Northern Military Advantages in the Civil War

Civil War

Although the Civil War was initially viewed by many Northern and Southern observers to be a short conflict, it rapidly devolved into four years of bloody battles. Lincoln’s original “police” action after the fall of Ft. Sumter gradually turned into total war that demanded nothing less than the destruction of the Southern political and social structure. The duration of the war, however, highlighted what was barely evident to those early recruits: Union military strength outlasted the South.

When the Civil War Came the Union was Unprepared

The shots that forced the surrender of Ft. Sumter may have signaled the beginning of a defensive resistance to the North, but it also encouraged an outpouring of patriotic emotion for the Union in the North. Unlike the initial Northern military buildup, however, Southern military leadership was far better prepared. Many of the front-line commanders were army veterans, having served in the Mexican War as well as manning western garrisons. One third of all U.S. officers that resigned their commissions from the U.S. army to return South in early 1861 were West Point graduates.

Southerners were defending their homeland, a prospect driven into their collective consciousness after President Lincoln requested 75,000 men to force Southern compliance. Both North and South initially recruited volunteers. Southern farmers were relentlessly trained by their generals – men with years of military experience. Although the North also had seasoned West Pointers, many high ranking officers were political appointees, like Carl Schurz and Benjamin Butler.

Northern Advantages Begin to Erode the Confederate Defense

The fiasco of First Bull Run in 1861 represented the first major shift in military policy. The war would not be over within a few months and Southern soldiers demonstrated their skills and determination. By early 1862, Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson began the process of Northern domination in the western theater. In April, New Orleans fell to a Union invasion fleet. After Congress passed legislation allowing for the recruitment of African American soldiers, General Benjamin Butler recruited several black regiments in New Orleans.

Northern advantages also included a network of railroads that allowed for faster troop deployments and freighting supplies. An industrial complex far superior to anything found in the South churned out weaponry and munitions. Once General Grant eliminated Vicksburg in July 1863, western food supplies desperately needed by the South, including beef from Texas, were curtailed. Finally, the inability of Southern armies to strike a decisive blow, such as at Antietam in 1862 or Gettysburg in 1863, kept European nations like Britain and France from committing more substantial aid to the South.

The Role of Manpower in the Civil War

In the course of the war, the North was able to muster 2,046 regiments, of which 1,696 were infantry. The South, however, only raised approximately 1,000 regiments. Although the South had more armies than the North (23 to 16), its divisions were 2,500 men stronger than Northern divisions. Unlike the North, there was no on-going immigration in the South. Northern immigration patterns allowed the Northeast to replace workers later drafted into the army and in some cases new immigrants went right from their ships to the Civil War front lines.

Although many Northern generals were promoted for political reasons, ethnic promotions helped to recruit ethnic regiments as well as instill pride within the urban ethnic communities of the North. Black soldiers also provided the North with fresh recruits, of which the 54th Massachusetts under the command of Robert Shaw was the most distinguished.

Union Victory in the Civil War Depended on Greater Troop Strength

As the battlefields became conflicts of attrition, the North was able to replenish troops with greater ease than the South. Even at the start of the war, white Southern population was dwarfed by the teeming millions in the North. The inability to supply troops – a key factor in Lee’s surrender, helped end the war in 1865. The Union’s utter destruction of the agricultural base, such as Sheridan’s foray in the Shenandoah Valley and Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas, further exacerbated the problems of supply.


  1. Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln the War President (Oxford University Press, 1992)
  2. David Detzer, Dissonance: The Turbulent Days Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run (Harcourt, Inc., 2006)
  3. Gerald A. Patterson, Rebels from West Point (Stackpole Books, 2002)
  4. Page Smith, Trial By Fire: A People’s History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982)
  5. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (Alfred A. Knopf, 1952)