American Civil War homefront

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American Civil War homefront
Date Begun April 12, 1861
Date Ended April 9, 1865
Casualties Total: 1,032,200
Killed: 203,000
Died from other: 417,000
Wounded: 412,200
United States (Union)
34 star flag.png
President Abraham Lincoln
Vice-President Andrew Johnson
Secretary of State William Seward
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
Confederate States (Confederacy)
President Jefferson Davis
Vice-President Alexander Stephens
Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin
Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge
Secretary of the Navy Stephan R. Mallory
Military Leaders
Union Confederate

The American Civil War homefront comprises the social, economic, diplomatic and political dimensions of conflict, 1861–1865. The military history is covered in the American Civil War.

The Confederacy in 1861


The Confederacy was baffled at Washington's incomprehension. The right of revolution and self-determination had been sacred to the Founding Fathers—especially Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson—slaveholders and rebels. Southerners angrily denounced the threat represented by Yankee attacks on their time-honored, Constitutionally protected institutions. Slavery, of course, was the institution they (correctly) saw as under attack, but also the democratically elected leaders of their new nation, whom the Republicans considered illegitimate usurpers. More generally, they felt the Yankees (in the devilish persona of Lincoln) were committed to radical reforms of all sorts, and planned to use their political majorities to crush southern aspirations. Above all, Confederates felt that their honor was at stake, that they must become independent. They did not wish to fight a war, even as braggarts claimed that the cowardly, bookish Yankees would be quickly routed by the feisty, outdoorsmen of Dixie. In early 1861 the Confederacy was limited to seven cotton states, where the slave issue was of central concern. Elsewhere in the South, most people wanted to stay with the Union. Everywhere in early 1861 leaders hoped that some sort of compromise could be reached, but no formula was found. The attack on Sumter and Lincoln's call for troops decided the issue. Confederates claimed it proved their basic argument that the Yankees planned to subjugate the South, infringe its rights, and impose alien values. This argument proved decisive in the upper south, leading to the secession of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. To answer Lincoln's 75,000, Jefferson Davis called up 59,000 militia; a far larger number volunteered. Slavery was one of the causes of secession and war, but not the only one. Relatively few soldiers marched to defend or attack slavery. They were much more highly motivated by honor and patriotism that had no direct connection to issues of race or slavery.


Realizing that they could not conquer the North, the Confederates adopted a military strategy designed to hold their territory together, gain worldwide recognition, and inflict so much punishment on invaders that the North would grow weary of the war and negotiate a peace treaty that would recognize the independence of the CSA. The only point of seizing Washington, or invading the North (besides plunder) was to shock Yankees into realizing they could not win. The Confederacy moved its capital from a safe location in sleepy, steamy Montgomery, Alabama, to the more cosmopolitan city of Richmond, Virginia, only 100 miles from Washington. A great nation needed a great capital, and Richmond had the heritage and facilities to match Washington.

The new capital helped solidify Virginia's adherence to the new nation; Virginia gave Davis 31 of his 131 generals, and a fifth of the gray-clad soldiers. On the other hand, Richmond's exposure necessitated tying down most of the Confederate army to defend the capital. Richmond was at the end of a long, thin supply line that made defense even more problematic. (In the last year of the war, for example, Lee's cavalry had to be stationed far away where forage was available.) True nationhood required recognition by the European powers, who might provide loans, arms sales, and perhaps even naval action against the Yankee blockade. Winning battles was the best way to make the Yankees weary, and prove to a skeptical world that the Confederate States of America was a legitimate, permanent nation that controlled its own territory and deserved full diplomatic recognition. The new Confederate army had its mission: hold Richmond and win some major battles.

1861: Advantages and disadvantages

The relative strength of the two sides was lopsided in favor of the North for a long war, but fairly even for a short one. The Confederacy had to win fast.

Confederate psychology

For a short war, the South had the advantage of a revolutionary psychology. Confederates were realizing the dream of building a new nation, and their enthusiastic patriotism led to a remarkable outpouring of spirits and material. An elite cavalry regiment that might cost a half- million dollars to outfit was no problem when the wealthiest families donated cash, fine horses, and their own sons. High status slaveowners often volunteered as privates to show their commitment to (white) equality; of course they brought a slave or two along as valet or cook. (After a year or two most of them were sent home where they could raise food.) The most talented young men joined the Confederate army; many had experience in militia and even military colleges. Half the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia had attended Virginia Military Institute (which sent to war 1700 of the 1900 students who had ever attended the school). Convinced they could whip twice their number of Yankees, the rebels marched eagerly into battle.

Northern psychology

The best men in the North were not quite so ready to get involved; nine out of ten of the ambitious young men of the 1860s who later became giants of industry did not serve. Andrew Carnegie (age 26) spent a few weeks in 1861 setting up a superb telegraph system</a> for the Union army, then returned to Pennsylvania to make money. Grover Cleveland (age 26), a Democratic wannabe, refused to volunteer; when the draft called his number he purchased a substitute, as did J. P. Morgan (age 26) and Philip Armour (age 31). John D. Rockefeller (age 24), an overachiever and an abolitionist, purchased 25 substitutes while he stayed home. The vast size of the Confederacy, coupled with the superior defensive quality of rifles against infantry or cavalry attacks, meant that it would be preposterous for Lincoln's 75,000 volunteers to make a difference. A full-scale invasion would take years to prepare and over a million men.


