Combatants of the Civil War

Federal Navy Officers, 1862

Federal Navy Officers, 1862

Then, so far as her patriotic feelings were concerned, the South was not fighting for anyone point at issue–not even for slavery, because only a small minority held slaves–but for her whole way of life, which, rightly or wrongly, she wanted to live in her own Southern way; and she passionately resented the invasion of her soil. This gave her army very high morale, which, in its turn, inclined her soldiers the better to appreciate their real or imagined advantages over the Northern hosts. First, they and their enemies both knew that they enjoyed the three real advantages of fighting at home under magnificent leaders and with interior lines. Robert Lee and Stonewall Jackson stood head and shoulders above any Northern leaders till Grant and Sherman rose to greatness during the latter half of the war.

Lee himself was never surpassed; and he, like Jackson and several more, made the best use of home surroundings and of interior lines. Anybody can appreciate the prime advantage of interior lines by imagining two armies of equal strength operating against each other under perfectly equal conditions except that one has to move around the circumference of a circle while the other moves to meet it along the shorter lines inside.

Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson

The army moving around the circumference is said to be operating on exterior lines, while the army moving from point to point of the circumference by the straighter, and therefore shorter, lines inside is said to be operating on interior lines. In more homely language the straight road beats the crooked one. In plain slang, it’s best to have the inside track.

Of course, there is a reverse to all this. If the roads, rails, and waterways are better around the circle than inside it, then the odds may be turned the other way; and this happens most often when the forces on the exterior lines are the better provided with sea-power.

Again, if the exterior forces are so much stronger than the interior forces that these latter dare not leave any strategic point open in case the enemy breaks through, then it is evident that the interior forces will suffer all the disadvantages of being surrounded, divided, worn out, and defeated.

This happened at last to the South and was one of the four advantages she lost. Another was the hope of foreign intervention, which died hard in Southern hearts, but which was already moribund halfway through the war. A third was the hope of dissension in the North, a hope which often ran high till Lincoln’s reelection in November, ’64, and one which only died out completely with the surrender of Lee. The fourth was the unfounded belief that Southerners were the better fighting men.

They certainly had an advantage at first in having a larger proportion of men accustomed to horses and arms and inured to life in the open. But, other things being equal, there was nothing to choose between the two sides, so far as natural fighting values were concerned.

Practically all the Southern “military males” passed into the ranks; and a military male eventually meant anyone who could march to the front or do non-combatant service with an army, from boys in their teens to men in their sixties. Conscription came after one year; and with very few exemptions, such as the clergy, Quakers, many doctors, newspaper editors, and “indispensable” civil servants. Lee used to express his regret that all the greatest strategists were tied to their editorial chairs. But sterner feelings were aroused against that recalcitrant State Governor, Joseph Brown of Georgia, who declared eight thousand of his civil servants to be totally exempt. From first to last, conscripts and volunteers, nearly a million men were enrolled: equaling one-fifth of the entire war-party white population of the seceding States.

Conquered Banner of the Confederacy

Conquered Banner of the Confederacy.

All branches of the service suffered from a constant lack of arms and munitions. As with the ships for the navy so with munitions for the army, the South did not exploit the European markets while her ports were still half open and her credit good, Jefferson Davis was spotlessly honest, an able bureaucrat, and full of undying zeal. But, though an old West Pointer, he was neither a foresightful organizer nor fit to exercise any of the executive power which he held as the constitutional commander-in-chief by land and sea. He ordered rifles by the thousand instead of by the hundred thousand, and he actually told his Cabinet that if he could only take one wing while Lee took the other they would surely beat the North. Worse still, he and his politicians kept the commissariat under civilian orders and full of civilian interference, even at the front, which, in this respect, was always a house divided against itself.

The little regular army of ’61, only sixteen thousand strong, stood by the Union almost to a man; though a quarter of the officers went over to the South. Yet the enlisted man was despised even by the common loafers who would not fight if they could help it. “Why don’t you come in?” asked a zealous lady at a distribution of patriotic gifts, “aren’t you one of our heroes?” “No, ma’am,” answered the soldier, “I’m only a regular.”

