Yankee Underdogs?

by Mike Laabs


Having offered to write an article, I pondered what to write on.  As I narrowed my choices, I thought about the difficult uphill struggles that the Confederacy faced.  The ideas came easily:  the material difficulties, the manpower differential (4:1 in white manpower), the limited industrial base (estimates as high as 20:1 I have seen), often-inferior weapons and supplies.  No wonder I enlisted in the CSA for our club since I have always enjoyed rooting for the underdog.  Then I began to think, why did the Union even have so many difficulties?  In the 1860's, the blue-bellies must have been incompetent cowards who just lacked the will and insight to win an easy war, to have the war last as long as it did.  That really can't be, so I thought I might look into some of the things that made the materially advantaged Union, underdogs in their own right.  While I really knew most of these difficulties, it helped to write them down. 

President Lincoln's mission was inherently much more difficult than we often give him credit for.  Where as the Confederate states had merely to exist as a defiant entity, the Union had to prevent this.  Lincoln, a president who had not captured the majority in the election (39%), and had to work with a brand new political party, had to convince the American public that retaining the Union was worth the cost.  No doubt, many Northerners thought just let the South secede.  In order to prevent the secession, the citizens of the North had to be willing to suffer through the draft, the riots associated with the draft, and a new concept called income tax, excise taxes, greenbacks, the losses of men, and the growth of the government.  All of this had to be accomplished with a nation whose military was not fully up to such a large task.

The overall state of army was mixed. The USA had approximately 16,000 regular army troops, perhaps 1/6 of which were surrendered by General Twiggs of the Department of Texas. I believe the 4th highest senior General in the army. Most of the troops were allowed to return to the North, however, all the stores were not. The United States had a large militia, over 3,000,000 men in the militia.  Difficulties were caused by the fact that some of this militia would join the South, and many were not in the condition capable of taking to the field.   Southern organizations tended to be better organized, but neither army could be counted on without some regular army drill and supervision.  As for the rather small regular army, much of them had to be concerned with Indian duty and could not be transferred.  Thus, much of the fighting had to be done by state recruited armies, volunteers at first, then conscription (first done in the South).  The numbers of troop enlisting in the Union army probably numbered 2.5 million.  The troop strength peeked in 1865 at 750,000 in uniform at one instant (the CSA peaked at 300,000 in 1863).  Staffing the leadership of this growing army was not an easy task.  Approximately 500 of the estimated 800 West Pointers filled the Union ranks, but the South had the advantage of smaller military academy graduates (many also came out of retirement--1/2 of the Officers of the Army of Northern Virginia attended the Virginia Military Institute).  Considering both sides used about 25,000 officers over the course of the war, the elite of the officer corp. needed to be used with care.  The south, given the numbers, was probably better equipped in this pursuit.  Only by the end of the struggle, did the Union seem fully equipped in this regard.  Sherman’s building a bridge across the Chattahoochee River (800ft long, 100 ft high) in 4 ˝ days shows the engineering leadership and abilities, which the army gained by the end of the war. 

While the draft was used, the Union was fortunate to not have to fill most of their ranks through it.  Perhaps worse was both sides had to deal with bounty jumpers, who would desert only to enlist again.

Quickly it was realized that the war would not be short, thus a blockade was enforced.  This was no easy task since it was a vast coastline.  Even with today’s technology, can we protect our borders?  Not fully.   Lincoln had to accomplish this task with an initial navy of only 23 steamships and 7500 men, protecting a coast that extended from Virginia to Texas.  The Union quickly occupied or neutralized many of the Confederate ports until the CSA strengthened the defenses.  Even so 4/5 of the Blockade raiders eventually reached their destinations.

 Even more difficult was that the Union needed to protect their own commerce.  Even the meager number of Confederate raiders resulted in the destruction of 110,000 tons and transfer of 800,000 tons to foreign powers.  The Union navy being stretched so thin that it was forced to let commerce mostly fends for itself.  The only true break the Union had on this regard was that the CSA could not equip very many raiders.

Land supplies really could not be left unprotected.  Long supply lines were easy to break and were forced to be fairly static, as they needed to be near a river or railroad.  As the Union advanced into the Western theater, they needed to build a structure capable of keeping troops supplied.  Forrest and others would help make this difficult task more difficult.  The rivers of the confederacy would need to be used to their fullest potential.  Also, the bulk of the Western theater required the advance over territory very sparsely populated, perhaps as bad as Napoleon suffered in his advance across Russia. The distance was not small either, Warsaw to Moscow is 715 miles, and Cairo to Atlanta covers approximately 400 miles, with 300 more miles to Charleston.

 Tactically, the Union also had to protect Washington at all cost, while threatening Richmond.  They could not trade capitals in effect.   The loss of Washington would nearly lose the war.   Border states might likely join the Confederacy, and the Confederacy might gain sympathy in Europe, who might get involved.  Thus, the Union had a tactically difficult position, they were forced to attack the Confederacy, but absolutely had to defend the US capital.

 Thus, while the Confederate cause had its difficulties, we often miss some of the difficulties the Union faced.