The North had a clear margin of superiority in terms of population (white adult men, 6–1; overall, 3-1), manufacturing (9-1), and railroads (3-1), not to mention telegraph lines, iron (10-1), horses [4.4:17], banks and corn (2-1). These resources were militarily valuable only if the North could figure out how to mobilize their potential. The population advantage changed year by year as the Yankees captured more territory, thus neutralizing the pro-confederate elements. A critical factor involved the South's four million slaves, the great majority of whom in 1860 were producing crops like cotton and tobacco that were of little wartime use. The challenge for the Confederacy was to use the slaves to release whites for battle. This could be done if the plantations switched to food crops, and slaves were used to construct fortifications or to work in munitions factories. When tens of thousands of slaves began escaping behind Union lines, the question was whether they would be a liability for the North in terms of guarding and feeding them, or whether they could be transformed into a military asset wearing US Army uniforms. Whenever blacks were involved, the question of their role was primarily a matter of politics and ideology, rather than optimum utilization of manpower.

The industrial superiority of the North at 9 to 1 was potentially decisive in a long war, because the factories and engineering skills could be redirected from civilian goods into munitions. It would take a year to retool for rifles, howitzers and ammunition, but only a few months for wagons, telegraph sets, uniforms, boots, blankets, tents and saddles. The South, starting practically from scratch, never had nearly enough machine tools, engineers or mechanics to operate factories. In a short war, however, the North might actually be hurt by its high level of industrialization. Many southerners argued that moneymaking and indoor activity were detriments when it came to command in battle and outdoor survival skills. Actually, the North (with its much larger population) had a larger total number of men accustomed to farming, riding, hunting and other outdoors pursuits. It had far more managers and entrepreneurs with a knack for organization and innovation. What it lacked was men with the self-confidence and personal leadership skills that ownership of slaves helped generate in the South. They needed all the leadership they could get, because Confederate enlisted men were notoriously adverse to discipline and disrespectful of authority and hierarchy. Confederate officers clearly outperformed the Yankees in 1861 and 1862, especially in elite units like the cavalry. (The Yankees, with superior engineering skills, made much better artillerymen and sailors.) The question was how fast the Yankees could learn, and how flexible their command structure would be in identifying and promoting likely talent. While most of the same elite slaveowners who assumed command of companies and regiments a the start of the war held their places for years, the army did conduct officer candidate examinations and commissioned many enlisted men who showed talent, regardless of their class background. The Yankees, less impressed with "family" did a better job in identifying and promoting talent very rapidly. By 1863 there were numerous Yankee colonels under age 25, and a few generals. A couple were too young to vote. Having too much industry was in some ways a liability for the North. Southerners reckoned that cutting off the supply of raw cotton, and its customary large purchases of food and manufactured items, might cause a depression in the North, leading to depressed prices, lower profits, high unemployment, ethnic riots. If the Yankees were indeed so profit hungry, then a profitless war would swell the peace movement. Yankee factories would take a long time to convert to munitions, but meanwhile Confederate propaganda could display them as a potential threat to the profitability of the British Empire. If London and Paris did some cost-accounting, undoubtedly they would figure out that "Cotton is King," and try to weaken the USA by assisting the CSA.


No one gainsaid the North's clear superiority in railroad mileage and (even more important) in engineers and mechanics in the rolling mills, machine shops, factories, roundhouses and repair yards that produced and maintained rails, bridging equipage, locomotives, rolling stock, signaling gear, and telegraph equipment. In peacetime the South imported all its railroad gear from the north, or from Europe; the Union blockade completely cut off such imports. The South's 8,500 miles of relatively new line comprised enough of a railroad system to handle essential military traffic along internal lines, assuming it could be defended and maintained. As the system deteriorated because of worn out equipment, accidents and sabotage, the South was unable to construct or even repair new locomotives, cars, signals or track. No new equipment ever arrived, and the Confederacy was unable to capture Yankee railroad equipment. Realizing their enemy's dilemma, Yankee cavalry raids routinely burned and destroyed rails, machine shops, roundhouses, bridges, and telegraph wires. By the end of the war, the southern railroad system was totally ruined—used up, worn out, burned out, irreparable. Destroying the lines the Yankees were using to support their invasions became a high priority rebel target. Their cavalry and guerrillas would burn trestles, cut wires, and sabotage tracks. A railroad through hostile territory was a fragile lifeline—it took a whole army to guard it, because each foot of track had to be secure. Large numbers of Union soldiers throughout the war were assigned to guard duty and, while always ready for action, seldom saw any fighting.[1]


The South possessed one of the world's longest systems of natural waterways, river ports, wharves, docks, coastal inlets and ocean ports. Riverboats and ocean-going steamers might help equalize transportation resources. The South, however, had scarcely any seafaring tradition, few salt-water sailors, and no warships. The two thousand paddle-boats on western rivers were chiefly owned, captained and piloted by northerners. If Lincoln's seamen and soldiers could seize the waterways, he would have superb invasion routes pointed to the heart of Dixie as the Mississippi, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.

Civilian leadership

Jefferson Davis and his advisers

Warfare between two of the largest and richest nations on the globe demanded a high order of political and managerial skills. The North clearly surpassed the South, beginning at the top. Jefferson Davis was probably the strongest president the Confederacy could have raised up. As a former Army officer, Senator, and Secretary of War, he possessed the stature and experience to be president, but certain character defects undercut his performance. He played favorites, was imperious, frosty, and quarrelsome. By dispensing with parties, he lost the chance to build a grass roots network that would provide critically needed support in dark hours. Instead, he took the brunt of the blame for all difficulties and disasters. Davis was animated by a profound vision of a powerful, opulent new American nation, the Confederate States of America, premised on the right of its (white) citizens to self-government. However, in dramatic contrast to Lincoln, he was never able to articulate that vision or provide a coherent strategy to fight the war. He neglected the civilian needs of the Confederacy while spending too much time meddling in military details. Davis's meddling in military strategy proved counterproductive. His explicit orders that Vicksburg be held no matter what led sabotaged the only feasible defense and led directly to the fall of the city in 1863.[2]


