To Preserve the Union: 6 Advantages That Helped the North Win the Civil War

To Preserve the Union: 6 Advantages That Helped the North Win the Civil War

Matthew Weber - March 31, 2017

There is a lot of conjecture over why the American Civil War ended the way it did. The truth is there is no one reason why the North “won” the Civil War. Like any war, the end result is based on who came out ahead, and who met their goals. If that is the base definition of victory, then the North won. The Union was reunited, and the beginnings of the end of forced Slavery were starting to take hold (the 13th Amendment wasn’t ratified until the end of 1865).

But as with every major conflict in history, it wasn’t that simple. The war may have ended at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865 (fighting would continue for another month in the South), but the rebuilding of the nation would take decades. In this article, we’re going to look at the reasons behind why the war ended as it did while keeping in mind that the end result isn’t as simple as “The North won the Civil War,” and that while we list many reasons, this is not all-inclusive.

To Preserve the Union: 6 Advantages That Helped the North Win the Civil War

Industrial Strength

What you must understand about the economy prior to the outbreak of the Civil War was that it was in a period of transition. While the British had undergone the Industrial Revolution several decades prior, it was still very much ongoing in the United States in 1860. While the North had transitioned significantly to a more industrial economy, the South was very much still an agricultural society, growing things like cotton and tobacco. It is very hard to win a war without munitions, especially when warfare had transitioned away from swords and arrows.

As we’ll talk more about in the next section, the South relied heavily on exports for its non-agricultural goods. They simply did not have the manufacturing strength the North had in 1860, which led to a host of problems over the next five years.

In 1860, depending on what report you read, the North made up 80 to 95% of the United States’ industrial production. The one that made a huge difference was guns. As you might correctly assume, guns were going to be a very important part of fighting any conflict between the states, and when you learn that the North produced an estimated 32 times as many guns as the South did in 1860, you can understand how the South was at such a disadvantage from the start.

That being said, of course, the South did manage to overcome that disadvantage in some ways. Seeing as they needed to start building their own munitions and other industrial products, the South built an industrial economy from the ground up. By the end of the war, the gap between the North and the South in terms of industrial strength had closed, though it was still significant.

To Preserve the Union: 6 Advantages That Helped the North Win the Civil War
Federal Money, 1861. Wikipedia

Exports, Imports, and Banks

While this is closely related to the section before, it deserves a section on its own. It is often quoted as being a huge reason why the North won the Civil War. When it comes right down to it, the North relied less on imports than the South did. There are many statistics that support this. While the South had to create a manufacturing industry from the ground up (and import anything they didn’t produce), the North had the manufacturing strength already in place.

Products like iron, leather, firearms, and woolen textiles are all areas that the North had a significant advantage in. What does this really mean outside of not having their own supplies? The answer comes down to money.

The North controlled the majority of the nation’s wealth in 1860. Depending on where you get your statistics, the numbers range anywhere from 65% to nearly 85% of U.S. money was located above the Mason-Dixon line. While the Northern government could raise tons of money by raising taxes and tariffs, the South had to struggle to do the same. Some of this came down to existing structure, which we’ll talk about in another section, but a lot of it came down to banks.

The North had the majority of the nation’s banks in 1860. Depending on which sources you look at, the South had between 10 and 20 percent of the nation’s banks at the beginning of the war. This meant less money in the economy, therefore less money to lend and tax. Money is almost always one of the most important factors in any war, and the South was at a huge disadvantage directly from the start.

By the time the war was going full force, the South was stymied by a Northern blockade, which caused imports and exports to fall nearly 80% by some sources. This meant even less money coming into the government to support the war effort.

To Preserve the Union: 6 Advantages That Helped the North Win the Civil War
Civil War Railroad. American Rails

Railroads and Transportation

If you’re going to conduct a war, transport is very important. By the time of the Civil War, rail transportation had been going strong in the North for nearly 50 years. The earliest railways were built in the North, and the industry continued to flourish there. In the South, meanwhile, they relied heavily on rivers for long-distance transport. Obviously, railroads can be placed nearly anywhere, while rivers are fixed. In 1860, the South only had around 30% of the nation’s railroads.

This was obviously an advantage for the North. Another was that because most of the fighting took place in the South, what railroads there were, were often subject to damage and sabotage. Of course, the North wasn’t immune to this as well, but you can imagine that the sheer number of battles that took place in the South, there was much more chance for Southern railroads to become targets.

Transport is a huge thing when it comes to war. It influences everything from the economy of the state to their ability to move supplies and troops around. As you might expect, with a larger number of railroads in the North, the North found it easier to move their troops around.

