American Civil War: North vs. South Overview

American Civil War: North vs. South Overview Video

Hi, and welcome to this review of the American Civil War! In this video, we’re going to specifically be talking about the two opposing sides, the North and the South. First, we’ll consider what each side believed the war was about and then look at the differences between the Union and the Confederacy and compare their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s get started!

The American Civil War remains the deadliest conflict in American history with a death toll that surpasses the combined total of American deaths in the first and second World Wars. In some ways, it was the first modern conflict, with the use of armored warships, railways, and telegraphs. Yet in other ways it was similar to the Napoleonic Wars; men still fought and died shoulder to shoulder, some falling in battle and others succumbing to dysentery.

Motivations and Perspectives

The motivations compelling each side to wage such a devastating and destructive war were actually quite similar, at least in their own perspectives. Both the North and the South claimed to be fighting for freedom. The North considered it a matter of preserving the Union and casting off the divisive and debilitating limitations of slavery. For the South, it was a battle for political rights and asserting state sovereignty against an overbearing federal government.

The causes of the Civil War were complex and numerous but ultimately stemmed from the question of slavery. Slavery had always been a point of contention in the United States, but the rapid expansion of the US in the first half of the 19th century served to heighten this issue. New territories raised the question of how they would function, whether as free or slave states. The Southern states saw the incorporation of free states as a threat, and by 1858, the free states outnumbered the slave states 17-15. The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln in November proved to be the final straw for the Southern states. South Carolina was the first of eleven Southern states to secede from the Union. Lincoln sought to avoid armed conflict but refused to surrender Federal forts to the Confederates. Instead, Lincoln chose to send support and supplies to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Supply ships were turned away and tensions grew surrounding the fort, resulting in Confederate President Jefferson Davis making a decision to strike against the fort. On April 12, 1861, Confederate guns fired the first shots of the American Civil War.

Comparative Strengths and Weaknesses

From the outset, the North enjoyed a clear advantage in industrial output. Over 80% of the prewar United States’ industry was concentrated in the Northern states. The North was able to produce its own weapons, and over the course of the war, manufactured over two million rifles, while the South often had to rely on imports and captured weapons. This Northern advantage was the product of long-term trends toward urbanization, education, and immigration. Before the war, the South had made significant strides forward in investing in industry and infrastructure but still lagged far behind the North on the eve of the Civil War.

From 1800-1860, the percentage of workers in agriculture fell significantly in the North while they remained steady in the South. About 25% of Americans in Northern states lived in towns or cities compared to about 10% of Southerners. A large influx of German and Irish immigrants flocked to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the overwhelming majority settled in the North.

The South was a primarily agricultural economy centered around the production of raw materials, particularly cotton. With the use of slaves, the labor burden largely fell on black shoulders while the rewards fell into a small number of white hands. The annual cotton yield doubled each decade of the early 19th century and prices soared in the 1850s. Rather than invest profits in industry and infrastructure, wealthy Southerners instead bought more slaves and more land. Aside from the moral considerations, the booming Southern economy was built upon shaky foundations. More than 95% of Southern output was for export, 70% overseas and 20% was sent to the Northern states.

Now, the North technically held more advantages in terms of men, munitions, and ships. Such a mismatch in resources would suggest an easy victory for the Union, but the reality proved to be anything but. On paper, the South stood absolutely no chance of defeating the North, but wars are not fought on ledgers and spreadsheets. As the American Revolution had shown nearly a century before and the Vietnam War would show a century later, huge advantages in military strength don’t always result in victory. There were several equalizing factors which prevented the North from fully exploiting its material advantages.

Strategies and Challenges

The first was the respective war aims of the North and the South. The Union had to achieve total victory over the Confederacy, while the South held confidence in their strictly defensive position. There was reluctance of the North to fully commit to an all-out war, which could be seen in the initial strategy to force the South to come to terms. The Anaconda Plan was conceived by the veteran commander Winfield Scott to bring the South to a surrender without an excess of bloodshed. The plan involved a naval blockade and the capture of key points on the Mississippi to choke off Southern exports. It was strategically sound, and the North maintained a blockade for the duration of the war, but not enough to satisfy the public demands for decisive action.

In 1860, the United States Army had about 16,000 troops, mostly posted on the frontiers. With a disproportionate rate of trained officers siding with the South, the shortage of trained leaders led to politically connected but inexperienced men senioring command posts. The vast majority of the men who fought the war had little to no military experience. Just before the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, the first major engagement of the war, General Irvin McDowell expressed concern his men weren’t ready to fight. Lincoln, under great political pressure, urged McDowell onward:

“You are green it is true; but they are green also; you are green alike.”

Lincoln’s position was understandable but his general’s warning proved to be correct. The Union battle plan fell apart when the men weren’t able to carry it out. The South won the rather shambolic battle but couldn’t fully capitalize on it. This would be a recurring problem for the South; Robert E. Lee would often lament his army’s inability to decisively destroy the Union armies he defeated. Lee’s strategy hinged on inflicting a devastating defeat on the North to force them to terms. The South could not weather the same losses the North could withstand.

In terms of manpower, the North had a much larger population to draw from and could replace losses more readily than the South. Even so, there were still some complications for the Union when it came to recruitment. Those who volunteered for service with the Union in 1861 enlisted for just 90 days. When it became clear the war wasn’t going to be nearly as short as initially thought, longer enlistment periods and conscription laws were introduced. Disgusted by the exception which allowed wealthier northern men to buy their way out of service with a $300 payment, draft riots broke out in New York in July of 1863. The slogan of the rioters was that it was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”

The South had to impose more drastic measures to fill the ranks; a series of increasingly stringent conscription laws were passed from 1862-1864. Like the North, the wealthy were excused from serving in the military, as well as those with holdings of 20 or more slaves. Unlike the North, the South didn’t have the luxury of honoring enlistment periods. Once the Confederate Army got a uniform on a recruit, there was no way out. As a result, desertion became a serious problem for the Confederacy. Official figures give a number of 103,000, but the true total might have been much higher.

The discrepancy in resources between the North and the South was also present at sea. The South essentially had to muster a makeshift navy from scratch and had no means of breaking the Northern blockade. To close the gap, the South made use of unconventional weapons such as mines and an early submarine prototype. The latter device did manage to sink a Union ship but at the cost of the crew. The Confederacy ultimately succumbed to the combined effects of the naval blockade and territorial and battlefield losses. The Union victory had not come easily and was by no means as inevitable as the material advantages might have suggested. Abraham Lincoln also had to navigate a difficult political and diplomatic environment in order to maintain the Union.

All right, to wrap things up, let’s go over a couple of review questions.

Review Questions

1. Which of the following was a key vulnerability of the Southern economy?

  1. An export-focused economy
  2. Price-gouging
  3. Labor shortages
  4. High taxes
The correct answer is A.

The focus on exporting raw materials meant a naval blockade would seriously disrupt the flow of goods and ability to sustain a war effort.


2. Which of the following did the North lack?

  1. Industrial capital
  2. Ships
  3. Trained officers
  4. Uniforms
The correct answer is C.

The shortage of trained officers led to the appointment of politically connected but inexperienced officers in senior positions.


Okay, that’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!


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by Mometrix Test Preparation | This Page Last Updated: February 8, 2024