Lincoln, an ugly and ungainly giant, did not look the part of a president, but he performed the role brilliantly. His first priority was military victory, and he eventually became a master strategist. Working closely with state and local politicians he rallied public opinion and (at Gettysburg) articulated a national mission that has defined America ever since. His charm and willingness to cooperate with political and personal enemies made Washington work much more smoothly than Richmond. His wit smoothed many rough edges (Davis, he quipped was "that tother fellow.") Lincoln's cabinet proved much stronger and more efficient than Davis's, as Lincoln channeled personal rivalries into a competition for excellence rather than mutual destruction. With William Seward at State, Salmon P. Chase at the Treasury, and (from 1862) Edwin Stanton at the War Department, Lincoln had a powerful cabinet of determined men; except for monitoring major appointments, Lincoln gave them full reign to destroy the Confederacy. The federal bureaucracy performed exceptionally well, in contrast to all but a handful of Confederates. In the South, honor demanded a military uniform at the head of the parade; in the North, achievement accepted subordinate roles in a complex system.[3]

Border states

In contrast to the unanimity of the lower seven southern states, the border slaves states were bitterly divided about secession. Border secessionists paid little attention to the slavery issue; they grew no cotton and lacked the South Carolinian dream of a slave-based empire oriented south toward the Caribbean. Rather their focus was on coercion: Lincoln's call to arms seemed a repudiation of the American traditions of states rights, democracy, liberty, and a republican form of government. Washington had usurped illegitimate powers in defiance of the Constitution, and thereby had lost its legitimacy. It was time to go; Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina seceded and joined the Confederacy after Ft Sumter. Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware, with much stronger ties to the North than to the South, were paralyzed. Kentucky tried to proclaim itself neutral.

The Sumter crisis galvanized Washington, which immediately began a series of vigorous actions. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts regiments raced to protect Washington, and in the process seized control of Maryland. The major border slave cities of Washington, Baltimore, Wheeling, Louisville, Lexington and St. Louis came under Unionist control; Confederate sympathizers were driven out, disarmed, threatened, arrested and imprisoned without trial. With scarcely a fight the Confederacy lost control of 12 of the 34 slave cities, together with their railroads, docks, factories, shops, banks, churches and newspapers. (The North of course kept control of all its 98 cities.) Lincoln was alive to the necessity of controlling the border; he told one delegation that he hoped God was on his side, "but I must have Kentucky."

In the confusion of the first weeks of the war, small units acting quickly proved decisive, and in every case they were federals. Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia were secured, as well as most of Missouri and half of Virginia. The western third of Virginia seceded from the state and joined the U.S.A. as the state of West Virginia. That radical move was possible because Union general George McClellan overpowered and outwitted rebel forces. The peace in Kentucky collapsed in September, as both sides invaded. Grant took western Kentucky for the Union, while Sherman assumed control in Louisville and Lexington. Lincoln won over Kentucky's economic and political elites by promising that the slaves of loyal owners would not be freed. Both sides vigorously recruited soldiers—sometimes with enemy encampments practically facing each other. Families divided, as brothers and cousins joined one side (76,000 USA) or the other (25,000 CSA). Rebels soon had to move south (where they formed the "orphan brigade") because federal provost marshals and unionist judges systematically cracked down on the secessionist minority. "[4]

Border cities had grown up where they were because they controlled the choke points of the communications network, such as the falls of the Ohio (Louisville) and the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers (St. Louis). Federal forces radiated out by river or railroad and easily controlled the hinterlands in the border. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad became vital to the federal logistics system. The Confederates were reduced to harassing tactics, like burning railroad trestles or sniping at riverboats. Throughout the war tens of thousands of Yankee soldiers were assigned to guard duty to protect against the sabotage and keep open the rail and river lines pointing south. The Confederacy tried a few unsuccessful raids, but only in remote mountainous areas where guerrillas and bushwhackers operated, could there be any permanent challenge to the Stars and Stripes.

Economic warfare: the blockade

see Union blockade

Four days after Sumter fell, Lincoln proclaimed economic warfare against the Confederacy. He ordered the Navy to blockade all southern ports, and stop both international trade and the short-distance coastal traffic. The Navy's challenge in putting the Union blockade into effect was overwhelming—the Navy had only 42 warships to control 3,500 miles of coastline, including scores of well-equipped ports, not to mention over 150 channels, inlets and rivers that could be used by ocean-going ships. The situation worsened when the commander of the federal navy yard at Norfolk panicked. He destroyed 10 of his 13 warships (instead of sailing them north) and left behind 1,200 cannon and 2,800 barrels of gunpowder that the rebels soon hauled to forts across their new country. Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles and his Assistant Secretary Gustavus Fox did a brilliant job in purchasing civilian ships, mounting a few guns, and sending them to war. They flooded northern shipyards with orders for new ships, including advanced technology designs with iron cladding (instead of wood), steam boilers and propellers (supplementing sails), and movable turrets with large-calibre rifled guns (to replace small smoothbores). When the sloop Tuscarora was launched at Philadelphia in August, 1861, Welles cracked that "Her keel was growing in the forest three months ago." By year's end the Navy had 170 ships in commission and 52 under construction. Amphibious landing forces in September seized the rebel forts that commanded the Carolina coastline. The Navy now had a forward base for its blockade squadrons.

