2 Reasons Why the North Won the Civil War

By Steve Wiegand

Winning a war without money or friends is rather difficult, and the American South had neither. Its economy, pardon the expression, went south, and it failed to convince any major European powers to join the fight on its side.

The Southern economy was based solely on agriculture. When the Civil War started, there was only one iron foundry in the entire South. Still, the Confederacy’s leaders were sure the South’s cotton would be enough: “You dare not make war upon our cotton,” a Southern politician boasted before the war. “No power on Earth dares make war on it. Cotton is King.”

True, European nations, particularly Britain, had depended on Southern cotton to fuel their textile industries. In fact, some 80 percent of Britain’s cotton came from America before the war. The South figured that if the Union’s blockade cut off Southern cotton to Britain, Britain would intervene on the South’s behalf.

But this idea had some holes in it:

  • The first hole was that when the war started, Britain had a surplus of cotton, partly because it had stocked up when war clouds loomed on the horizon and partly because it had started getting more cotton from Egypt and India.

  • Secondly, British laborers hated slavery and wouldn’t support the South even if that meant costing them jobs, which it did. British leaders, even those who favored the South and also favored the idea of two smaller Americas over one big one, didn’t want to buck popular sentiment that supported the North.

Actually, Britain and the Union came close to war a couple times, most closely when a Union ship stopped a British ship at sea and arrested two Confederate diplomats on their way to London. This act was clearly against international law and might have given the Brits an excuse to enter the war on the side of the South. But Lincoln wisely released the two diplomats and shrugged the whole thing off as a misunderstanding.

With no European allies and the Union blockade succeeding, the South’s economy tanked. In 1861, about $1 million in gold-backed Confederate paper currency was circulating. But by 1863, Confederate printing presses had churned out $900 million in currency, with scarcely any gold supplies to back them. Thus, an 1863 Confederate dollar was worth about two cents in gold.

The North’s economy was also buffeted by the war. But because it was stronger going in, it handled the conflict better. Advances in agriculture and manufacturing and supplies of gold and silver from California and Nevada helped fuel the economy despite the war’s manpower drain.