North versus South: Comparing Advantages and Action Plans
If London bookies had been taking bets on the outcome of the American Civil War, they may have set the odds a little in favor of the South based on the Confederacy’s advantages. Sure, the North had some big pluses, including the following:
A population of about 22 million, compared to about 9 million in the South (of which 3.5 million were slaves); in addition, immigration during the war added thousands of new recruits for the Union Army
Seven times as much manufacturing, which meant the Union Army was always better supplied
A far better railroad system (75 percent of all the track in America), which greatly aided the transport of troops and supplies
Control of the U.S. Navy and the merchant fleet
A central government already in place, and a more diverse economy
The South, however, had a number of its own advantages:
The benefit of history: The Southern secessionists were in good company. Secession by determined regions had previously succeeded in Latin America, the original 13 American colonies, the Netherlands, and Greece, just to name a few well-known places.
A defensive stance: The Confederacy didn’t have to conquer the North or even win a lot of big battles; it only had to fight long enough for the North to give up its quest to bring the Southern states back into the Union. A defensive war is much cheaper to fight than an offensive one in terms of both men and materials.
Although the South’s population was smaller overall, it still had about 200,000 men available to fight within a short time of the war’s start.
Home-field advantage: Much of the fighting was on the South’s territory because the North had to conquer the South to get it back into the Union. Southerners not only knew the terrain better but also had the incentive of defending their homes and farms. (Of course, as the war progressed, they found that fighting on the home field wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.)
Although the idea of letting slaves fight was out of the question for most Southerners (and most slaves), the slaves’ presence at home meant the South’s farms and plantations could keep running.
Strong military leadership: The South had much better luck finding able military leaders right from the start, particularly a courtly and brilliant Virginian named Robert E. Lee and his right-hand man, a former military school instructor who liked to suck on lemons named Thomas Stonewall Jackson.
To win, reasoned Gen. Winfield Scott (the top Northern general, who was 75 and so fat he couldn’t get on a horse), the first step was to suffocate the South by blockading its coast. Next, cut the South in half by seizing the Mississippi River. Then chop it up by cutting across Georgia and then up through the Carolinas. Finally, capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
Many Northern newspapers sneered at Scott’s strategy as too timid. They suggested abandoning his anaconda plan (so-called because it envisioned encircling the South and squeezing the life out of it like a giant snake) in favor of marching directly on Richmond and getting the whole thing over with. But Lincoln recognized the worth of Scott’s approach.
Confederate Pres. Jefferson Davis, meanwhile, favored a simpler plan for the South: Make the Northern armies press the fight, whip them, and push them back North, thereby breaking the morale of the Northern people.
General Lee concurred at first but then realized that the South’s limited resources might be better used in a quick and decisive strike to take the heart out of the North. Twice he tried to take the fight to the Union; twice his limited resources forced him to go home.