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Why the North Won the Civil War

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Why the North Won the American Civil War

Union officer William Tecumseh Sherman observed to a Southern friend that, "In all history, no nation of mere agriculturists ever made successful war against a nation of mechanics. . . .You are bound to fail.” While Sherman’s statement proved to be correct, its flaw is in its assumption of a decided victory for the North and failure to account for the long years of difficult fighting it took the Union to secure victory. Unquestionably, the war was won and lost on the battlefield, but there were many factors that swayed the war effort in favor of the North and impeded the South’s ability to stage a successful campaign.

The advantages of the Union going into the war are numerous. The system of government had long been established in the North and along with that came the benefits of a treasury and a prepared army and navy. The South had no preexisting system of government or infrastructure prior to the war. While the North was preparing to fight, the South faced the issue of jumpstarting a nation. They were charged with creating institutions and a culture separate from the North that did not rely on slavery as its center. That is, it was not enough for the Confederacy to merely be the Union with slavery; they needed to create a sense of nationalism through an autonomous and cohesive Southern identity. The war effort united Southerners under a unity of purpose in the early days of fighting, but after 1863, as the war waged on and years passed, Southerners began to lose faith in the Confederacy (Perman, 229).

In addition to a crumbling national identity, the necessities of war diminished morale among citizens of the Confederacy. Early on, the South believed that Europe would assist them because of the continents reliance on King Cotton, but the Northern naval blockade of Southern ports was extremely successful and Europeans began purchasing cotton from Egypt and India. With no navy to mount a defense, the Southern government was forced to control production of cotton and raise taxes, which only furthered the disillusionment of its population (Perman, 224). Poor Southerners in particular began to see the war as benefiting a section of society that did not include them, as they were not slave owners. They were the very people forced to make the most sacrifices for the war and the government’s control of their ability to produce led to bread riots (Perman, 219). Moreover, as enlistment numbers in the Confederate army dwindled, the government had no option but to turn to forced conscription and impressments of slaves, which Southerners viewed as the impounding of personal property (Perman, 221). The realities of war created a conflict that Southerners did not foresee when they had created an aloof central government.

Furthermore, the South had little preexisting industry and lacked an infrastructure for dispersing goods (Perman, 14). From an early point in the war the Union army cut off railways and blockaded Southern ports, and roads in the South were primitive. Farmers were forced to contend with government controls on production and marauding thieves who would take whatever they could from them. With no means of transporting goods and no slave labor, Southerners could barely produce enough to feed their families and even if they were able to sell goods, inflation was rampant and the Confederate coinage was of no value outside the South.

The demographic advantage in the American Civil War was dramatically tilted toward the Union, with the North having more than three times the population of the South (Perman, 12). Not only did the Union have more manpower for fighting, but it also possessed industry which was capable of producing ammunition and firearms, uniforms, locomotives, and ships for the war effort. Such industrial prowess insured that the army would be equipped for fighting the war and boosted the Northern economy (Perman, 203-204). The South, on the other hand, was fatally dependent on outside resources for its war needs and eventually was forced to raid Northern forts and arsenals for supplies (Perman, 95). The Union was also capable of providing industry with the raw materials necessary for production. Mines and refineries existed in abundance in the North, which also had large amounts of land available for growing food crops, unlike the South which had devoted most its arable land to cash

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