The effects of the Union navy's blockade during the Civil War has been largely underestimated. The blockade cut off 90% of cotton and tobacco exports and thus denied the Confederacy the badly needed purchasing power it would have generated. The blockade sharply increased the costs and drastically reduced the volume of imported goods—it was very hard to get new machinery or spare parts. It also hampered intraregional trade of food. That is, coastal ships that could carry food and cattle from states like Texas to the battlefields had to be replaced by slow, expensive overland caravans. Without these powerful effects the Union would have faced much greater difficulties in subduing the Confederacy.[5]

King Cotton stumbles

The blockade was ineffective before late summer of 1861; the south had ample opportunity to rush the export of its large cotton crop to Europe. Instead, in one of the most remarkable blunders of the war, a voluntary embargo dreamed up and acted upon by the planters, agents, shippers and government officials, kept most of the cotton at home. A central component of Confederate dreams had been the belief that "Cotton is King"—that is, that the industrial base of New England, Britain, and France comprised textile factories that depended exclusively upon southern cotton. Cut off the supply, the argument went, and depression, unemployment and economic disaster will strike the enemy's New England heartland (neutralizing the Yankee industrial advantage). Even more important, cutting off cotton exports to Europe would send the economies there into a tailspin, generating irresistible demands for diplomatic recognition (leading to a negotiated peace) or even military intervention (leading to an outright Confederate victory.) The reasoning was all wrong—textile mills seen the crisis coming and built up a large stock of raw cotton; other sources (like Egypt, India and Mexico) made up most of the deficit in 1861. (Europe received 4.0 million bales that year from all sources, down only 10% from 1860). When the cotton famine did hit in late 1862 (as only 1.9 million bales were received), severe unemployment and destitution did hit the mill towns. The workers and manufacturers did not demand a war to break the blockade, not did anyone in Britain want a war on this issue. It was politically and militarily too late for intervention. London realized that Britain's food supply depended heavily on wheat imported from the US; the cotton deficit could be remedied just as well by a Union victory. Furthermore, the United States was an established legitimate government that clearly controlled its own territory; the Confederacy did not even control its own coastline. The Confederates were seen as rebels waving the discredited banner of human slavery; on that point they had little or no sympathy in Europe. On the other hand, aristocratic leaders in Britain and France enjoyed speculating that the "uppity" U.S.A. was headed for a downfall, and perhaps they should give a push.

Will Europe intervene?

Intervention was a serious possibility if British or French leaders thought it was to their long-term advantage to have two antagonistic powers in North America to neutralize each other. Paris was building an empire in Mexico, with its puppet "Emperor" Maximilian propped up by French bayonets. Washington saw this as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, but avoided any confrontation until the war was over.[6] The French navy was building up ironclad strength, but not as fast as the US Navy. Furthermore, the French people would never support such a war with the US, and if one broke out France might be attacked by Prussia (as happened in 1870). France would not move alone, but it would join Britain in a war. London, however, realized that the British people would never support such a war. Furthermore, the long-term economic prosperity of Britain depended on friendly commercial and financial ties with the US. Idle speculation about intervention always came crashing into the bottom line: Washington would declare war immediately on any nation that so much as exchanged ambassadors with Richmond. Not one nation did so; Confederate diplomats had only deuces to play.[7]

Crisis: the Trent Affair

A grave blunder by the United States almost precipitated war with Britain in late 1861. On November 7, a US Navy warship under command of hotheaded Captain Charles Wilkes, intercepted on the high seas the "Trent," a British merchant ship steam making a routine run from Havana. After firing a shot across the bow, Wilkes sent heavily armed Marines aboard and seized two passengers aboard, James Mason and John Slidell, the Confederate ambassadors to London and Paris. Wilkes released the ship but took the prisoners to Boston, where he received a jubilant welcome as the hero of the hour. The seizure was a clear violation of Britain's rights as a neutral, and London protested vehemently. More practically, it drew up war plans, mobilized the Royal Navy, and sent 13,000 regulars to Canada. British strategists realized that in a war with the US, Canada would be quickly captured. The regiments were sent as a gesture, and as an indication Britain would win Canada back at the peace conference. The large, well-trained Royal Navy, now being rebuilt around heavily armed ironclads, was ready for a major fleet battle, as the American blockade squadrons were not. Should war break out, the British fleet would swoop down on the blockaders and sink or capture them. After that the fleet would sail into New York harbor and either capture Manhattan or at least close down the leading American city. New York could then be traded for Canada at the peace conference. The British war plans had a reasonable chance of success, especially if the French joined in.[8] Their capabilities made known, the British invited Washington to negotiate the release of Mason and Slidell. Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward saw the danger. Thanks to the intervention of Queen Victoria's husband, a showdown was avoided. Although the seizure of the rebel diplomats had been wildly hailed in the States as a naval triumph and a tweak of the lion's tail, they were released and an apology was given London. The war scare passed.[9]


Scenes of enthusiasm in 1861 gave way in 1862 to calculation. Northern factories hummed with orders for uniforms, wagons, rifles and harnesses, and longshoremen unloaded ships full of munitions from abroad. A thousand miles of new railroad track was laid, and hundreds of new factories and mills opened for business. The total output of farms increased even as two hundred thousand farmers donned blue uniforms. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs did a brilliant job in ensuring that the abundance of the rich Yankee economy was delivered on time and in quantity to the brigades that needed it. The South had few factories to begin with, and her ports were largely closed. Many plantations switched from cotton to foodstuffs, so the total food supply was still adequate. The new nation did have Josiah Gorgas, a poor boy from Pennsylvanian who graduated West Point in 1841, married a southern belle, and became chief of the Ordnance Bureau in Richmond. He performed miracles in establishing a network of new factories, repair shops, sewing rooms, gunpowder mills and arsenals throughout the Confederacy. The Confederacy managed to produce 2,200 cannon (about one fourth the North's production). More than half were made by the 2,500 employees and slaves at Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works, operated something like a plantation by Joseph Anderson (West Point class of 1836). The grayclads in the front lines had rifles, but always were short of food, coffee, ammunition, boots, medicine, wagons and horses.

