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Why The North Won The Civil War


Union officer William Tecumseh Sherman to a Southern
friend: In all history, no nation of mere agriculturists
ever made successful war against a nation of mechanics. . .
. You are bound to fail. (Catton, Glory Road 241) The
American ante-bellum 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 industry. 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countryside but left the South isolated, outdated, and
starving (See Appendices). The final death knell for a
modern South developed in the form of economic colonialism.
The Confederates were 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

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 woolens 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 needs. 

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
ante-bellum 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

(Note: appendices taken from Brinkley et al. 315-17, 415) 

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, 1991. 

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

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

---. 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,

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



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