerners. 
They simply needed a way to transport freight and passengers across 
terrains where waterways did not exist (Brinkley et al. 256-59).

 The first glimmer of hope came as America's first primitive 
locomotive, powered by a vertical wood-fired boiler, puffed out of
Charleston hauling a cannon and gun crew firing salutes (Catton, Glory 
Road 237). Ironically enough, this revolution had begun in the South, 
but there it would not prosper. The Railroading industry quickly 
blossomed in the North, where it provided a much needed alternative to 
canals, but could never quite get a foothold in the South. Much of 
this can be accredited to the fact that Northern engineers were 
experienced in the field of ironworking and had no problem 
constructing vast amounts of intricate rail lines, while Southerners, 
still fledglings in the field, simply hobbled.

 This hobbling was quite unmistakable at the outbreak of the 
Civil War. The Union, with its some 22,000 miles of track, was able to 
transport weaponry, clothes, food, soldiers, and whatever supplies 
were needed to almost any location in the entire theater. Overall, 
this greatly aided the Northern war effort and worked to increase the 
morale of the troops. The South, on the other hand, could not boast 
such logistical prowess. With its meager production of only four 
percent of the nation"s locomotives and its scant 9,000 miles of 
track, the Confederacy stood in painful awareness of its inferiority 
(Randall and Donald 8). Trackage figures alone, though, do not tell 
the entire story of the weakness of the South"s railroad"s system.
Another obstacle arose in the problem of track gauge. The gauge, or 
width of track, frequently varied from rail to rail in the South. 
Therefore, goods would often have to be taken off one train and 
transferred to another before moving on to their final destination. 
Any perishable goods had to be stored in warehouses if there were any 
delays, and this was not an uncommon occurrence. There also existed a 
problem in the fact that there were large gaps between many crucial 
parts of the South, which required suppliers to make detours over long 
distances or to carry goods between rails by wagon (Catton, The Coming 
Fury 434). As the war progressed, the Confederate railroad system 
steadily deteriorated, and, by the end of the struggle, it had all
but collapsed.

 Communication, or rather lack thereof, was another impediment 
to Southern economical growth. The telegraph had burst into American 
life in 1844, when Samuel Morse first transmitted, from the Supreme 
Court chamber in the capitol to Alfred Vail in Baltimore, his famous 
words "What hath God wrought!" (Brinkley et al. 314). The advent of 
this fresh form of communication greatly facilitated the operation of 
the railroad lines in the North. Telegraph lines ran along the tracks, 
connecting one station to the next and aiding the scheduling of the 
trains. Moreover, the telegraph provided instant communication between 
distant cities, tying the nation together like never before. Yet, 
ironically, it also buttressed the growing schism between the two 
diverging societies (314). The South, unimpressed by this new modern 
technology and not having the money to experiment, chose not to delve 
very deeply into its development. Pity, they would learn to regret it.

 By 1860, the North had laid over 90 percent of the nation"s 
some 50,000 miles of telegraph wire. Morse"s telegraph had become an 
ideal answer to the problems of long-distance communication, with its 
latest triumph of land taking shape in the form of the Pacific 
telegraph, which ran from New York to San Francisco and used 3,595 
miles of wire (Brinkley et al. 315). The North, as with all telegraph 
lines, embraced its relatively low cost and ease of construction. The 
Pacific telegraph brought the agricultural Northwest together with the 
more industrious Northeast and the blossoming West, forming an 
alliance which would prove to break the back of the ever-weakening 
South (324-25).

 The Civil War was a trying time for both the Union and the 
Confederacy alike, but the question of its outcome was obvious from 
the start. The North was guaranteed a decisive victory over the 
ill-equipped South. Northerners, prepared to endure the deprivation of 
war, were startled to find that they were experiencing an enormous 
industrial boom even after the first year of war. Indeed, the only 
Northern industry that suffered from the war was the carrying trade 
(Catton, Reflections 144). To the South, however, the war was a 
draining and debilitating leech, sucking the land dry of any semblance 
of economical formidability. No financial staple was left untouched; 
all were subject to diminishment and exhaustion. This agrarian South, 
with its traditional values and beliefs, decided not to cultivate two 
crops which would prove quite crucial in the outcome of the Civil
War. Those crops were industry and progress, and without them the 
South was doomed to defeat. A wise man he was, that Union General 
William Tecumseh Sherman. A wise man indeed. 

Works Cited

Angle, Paul M. A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. Garden
City, New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Brinkley, Alan, et al. American History: A Survey. New York: McGraw,

Catton, Bruce. The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, New
York: Doubleday, 1952.

Unknown. The Coming Fury. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961. Vol 
2 of The Centennial History of the Civil War. 3 vols. n.d. 

Unknown. Reflections on the Civil War. Ed. John Leekley. 1st ed. 
Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1981.

"Civil War." Encyclopedia Americana. 1987 ed.

"Civil War." World Book Encyclopedia. 1981 ed.

"Cotton." World Book Encyclopedia. 1981 ed.

Furnas, J.C.. The Americans: A Social History of the United States
1587-1914. New York: Putnam, 1969.

Jones, Donald C. Telephone Interview. 28 Feb. 1993.

"Industrial Revolution." World Book Encyclopedia. 1981 ed.

Paludan, Philip Shaw. A People"s Contest. New York: Harper, 1988.

Randall, J.G., and David Herbert Donald. The Civil War and
Reconstruction. Lexington, Massachusetts: Heath, 1969.


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