Modernizing the North

The Republicans in Washington had a vision of an industrial nation, with great cities, efficient factories, productive farms, and high speed rail links. They wrote an elaborate program of economic modernization that had the dual purpose of winning the war and permanently transforming the economy. The tariff act of 1862 served not only to raise revenue, but also to encourage the establishment of factories free from British competition. Land grants went to railroad construction companies to open up the western plains and link up to California. Together with the free lands provided farmers by the Homestead Law the low-cost farm lands provided by the land grants speeded up the expansion of commercial agriculture. The North's most important war measure was perhaps the creation of a system of national banks that provided a sound currency for the industrial expansion. Even more important, the hundreds of new banks that were allowed to open were required to purchase government bonds. Thereby the nation monetized the potential wealth represented by farms, urban buildings, factories, and businesses, and immediately turned that money over to the Treasury for war needs. The Confederacy by contrast bankrupted its financial institutions by flooding the South with paper money that was not backed by real wealth or by a workable system of taxes. The basic philosophy of the Confederacy was that patriotic families should sacrifice their wealth for their new nation. Many did so, and became impoverished in the process. The philosophy in the North was it was profitable to be patriotic—to buy war bonds, to start a new bank, to bid on a war contract.


The decision to destroy slavery was a fateful one for Lincoln and the Republican Party in 1862. Still denying the reality of Confederate nationalism, they had concluded that the rich, arrogant slave owners were entirely at fault for the rebellion. They controlled the Richmond government, and officered the rebel army. To defeat the enemy it was essential to defeat its main source of strength—the system of slavery. The plight of the black slaves themselves was a concern for some of the Republicans, but not the primary motivation. The advantages in arming tens of thousands of black soldiers were unclear in 1862. There was no doubt however, that the decision to declare emancipation ripped apart the fabric of the North's political system, as the majority of Democrats repudiated the war effort, refused to enlist, and redoubled their efforts to defeat the Republicans. They scored important successes in the 1862 elections, which were largely a referendum on emancipation. The Republicans, however, continued to control the national government, the military, and most state governments. They also controlled most business and financial institutions everywhere in the North. The worst fear of the white south was a slave insurrection, and the Emancipation Proclamation appeared to be a clear warning that was coming. In actual practice, slaves ran away from their masters whenever Union armies approached (assuming their masters had not already transported them further south). There were no slave insurrections, no uprisings. But there was the even deeper fear of racial equality. Southern whites (and probably most northerners too) were strongly convinced that the black race was morally inferior to them. The Confederate position was that unending resistance was the only way to block emancipation and the systematic degradation of the white race.


By 1863, after two years of warfare, the North finally was mobilizing its economy full steam, while the South had crested and was falling back. Sherman, the most acute observer of the war, had predicted this development exactly even before Sumter, telling a rebel acquaintance:

The North can make a steam-engine, locomotive or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical an determined people on earth--right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared. . . . At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, and shut out from the markets of Europe by blockade as you will be, your cause will begin to wane.[10]

Shrinking southern economy

The blockade squeezed the southern economy into a downward spiral; it shrank by 40 to 50%. The hardships of Confederate civilians was greatly mitigated by the fact that eight in ten lived on farms with generally fertile soils. With little chance of selling tobacco or cotton, most land, family labor and slave labor was switched to food production. Shortages of coffee annoyed everyone, while a severe shortage of salt made the preservation of meat a major headache. Newspapers advised housewives how to economize. One explained in 1864: "Rather than complain about the lack of steak or about poor crop output, people in the South can turn to other food sources that are readily available." It suggested people start eating mushrooms, rats, frogs, and snails, items that were commonly consumed in other parts of the world and that would alleviate the danger of starvation.[11]

Food shortages

The breakdown of the commissary and transportation systems kept the rebel army hungry. Richmond lacked the managerial skills needed to move food from where it was still abundant. Each rebel army learned to raid the countryside for food, fodder, wood, horses and mules, until they had stripped friendly territory bare. As early as the 1862 harvest season, Sergeant Robert Smith, of the Second Tennessee division, reported that his regiment had been given only one pound of flour each to last the next three days, and had gobbled it up. "They will have to live on parched [boiled] corn, wall-nuts & acorns for the next two days--rather hard living."[12] The soldiers joked that the war was between the "Feds" and the "Cornfeds."

By spring 1863 poor quality rations, high in calories but low in vitamins and meat, had become the norm. The Army of the Tennessee fed its 50,000 troops every day with 35,000 pounds of bacon, 88,000 pounds of corn meal, 3,500 pounds of rice, 520 gallons of molasses, and a small river of ersatz "coffee" made from corn meal. The troops grumbled that warriors needed red meat to fight well, but they chewed their rancid bacon and soldiered on. Every few months standard rations were cut; more sugar, less beef. Vegetables became rarities, though one week some boxcars of tomatoes from Florida provided a special treat. Nutritional deficiencies kept the sick and wounded incapacitated for longer periods, caused scurvy and diarrhea, and may have produced the night blindness that handicapped the Confederates after dusk fell. Rations consisted mainly of corn meal and salt pork or lean beef, a diet that was dangerously lacking in Vitamins A and B. In the 20th century medical researchers discovered that a prolonged deficiency of Vitamin A can lead to "nyctalopia," that is, impaired vision, or night blindness. Diarrhea became very common among soldiers and civilians in the South. A lack of folate, a B vitamin, probably produced much of the diarrhea either directly or by increasing susceptibility to infection by one or more microorganisms. In winter, when battles were rare, the Confederate army sent thousands of soldiers home to allow them to work on their farm or in munitions factories; more would have been sent but the railroads could not handle them. The Confederate medical system, scarcely able to cope with battlefield casualties, routinely sent lightly injured men home temporarily. "The boys regard a severe wound now as equivalent to a furlough, and whenever one is wounded they say he has got a furlough for thirty, sixty or ninety days as the wound may be slight, severe, or serious."[13]

