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AHHS — Chapter 23

Chapter 23 – Comparing the Two Armies with Regard to Size, Leadership, Resourcefulness, Materiel, Commitment, etc., by Steve Litteral of Illinois, S.I.S.H.


Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri were more of a burden than an asset for the Republican governors and the Lincoln Administration.  And the Pacific west was too far away to provide much military support.   So we can ignore those regions when comparing the Confederate States to the Federal States.  The Confederates had a lot more land.  But the Federals had a lot more men of fighting age and bringing in more men from Europe was destined to swell their ranks.  Confederates had superior leadership, although Republicans certainly had no problem pressing on in spite of huge casualties, eventually escalating the fight to include “total war” against civilians.  Confederates were more resourceful, but Federals had a far, far greater industrial base, useful in supplying weaponry.  Comparing ocean vessels and armed riverboats, Federals were clearly superior and that was most effective in taking the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers.  Federals were the invaders; Confederates were the defenders, and that explained much of the difference in commitment.  Confederates troops and cavalry were more effective, suffering 50,000 fewer military deaths.  Steve Litteral tells the story.

History Relevant To Understanding the WBTS

When President Lincoln announced the military invasion of the Confederacy, the United States did not have a large professional military like today.  Many states had militias, and the Federal military was relatively small compared to the size of the country.  Traditionally, militia in the Southern states were much more organized, usually commanded by men who had some form of military education.  Although the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) is located in New York, the Southern states had several military academies, like the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).  But the Southern states were disadvantaged in other ways.

The Union had a white population of 20 million, where the Confederate states had a mere 6 million.  Also, roughly 800,000 immigrants arrived in the North during the war, and many of them were inducted into the Federal army.  In total, the Federal forces had over 2 million men in its military and the Confederacy had approximately 750,000.

The Northern states also had a large industrial base to make their weapons and equipment, whereas the Southern states were largely an agrarian society lacking capacity to produce large amounts of military armaments.  Confederates had to become very creative in the manufacture of military equipment.  Many Confederate troops brought their own weapons from home to offset a shortage of arms.  The Confederacy also engaged in blockade running and purchasing equipment from countries like Great Britain, which did have a large industrial base.  Throughout the war, the Confederates resupplied their soldiers with Federal equipment taken in numerous battlefield victories.  In 1862 over 250 artillery pieces were captured and used by the Confederates.  Eventually, the Southern states started to produce larger amounts of weapons, but they were never able to compete with the 110,000 manufacturing companies in the Northern states.

Although disadvantage in manpower and industrial capacity, Confederate forces benefitted from brilliant leaders like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  Although Federals had several effective leaders, it was took men of heroic battlefield prowess to fight a war against the Federal Government for four long years.

Concerning government leadership we shall look at the two presidents.  Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and served as the President of the Confederate States of America.  He had served on the frontier as an officer in the U.S. Army for many years and had later fought gallantly in the Mexican-American War.  He also served as a member of the House of Representatives, Senate, and as Secretary of War.  This military and political experience enabled Davis to keep the Confederacy together during four years of brutal warfare on Southern soil.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) served as the President of the United States from 1861 to 1865. He had little formal education or military experience (he served in the Illinois militia for a short, insignificant, time during the Black Hawk War of 1832, but never participated in a battle).  Of noteworthy intelligence and savvy, he eventually became a lawyer, and served in the U.S. House of Representatives one two-year term.  In 1856 he rose as a leader of the new Illinois Republican Party and became well known during the well-publicized Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

The Confederate Army had 425 General officers in total.  Out of this number, 146 were West Point graduates, 17 were VMI graduates, 4 were South Carolina Military Academy graduates, and 19 had previous military experience.  Besides having a number of officers with a great military education, many of these Southern leaders were also veterans of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

Being much larger, the Federal Army supported many more General officers.  There were 583 regular General officers and 1,367 Generals by brevet, which served as a temporary rank.  The Federal Army also had veterans of the Mexican-American War within their ranks, such as U.S. Grant.  Politics were involved in the promotion of generals in both armies, but the Federal Army suffered from a large amount of officers who were called ‘political generals.’  They won promotion because of political friends in Washington, D.C., instead of demonstrated military expertise.  A good example is Daniel Sickles, a former New York politician and army general, whose lack of military knowledge cost the lives of many of his men when he unnecessarily exposed them to withering fire at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

When we look at the common soldiers, they came from many different backgrounds, and cultures.  Television and Hollywood movies suggest that all Confederate soldiers were white, Southern-born Christian men.  The truth is much more complicated.  The Confederate Army was also home to many foreign-born men who decided to fight for the Southern states.  There were also Native-Americans, African-American, Latinos, and Jewish soldiers fighting as Confederates.  The same can be said of the Federal forces, although the Federal forces had many more foreign-born soldiers.  Over 20% of the soldiers that fought for the Federal forces were not born in the United States.  Many of them came from European countries like Ireland and Germany.