The question of command was often a very vexed one, and many mistakes were made before the final answers came. The most significant of all emergent facts was this: that though the officers who had been regulars before the war did not form a hundredth part of all who held commissions during it, yet these old regulars alone supplied every successful high commander, Federal and Confederate alike, both afloat and ashore.

The North had four times as many whites as the South; it used more blacks as soldiers, and the complete grand total of all the men who joined its forces during the war reached two million and three-quarters. But this gives a quite misleading idea of the real odds in favor of the North, especially the odds available in battle. A third of the Northern people belonged to the peace party and furnished no recruits at all till after conscription came in. The late introduction of conscription, the abominable substitution clause, and the prevalence of bounty-jumping combined to reduce both the quantity and quality of the recruits obtained by money or compulsion. The Northerners that did fight were generally fighting in the South, among a very hostile population, which, while it made the Southern lines of communication perfectly safe, threatened those of the North at every point and thus obliged the Northern armies to leave more and more men behind to guard the communications that each advance made longer still. Finally, the South generally published the numbers of only its actual combatants, while the Northern returns always included every man drawing pay, whether a combatant or not. On the whole, the North had more than double numbers, even if compared with a Southern total that includes non-combatants. But it should be remembered that a Northern army fighting in the heart of the South, and therefore having to guard every mile of the way back home, could not meet a Southern one with equal strength in battle unless it had left the North with fully twice as many.

Conscription came a year later (1863) in the North than in the South and was vitiated by a substitution clause. The fact that a man could buy himself out of danger made some patriots call it “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” And the further fact that substitutes generally became regular bounty-jumpers, who joined and deserted at will, over and over again, went far to increase the disgust of those who really served. Frank Wilkeson’s “Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac” is a true voice from the ranks when he explains “how the resort to volunteering, the unprincipled dodge of cowardly politicians, ground up the choicest seed corn of the nation; how it consumed the young, the patriotic, the intelligent, the generous, and the brave; and how it wasted the best moral, social, and political elements of the Republic, leaving the cowards, shirkers, egotists, and moneymakers to stay at home and procreate their kind.” That is to say, it was so arranged that the foggy-witted lived, while the lion-hearted died.

The organization of the vast numbers enrolled was excellent whenever experts were given a free hand. But this freehand was rare. One vital point only needs special notice here: the wastefulness of raising new regiments when the old ones were withering away for want of reinforcements. A new local regiment made a better “story” in the press; and new and superfluous regiments meant new and superfluous colonels, mostly of the speechifying kind. So it often happened that the State authorities felt obliged to humor zealots set on raising those brand-new regiments which doubled their own difficulties by having to learn their lesson alone, halved the efficiency of the old regiments they should have reinforced, and harassed the commanders and staff by increasing the number of units that were of different and ever-changing efficiency and strength. It was a system of making and breaking all through.

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The end came when Northern sea-power had strangled the Southern resources and the unified Northern armies had worn out the fighting force. Of the single million soldiers raised by the South, only two hundred thousand remained in arms, half-starved, half-clad, with the scantiest of munitions, and without reserves of any kind. Meanwhile, the Northern hosts had risen to a million in the field, well-fed, well clothed, well-armed, abundantly provided with munitions, and at last well-disciplined under the unified command of that great leader, Grant. Moreover, behind this million stood another million fit to bear arms and obtainable at will from the two millions of enrolled reserves.

The cost of the war was stupendous. But the losses of war are not to be measured in money. The real loss was the loss of a million men, on both sides put together, for these men who died were of the nation’s best.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

About the Author –  The Combatants is the second chapter in William Charles Henry Wood’s Captains of the Civil War, A Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray, published in 1921 by Brook Glasgow in Toronto, Canada. Woods also authored a number of other books including The Father of British Canada: A Chronicle of Carleton, The Great Fortress: A Chronicle of Louisbourg, The Passing of New France: A Chronicle of Montcalm, The Winning of Canada: A Chronicle of Wolfe, and many others.