Collapse of transportation

The decaying infrastructure of the South negated the Confederacy's advantage of interior lines of communications. The US Navy commanded the high seas and every major river. To maintain mobility over the vast western distances, the quartermasters had to feed the workhorses, mules and cavalry mounts large amounts of forage (ten pounds a day each of corn and hay), which filled the available wagons and railroad cars. Lee's horses in Virginia were on half rations, and could hardly pull their caissons, guns and wagons. The life expectancy of an army horse was a matter of weeks, and Lee could not replenish his losses while the Federals were increasingly well mounted as the war went on. Union cavalry, distinctly inferior in 1861–62, was much superior by 1864. Absent water and roads, the Confederacy lifeline became the railroads. In September, 1863, Lee outwitted the Yankees by shipping Longstreet's elite First Corps from the Virginia to Chickamauga (on the Tennessee-Georgia state line, south of Chattanooga), where they gave Bragg a sudden numerical advantage over Rosecrans. Movement by sea was of course impossible, and the direct route of 500 miles across the mountains had been cut. Eight brigades totaling 12,000 soldiers therefore made a roundabout 965 mile journey in 10–16 days. They traversed eleven different railroads, each with different gauge (width) tracks, so it was impossible to use the same cars. As one staff officer recalled:

Never before were so many troops moved over such worn-out railways. Never before were such crazy cars--passenger, baggage, mail, coal, box, platform, all and every sort wobbling on the jumping strap iron--used for hauling good soldiers. But we got there nonetheless.[14]

Not quite. The artillery and 4,500 infantry arrived too late for the battle of Chickamauga. Bragg therefore had inadequate reserves to clinch success when Longstreet's veterans burst through the Union lines. What might have been a smashing victory became just another bloody standoff (albeit a morale builder for the Confederates—and their last major victory in the west). The Yankees regained numerical advantage when Lincoln reinforced Rosecrans with 20,000 men from the Virginia front; they circled round some 1,200 miles over superior Union railroads in one-third less time.[15]

Sherman's March through Georgia: 1864

By 1864 Grant and Sherman realized the weakest point of the armies opposing them was the decrepitude of the southern infrastructure and deliberately sought to wear it down. Cavalry raids were the favorite device, with instructions to ruin railroads and bridges. Sherman's insight was deeper. He focused on the trust the rebels had in their Confederacy as a living nation, and he set out to destroy that trust. "I propose to demonstrate the vulnerability of the South, and make its inhabitants feel that war and ruin are synonymous terms." It took a while to secure the approval of Lincoln and Grant, for Sherman's plan was to ignore the Confederate army and strike instead at the Confederate nation. Sherman's "March To the Sea," from Atlanta to Savannah in fall, 1864, burned and broke and ruined every part of the industrial, commercial, transportation and agricultural infrastructure it touched, but the actual damage was confined to a swath of territory totaling about 15% of Georgia. Much more important than the twisted rails, smoldering main streets, dead cattle, burning barns and ransacked houses was the bitter realization among civilians and soldiers throughout the remaining Confederacy that if they persisted, sooner or later their homes and communities would receive the same treatment.* Sherman, who unlike Grant had been deeply involved in the Seminole War, knew that the way to defeat Indians was to strike at their villages and especially their food supply, and that winter campaigns especially effective. Thus Sherman struck at Georgia in October, November and December, and while Grant and Lee were in quiet winter quarters in the next three months, Sherman's army moved north through the Carolinas in a campaign even more devastating than the March Through Georgia.[16]


War dead

The war produced about 970,000 military casualties North and South (3% of the total population), including approximately 620,000 soldier deaths—two-thirds by disease. The 10,500 battles and engagements produced about 1,1 million killed and wounded. The Union army and navy lost 110,100 killed in action (including mortally wounded who died in hospitals), and another 224,580 who died of disease. The Confederate army 94,000 in battle and another 164,000 who died of disease. Official counts of the wounded are far too low, at 275,000 for the Union and 194,000 for the Confederacy.[17]

Civilian destruction

The number of civilian deaths is unknown. Most of the war was fought in Virginia and Tennessee, but every Southern state was affected as well as Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky Missouri, and Indian Territory; Pennsylvania was the only northerner state to be the scene of major action, during the Gettysburg campaign. In the Confederacy there was little military action in Texas and Florida. Of 645 counties in 9 Confederate states (excluding Texas and Florida), there was Union military action in 56% of them, containing 63% of the whites and 64% of the slaves in 1860; however by the time the action took place some people had fled to safer areas, so the exact population exposed to war is unknown.

The Confederacy in 1861 had 297 towns and cities with 835,000 people; of these 162 with 681,000 people were at one point occupied by Union forces. Eleven were destroyed or severely damaged by war action, including Atlanta (with an 1860 population of 9,600), Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond (with prewar populations of 40,500, 8,100, and 37,900, respectively); the eleven contained 115,900 people in the 1860 census, or 14% of the urban South. Historians have not estimated their population when they were invaded. The number of people who lived in the destroyed towns represented just over 1% of the Confederacy's population. In addition, 45 court houses were burned (out of 830). The South's agriculture was not highly mechanized. The value of farm implements and machinery in the 1860 Census was $81 million; by 1870, there was 40% less, of $48 million worth. Many old tools had broken through heavy use and could not be replaced; even repairs were difficult.

