Northern Advantages in the Civil War: Population, Industrial Capacity, and Railroads Help the North

Civil War

The advantages enjoyed by the North at the start of the American Civil War should have pointed toward a short confrontation, in line with General Winfield Scott’s initial estimation. Even a worried but confident Abraham Lincoln perceived his response as a “police action” designed to bring the recalcitrant states back in the Union. Yet is was the immense advantages of the North that ultimately allowed the Union cause to prevail as war goals and strategies transformed into unconditional surrender.

Advantages of the Union in 1861

When the war came, the North had a total population of twenty-two million people of which 1.3 million worked as industrial workers. The South only had nine million people with 110,000 employed as industrial workers. Moreover, as the 1860 census demonstrated, many Southern counties had a majority of non-white persons, slaves, which would not be conscripted into the war effort other than the usual tending of agricultural enterprises. In South Carolina the slave population outnumbered the white population by over 100,000.

Immigration patterns remained steady both at the start of the Civil War and during the course of the war. The Irish comprised one of the largest pre-Civil War immigrant groups, settling, for the most part, in the large urban centers of the North. Civil War statistics demonstrate the immigrant advantage in terms of population size. Over 170,000 Irish served in the Union armies, compared to 40,000 for the Confederacy. Germans, the other large pre-war immigrant group, also contributed large numbers to the Union cause.

Northern industrial production was valued at $1.5 billion compared to $155 million for the South. Additionally, the ratio of textiles was 17 to 1. Much is written about the Southern military tradition where every man had a firearm and knew how to use it. This is often cited as a Southern advantage. Yet in actual numbers, the ratio of firearms between the North and the South was a staggering 32 to 1.

Railroads Benefited the North More than the South

The use of railroads would prove crucial to the Union’s ultimate victory. The ability to rapidly transport soldiers and supplies greatly assisted the effort to defeat the Confederacy. At the start of the war, the North boasted 22,000 miles of track compared to 9,000 in the South. Further, as the war progressed, the inability to properly maintain the Southern system hurt Southern defensive strategies.

The employment of the railroads to effectively wage war did not go unnoticed by Prussian observers. Prussian victory in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War was due in large part to the German rail system which had more than twice the track of the French. The military use of an extensive rail system was only one war innovation learned by the Europeans avidly watching the course of the war.

The North possessed a fleet of warships that effectively blockaded Southern ports from the first weeks of the war. Although the South utilized “blockade runners” as well as raiders that harassed Union shipping like the CSS Alabama, the Union blockade, part of General Scott’s initial “anaconda plan,” kept the South from receiving desperately needed supplies and munitions from Europe.

Comparing the Leadership Skills of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis

Leadership also played a major role in the Northern advantage. Although the South had better military leadership as the war began, with most field grade officers coming out of West Point, most historians agree that Abraham Lincoln was a better leader than Jefferson Davis. Davis’ personality was cold and abrasive. Lincoln was sincerely humble but a fast learner, spending hours in the Library of Congress reading and seldom intervening directly in field operations.

In 1861, the South fervently hoped that the North would allow it to leave the Union peacefully. Yet even Jefferson Davis questioned this seemingly naïve notion when he arrived home at his Mississippi plantation, telling his wife that everything would be lost. The industrial and military might of the North ultimately overwhelmed the South, demonstrating the Northern advantages.


  1. Statistics taken from the 1860 census; Robert Divine, T. H. Breen, and others, America Past and Present 8th Ed.(Pearson-Longman, 2007) chart on page 427.
  2. Gabor S. Boritt, Why the Confederacy Lost (Oxford University Press, 1992).
  3. Stephen B. Oates, The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 (Harper/Collins, 1997).