As far as organization goes, the two armies were basically the same since they came out of the same American military tradition.  The main branches of the military were the infantry, cavalry, and artillery, with numerous other support units.  The infantry was the main fighting force that fought on foot.  They used tactics to maneuver across the battlefield and shock the enemy into either surrender or retreat through the use of superior fire power and face-to-face combat.

The cavalry was a force that fought on horseback and they could be used for various missions including reconnaissance, flanking maneuvers, and swift attacks against enemy units.

The artillery used large caliber weapons (i.e. cannons) to fire munitions on enemy soldiers that are far beyond the range of infantry small arms.  The artillery would fire direct and indirect rounds into enemy formations to cause mass casualties.  The Confederate Army needed as many men in the combat branches as possible, especially in the infantry which did the brunt of the fighting on the battlefield.

Since the Federal forces were better supplied, they had better logistical support.  They had large supply units that would be able to move huge numbers of men from one place to another with their tents, food, ammunition, and other supplies.  Many of the Confederate units did not have extensive supply units to follow them, so many of them carried everything they owned on their back.  The Southern cavalry units proved to be very effective against the larger and slower Federal units.  Some daring tactics by Confederate commanders are still studied by the military men today, such as those of J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest.  There were great artillery units on both sides of the conflict, but the Confederate units should be commended since they would accomplish their mission with very limited supplies compared to the gunners on the Federal side who usually had an abundance of shells and powder.

Throughout the conflict, Federal forces dominated on the water.  At the start of the conflict, the U.S. Navy was able to create a naval blockade that severely restricted maritime trade off the coast of the Southern states.  The goal was to stop the trade of cotton to countries like Great Britain that needed Southern cotton for their textile manufacturing.  The Federal Navy also purchased a fleet of ironclad gunboats that would steam up and down large interior rivers like the Mississippi and transport troops, supplies, and also fire on fortifications along the rivers.  The war did spawn the creation of a new kind of ship called the ironclads.  The most famous naval battles involving ironclads was the Battle of Hampton Roads where the C.S.S. Virginia and the U.S.S. Monitor clashed off the coast of Virginia.  These were basically ships that were covered in armor and had large caliber guns installed to fire against other naval vessels.  Although the Federal forces dominated the surface, the Confederate Navy was able to create the first submarine, the H.L. Hunley.  Although it was lost at sea, it was able to sink the U.S.S. Housatonic, making it the first combat submarine to successfully sink a surface ship.

One of the things that cannot be measured with mathematics is the will to fight.  Many of the things that have been discussed so far can be compared by using statistics and percentages.  The commitment to a cause is not so easy to compare.  What we can do is simply look at a map and see that the Federal forces obviously invaded the Southern states.  If you look at the major battles of the war, they stretch like a snake from the state of Virginia, down to Georgia, and across the Southern states to Texas.  The men who joined the Confederate Army did so for many different reasons, but if you read the letters and diaries of the soldiers who fought, the common theme is the defense of their family and homes.   By the latter years they were greatly worried about their families since Federal forces were marching over much of the South, burning down farms, taking livestock, and stealing food from the civilian population.  Imagine your family and home today.  If a neighboring state invaded your state tomorrow, would you simply surrender or fight to protect your family and land?  The soldiers who fought for the Confederacy decided that they did not want an over-reaching Federal Government destroying their hearth and home for any reason—including under a false notion of ‘saving the Union.’  Once you force people into subservience at the point of a bayonet, the ‘Union’ is essentially dead since citizens are no longer there under their own free will.  By 1865, the states that made up the United States were forced into an agreement where they were to be dominated by the Federal government, and therefore killing the experiment that the Founding Fathers fought so hard to create.

Again and again outnumbered Confederates defeated much larger forces.  It was almost never the other way.  In 1862 in the Shenandoah Valley Stonewall Jackson’s small force, in a campaign that is still studied in every military academy, defeated 4 different Federal forces and then slipped away to join the Richmond defenses.  Gen. Richard Taylor’s small army repulsed a large federal army/navy invasion up the Red River in LA.  Bedford Forrest’s cavalry raids behind enemy lines tied down great numbers of bluecoats in defensive positions.  Both Lee and Sherman said after the war that Forrest was the greatest soldier the war had produced.  From a light industrial base, Confederates created miracles of production in weapons, gunpowder, steam driven ironclad ships.  The armies suffered less from the unavailability of supplies than from the ongoing deterioration of the railroads, which were difficult to replace. Confederate sea raiders covered the world and interfered with Northern commerce to a degree that nearly d¬estroyed it – and without ever harming a single merchant sailor.


Although the Federal forces had a large and well-supplied Army and Navy, the Southern forces were very motivated, resourceful, and fortunate to have many successful military leaders throughout the conflict.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Imagine the kind of stresses that the Southern citizens faced on the battlefield and on the home front.  Would you endure the same kind of hardships to protect your family and property?

Recommended Reading

  • The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, by Bell Irvin Wiley, pub. 1943.
  • Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War, vol. 3: The Bleeding, by Howard Ray White, pub. 2007.