The economic calamity suffered by the South during the war affected every family. Except for land, most assets and investments had vanished with slavery, but debts were left behind. Worst of all were the human deaths and amputations. Most farms were intact but most had lost their horses, mules and cattle; fences and barns were in disrepair. Prices for cotton had plunged. The rebuilding would take years and require outside investment because the devastation was so thorough. One historian has summarized the collapse of the transportation infrastructure needed for economic recovery:[18]

One of the greatest calamities which confronted Southerners was the havoc wrought on the transportation system. Roads were impassable or nonexistent, and bridges were destroyed or washed away. The important river traffic was at a standstill: levees were broken, channels were blocked, the few steamboats which had not been captured or destroyed were in a state of disrepair, wharves had decayed or were missing, and trained personnel were dead or dispersed. Horses, mules, oxen, carriages, wagons, and carts had nearly all fallen prey at one time or another to the contending armies. The railroads were paralyzed, with most of the companies bankrupt. These lines had been the special target of the enemy. On one stretch of 114 miles in Alabama, every bridge and trestle was destroyed, cross-ties rotten, buildings burned, water-tanks gone, ditches filled up, and tracks grown up in weeds and bushes. . . . Communication centers like Columbia and Atlanta were in ruins; shops and foundries were wrecked or in disrepair. Even those areas bypassed by battle had been pirated for equipment needed on the battlefront, and the wear and tear of wartime usage without adequate repairs or replacements reduced all to a state of disintegration.

Railroad mileage was of course located mostly in rural areas. The war followed the rails, and over two-thirds of the South's rails, bridges, rail yards, repair shops and rolling stock were in areas reached by Union armies, which systematically destroyed what it could. The South had 9400 miles of track and 6500 miles was in areas reached by the Union armies. About 4400 miles were in areas where Sherman and other Union generals adopted a policy of systematic destruction of the rail system. Even in untouched areas, the lack of maintenance and repair, the absence of new equipment, the heavy over-use, and the deliberate movement of equipment by the Confederates from remote areas to the war zone guaranteed the system would be virtually ruined at war's end.[19]

See also


Surveys and reference books

  • Beringer, Richard E., Archer Jones, and Herman Hattaway, Why the South Lost the Civil War (1986) influential analysis of factors; The Elements of Confederate Defeat: Nationalism, War Aims, and Religion (1988), abridged version
  • Donald, David et al. The Civil War and Reconstruction (latest edition 2001); excellent 700 page survey
  • Fellman, Michael et al. This Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath (2nd ed. 2007), excellent 544 page survey
  • Ford, Lacy K., ed. A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction. (2005). 518 pp. 23 essays by scholars excerpt and text search
  • Goldin, Claudia D., and Frank D. Lewis, "The Economic Cost of the American Civil War: Estimates and Implications," Journal of Economic History 35#2 (June 1975), pp. 299–326 in JSTOR
  • Heidler, David Stephen, ed. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2002), 1600 entries in 2700 pages in 5 vol or 1-vol editions; very good basic reference
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), 900 page survey; Pulitzer prize
  • Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union, an 8-volume set (1947-1971). the most detailed political, economic and military narrative; by Pulitzer Prize winner
    • 1. Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847–1852; 2. A House Dividing, 1852–1857; 3. Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos, 1857–1859; 4. Prologue to Civil War, 1859–1861; 5. The Improvised War, 1861–1862; 6. War Becomes Revolution, 1862–1863; 7. The Organized War, 1863–1864; 8. The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865
  • Ransom, Roger L. "The Economics of the Civil War," EH.Net Encyclopedia, ed. Robert Whaples (Aug. 25, 2001), online edition
  • Rhodes, James Ford. History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1920 and numerous editions) his 5-volume history of the war vol 1-7 online at
  • Rhodes, James Ford. History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (1918), Pulitzer Prize; a short version of his 5-volume history


  • Hubbard, Charles M. The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy (1998)
  • Jones, Howard. Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: the Union and slavery in the diplomacy of the Civil War, (1999) online edition
  • Mahin, Dean B. One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War (1999) excerpt and text serch
  • Monaghan, Jay. Diplomat In Carpet Slippers - Abraham Lincoln Deals With Foreign Affairs (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Owsley, Frank Lawrence. King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign relations of the Confederate States of America (1931)

Union homefront

  • Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln (1999) the ebest biography; excerpt and text search
  • Gienapp. William E. Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography (2002), good short online edition
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) excerpts and text search
  • Green, Michael S. Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War. (2004). 400 pp.
  • Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union (1970), vol 5. The Improvised War, 1861–1862; vo 6. War Becomes Revolution, 1862–1863; vol 7. The Organized War, 1863–1864; vol 8. The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865
  • Paludan, Philip S. The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (1994), thorough treatment of Lincoln's administration
  • Resch, John P. et al., Americans at War: Society, Culture and the Homefront vol 2: 1816-1900 (2005)
  • Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War (1997) online edition
  • Thornton, Mark and Ekelund, Robert B., Jr. Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War. (2004). 124 pp.
  • Weber, Jennifer L. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Wilson, Mark R. The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865. (2006). 306 pp. excerpt and text search

Confederate homefront

  • Current, Richard N., et al. eds. Encyclopedia of the Confederacy (1993) (4 Volume set; also 1 vol abridged version)
  • Boritt, Gabor S., et al., Why the Confederacy Lost, (1992).
  • Coulter, E. Merton. The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865 (1950), highly detailed overview; strong Southern accent
  • Davis, William C. Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America (2003)
  • Davis, William C. and Robertson, James I., Jr., eds. Virginia at War, 1861. (2007). 241 pp.
  • Eaton, Clement. A History of the Southern Confederacy (1954).
  • Roland, Charles P. The Confederacy, 1960. brief survey
  • Rable, George C., The Confederate Republic: A Revolution against Politics, (1994). online edition
  • Rubin, Anne Sarah. A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868. (2005). 319 pp.
  • Thomas, Emory M. Confederate Nation: 1861-1865 (1979). Standard political-economic-social history
  • Thomas, Emory M. The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, (1992) short interpretive essay