However, that isn’t really the advantage the North had. The true disadvantage was the lack of a proper railroading system in the South. With less coverage for rail lines at the beginning of the war, the South was forced to move troops and supplies by slower more tedious means.

Locomotives and railways were significant factors in the Civil War. Often times locomotives would be sent to reconnoiter enemy strongholds. With a top speed at the time, it was less risky for a locomotive to take on this task as it could outrun any cavalry. This made them even bigger targets as both sides sought to remove such advantages from their enemies.

To Preserve the Union: 6 Advantages That Helped the North Win the Civil War
Population Comparison. Civil War Trust

Population and Immigration

A larger force has a significantly higher chance of winning against a smaller force. And while there are innumerable instances throughout history that challenges that idea, for the most part, if you go into a battle with more people, you’re going to have a higher chance of winning. So is it any surprise really that when you discover that the North had a significant population advantage over the South that the South had a problem keeping up? The North could afford to lose more people, could afford to send more soldiers to a particular area (even if they had lost that area in battle before), and they could perform in more theaters of war at once with more people than the South ever could.

In the North, the population in 1860 was nearly 22 million, while in the South it was merely 9 million. Of those 9 million, only 5 million or so were white. When you consider half of those numbers are female, you have a considerable advantage for the Union.

When we look at the numbers of actual fighting men, we see that advantage realized. During the duration of the war, the Union put forth 2,128,948 soldiers into battle. That number varies based on what source you look at. Some are closer to three million for the North, while others have closer to 1.8 million. For the South, numbers are also varied, but all point to their numbers coming in at about half of the Union’s fighting forces (anywhere between 750,000 and 1.2 million).

One of the reasons why the North had such a population advantage was that the vast majority of immigrants settled there. The numbers again vary depending on sources, ranging from 80 to 90 percent. When you consider that the majority of immigrants that did come into the South were slaves, it makes these numbers even less surprising.

To Preserve the Union: 6 Advantages That Helped the North Win the Civil War
Navy Ironclad. Steamboat Times

Naval Strength

This point is a bit murkier, and is less arguable on the side of the North, in some places. In terms of Naval Strength at the beginning of the war, you have to define what you mean. Neither the Union nor the Confederacy had real warships that you could use to fight the war. At the start of 1860, the North had 50 (decrepit is a word used to describe them most often) ships, but none of them fell into the category of “warship,” at least in terms of what you’d see near the end of the war. The South had nothing, as they were basically starting from scratch.

Playing into this, however, was something we already talked about: manufacturing strength. Because the North was able to manufacture their own vessels because of already existing infrastructure, they had quite an advantage over the South who had to both import vessels and build an infrastructure to manufacture their own navy, something that took a lot of time.

Now, as we said at the beginning of this part, this isn’t as clear-cut as you might expect. The main reason was that what advantage the Union started off with was offset by some brilliant strategy and an amazing ability to catch up by the South. While the North had an advantage of population, that didn’t translate to a large navy as it did with the army. This put them on much more equal fronts than what was usual for the other fronts of the war.

In the end, it is debatable how much of an influence the Navy had on the outcome of the Civil War. It was incredibly important, but the war of the sea was very much a war of attrition, though the battles were awe-inspiring, the most efficient use of their navies once established was using them to blockade and attack merchant ships, affecting the economies of both the North and the South.

To Preserve the Union: 6 Advantages That Helped the North Win the Civil War
White House 1861. National Park Service

Political Establishment

If we had to choose the two biggest factors in the ultimate outcome of the American Civil War, the economy and political establishment might be the most important. The Confederacy was not a government prior to secession. The government didn’t exist at all until February 1961, just two months before fighting officially started. That means they had no tax structure, no military structure, and no constitution.

They were very quick to catch up, despite the hardships they faced. The Confederacy ratified a constitution within a year (it was actually written and passed in March 1861, just a month after the founding of the government). They created and passed laws quickly, and they used their power to start officially bringing together militias to form their army.

That all being said, the North already had all of that. Moreover, their tax base was larger, allowing for more income, their banking system was more robust, and they had a much large cache of laws that allowed them to prosecute a war much quicker.

The downside is that the North did not take the Southern states seriously at first. Or, putting it more accurately, they assumed that any rebellion could be put down quickly, which would allow the country to come together once more. They were wrong. This caught the North flatfooted, and forced President Lincoln to significantly increase the Union army numbers (500,000 were called up in the first draw after several embarrassing losses).

In the end, however, the already established Union government held the advantage once it got its act together. There was less political rivalry, and rules of government that the South had to create from scratch (though they used established ideas for most of it). This allowed for more cohesive decisions once the war went into its second year. The Confederates would be well-led, though, so it did take away some of the advantages of the North.

Read Next: What if South Won the Civil War? – 4 Hypothetical Scenarios.