An economic and logistical comparison of the CSA and Union

Stephen Oates argues that the rigid conformance to rule of law by the confederacy in regard to states rights led to the downfall of the confederate war campaign. Oates’ statement “states rights killed the confederacy” represents a naive judgment which excludes more prevalent considerations such as southern infrastructure, demographics and logistical support. In truth these latter qualities decided the war.

The central notion behind Oates’ thesis is that since Jefferson Davis had his hands tied by a system of federal checks and balances he was unable to move with the executive privilege which could have led to a victory, executive courtesies which his northern nemesis had been given free reign to indulge in. Such executive powers include conscription, seizure of state property and goods for the war effort, nationalization of the militia and suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus. The argument goes that if Jefferson Davis had been granted dictatorial powers he could have mustered greater resources to defeat the Union. This latter point represents the ignorance of the argument: the south didn’t have any vast untapped resource to muster even if Davis was granted unlimited executive reign, the south was doomed to defeat from the outset simply due to the reality of the stark economic and logistical situation.

If one examines a map and the boundaries of the two countries it appears that the Union and Confederacy were more-or-less evenly matched considering the comparable geographical areas. The reality of the situation was that the north had a vastly superior industrial capacity, population pool, infrastructure and logistical framework which all but ensured a complete victory before the first shot sounded[i].

Comparison of Union and CSA (1860)

Union

CSA

Total population

22,000,000 (71%)

9,000,000 (29%)

Free population

22,000,000

5,500,000

1860 Border state slaves

432,586

NA

1860 Southern slaves

NA

3,500,000

Soldiers

2,200,000 (67%)

1,064,000 (33%)

Railroad miles

21,788 (71%)

8,838 (29%)

Manufactured items

90%

10%

Firearm production

97%

3%

Bales of cotton in 1860

Negligible

4,500,000

Bales of cotton in 1864

Negligible

300,000

Pre-war U.S. exports

30%

70%

A very different picture of the Confederate odds emerges when the data is so clearly presented. It is clear to see that the Confederate States had only the slimmest chance of victory and the rebel government’s failure to bring European powers into the conflict to protect their source of cotton sounded the death knell of the entire military campaign. It was the extraordinarily inept leadership of the Union and the indecision and bumbling incompetence of the presidency leading to numerous initial setbacks and defeats which created the illusion of a possible southern victory. The southern states at the time of the Civil War were a century behind their northern foes in every possible qualification and the war would have been over in a matter of weeks if it wasn’t for the second-guessing and paranoid delusions of McClellan during the Peninsular Campaign and the reluctance of Lincoln to enforce his executive orders.

No number of stunning victories will secure enduring success in a campaign against an overbearing foe: from Hannibal to Napoleon to Lee to Rommel we observe men of superior intellect and cunning striking victory after victory only to be defeated by the limitations of manpower, economics and logistics. The Confederacy was not limited by states rights in mustering its resources; it was limited by not having resources to begin with. Outnumbered in most battles at least 2:1 and often 4:1 by an enemy which was better equipped, better trained and supplied by a complex and efficient logistical framework, only the dues ex machina could have secured a Confederate victory.


[i] Railroad mileage is from: Chauncey Depew (ed.), One Hundred Years of American Commerce 1795-1895, p. 111; For other data see: 1860 US census and Carter, Susan B., ed. The Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition (5 vols), 2006.