Blacks and women

  • McPherson, James M. Marching Toward Freedom: The Negro's Civil War (1982); first edition was The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union (1965),
  • Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War (1953), standard history excerpt and text search
  • Wiley, Bell Irvin. Southern Negroes: 1861-1865 (1938)
  • Clinton, Catherine & Nina Silber, eds. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992), provocative essays online edition
  • Faust, Drew. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Harper, Judith E. Women during the Civil War: An Encyclopedia. (2004). 472 pp.
  • Marten, James. Children for the Union: The War Spirit on the Northern Home Front. (2004). 209 pp.
  • Massey, Mary. Bonnet Brigades: American Women and the Civil War (1966), excellent overview; reissued as Women in the Civil War (1994)
  • Rable, George C. Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (1989), excellent

Culture, religion and values

  • Faust, Drew. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), Pulitzer prize excerpt and text search
  • Miller, Randall M., Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds. Religion and the American Civil War (1998) online edition
  • Miller, Robert J. Both Prayed to the Same God: Religion and Faith in the American Civil War. (2007). 260pp
  • Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. (2006). 199 pp.
  • Stout, Harry S. Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. (2006). 544 pp.
  • Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by ISBN 0-671-86742-3
  • Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962)

Primary sources

  • American Annual Cyclopaedia for 1861 (N.Y.: Appleton's, 1864), a remarkable collection of reports on each state, Congress, and military activities, and many other topics; annual issues from 1861 to 1901 in major libraries
  • Angle, Paul M. , and Earl Schenck Miers, eds. Tragic Years, 1860-1865: A Documentary History of the American Civil War - Vol. 1 1960 online edition
  • Carter, Susan B., ed. The Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition (5 vols), 2006; online at many universities
  • Commager, Henry Steele (ed.). The Blue and the Gray. The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants. (1950), excerpts from primary sources
  • Dee, Christine, ed. Ohio's War: The Civil War in Documents. (2007). 244 pp.
  • Harwell, Richard B. ed. The Confederate Reader (1957) 389 pp. online edition
  • Hesseltine, William B. ed.; The Tragic Conflict: The Civil War and Reconstruction (1962), excerpts from primary sources online edition
  • Jones, John B. A Rebel War Clerk's Diary at the Confederate States Capital, edited by Howard Swiggert, [1935] 1993. 2 vols.
  • Marten, James, ed.. Civil War America: Voices from the Home Front. (2003). 346 pp.
  • Risley, Ford, ed. The Civil War: Primary Documents on Events from 1860 to 1865. (2004). 320 pp.
  • Sizer, Lyde Cullen and Cullen, Jim, ed. The Civil War Era: An Anthology of Sources. (2005). 434 pp.
  • Yearns, W. Buck and Barret, John G.,eds. North Carolina Civil War Documentary, 1980.
  • Confederate official government documents major online collection of complete texts in HTML format, from U. of North Carolina
  • diaries, journals. reminiscences


  1. George Edgar Turner, Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War‎ (1953) excerpt and text search
  2. William James Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American: A Biography‎ (2000)
  3. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005)
  4. Benjamin Hardin Helm (West Point, 1851) was one of two Orphan Brigade generals killed in Confederate service. He was Lincoln's brother-in-law.
  5. David G. Surdam, "The Union Navy's Blockade Reconsidered" Naval War College Review 1998 51(4): 85-107; Surdam, Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War (2001).
  6. After Appomattox, Washington sent tens of thousands of battle-hardened troops to the Mexican border. Paris finally pulled out; the Mexicans shot Maximilian. Richmond tolerated the French aggression. If somehow the Confederacy had become independent, it would have faced powerful enemies to its north and its south.
  7. Lynn M. Case and Warren F. Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy (1970)
  8. Kenneth Bourne, "British Preparations for War with the North, 1861-1862," English Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 301 (Oct., 1961), pp. 600-632 in JSTOR
  9. Howard Jones, Union in Peril: The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War (1992); Charles Francis Adams, "The Trent Affair," American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Apr., 1912), pp. 540-562 in JSTOR
  10. Quoted in Lewis p 138, letter of Dec 1860
  11. See online
  12. Larry J. Daniel, Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee (1991) p. 54 online
  13. See original documents on Southern Homefront; and 1863 Confederate cooking recipes in a time of shortages such as "Apple Pie without apples". also "hardships of daily life from local Virginia newspaper. For a scholarly study see, Alfred Jay Bollet, "Scurvy and Chronic Diarrhea in Civil War Troops: Were They Both Nutritional Deficiency Syndromes? Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (1992) 47(1): 49-67.
  14. Lacking solid iron rails, none of which were made or imported during the war, the southerners nailed thin straps of iron to wooden rails. John Elwood Clark, Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat‎ (2004) p 97 online
  15. For scholarly studies see: George Edgar Turner, Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War (1953, reprinted 1992); also Jeffrey N. Lash, "Joseph E. Johnston and the Virginia Railways, 1861-62." Civil War History (1989) 35(1): 5-27; and Allen W. Trelease, "A Southern Railroad at War: The North Carolina Railroad and the Confederacy," Railroad History (1991) (164): 5-41. There is a good, short article in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of the Confederacy (1993), reprinted in The Confederacy (1998)
  16. Hattaway & Jones p 452; Foote 2:709 Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond (1995) p 6
  17. For details see Thomas L. Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America 1861-65 (1901) full text online; and William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1867-1865 (1889). see also websites dealing with the casualty count
  18. John Samuel Ezell, The South since 1865 1963 pp 27-28
  19. Paul F. Paskoff, "Measures of War: A Quantitative Examination of the Civil War's Destructiveness in the Confederacy," Civil War History 54.1 (2008) 35-62