On 10 April 1865, General Robert E. Lee, having just surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, wrote a farewell address to his soldiers. ‘After four years’ arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude’, declared Lee, ‘the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.’ According to Lee, the Confederacy lost the American Civil War not because it fought badly but because the enemy had more men and guns – indeed more everything. Historian Richard Current, reviewing the statistics of Northern (or Union) strength, concluded that ‘surely in view of disparity of resources, it would have taken a miracle … to enable the South to win. As usual, God was on the side of the heaviest battalions’.
Yet not all historians would accept that the Union’s superior resources were the prime cause of Confederate defeat. Many insist that the Confederacy lost – rather than the Union won – the Civil War. Did the Confederacy defeat itself or was it defeated?
Union and Confederate Advantages
The Union certainly had considerable advantages. There were 22 million people in the North compared with only 9 million in the South (of whom only 5.5 million were whites). The North had a much greater industrial capacity. In 1860 Northern states produced 97 per cent of the USA’s firearms and 94 per cent of its pig iron. Even in agriculture the North enjoyed an edge. The Confederacy hoped to make good its lack of materials by trading with Europe, but the Union used its naval strength to impose an increasingly tight blockade. The Union was further aided by the fact that four slave states – Delaware, Missouri, Maryland and Kentucky – remained loyal to the Union. Nor were all the people within the 11 Confederate states committed to the Confederate cause. Pockets of Unionism existed, especially in the Appalachian Mountains. Slaves were also a potential fifth column. Throughout the war there was a steady flow of blacks fleeing to Union armies. The North converted first their labour and eventually their military manpower into a Union asset.
Nevertheless, in 1861 most Southerners thought that the Confederacy was favourite to win the war. The Confederacy’s sheer size – 750, 000 square miles – was a major asset, making if difficult to blockade, occupy and conquer. Confederate forces did not have to invade the North: they simply needed to defend. The fire-power of the rifle-musket meant that battlefield tactics now favoured the defender. The Union, having no option but to attack, was bound to suffer heavy casualties. Southerners hoped that Northern opinion might come to question high losses. If Northern will collapsed, the Confederacy would win by default. Geography gave the Confederacy an important strategic advantage. In the crucial theatre of the war – North Virginia – a series of rivers provided a barrier to Union armies intent on capturing Richmond, the Confederate capital. Slavery, which might seem to be a Confederate weakness, enabled the South to enlist more of its white manpower than the North.
The Confederacy also had important psychological advantages. Southerners were defending their own land and homes – a fact that may have encouraged them to fight that much harder than Northerners, who were fighting for the more abstract pursuit of reunion. In 1861 most Southerners were confident that, man for man, they were better soldiers than Northerners. The antebellum South placed more emphasis on martial virtues than the North. In 1860 most of the military colleges in the USA were in slave states. The elite of the nation’s generals had all been Southerners. Most military experts assumed that farmers, who knew how to ride and shoot, made better soldiers than industrial workers. Confederate victory in the first major battle at Manassas seemed to confirm this assumption.