The Civil War pitted an agricultural society against a nation well launched into the Industrial Revolution, with predictable consequences. In 1860 William T. Sherman, the future scourge of the Confederacy, had warned a Southern friend, “You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail.” In the end, Sherman was right; yet the notable fact about the Rebel war effort is not that it failed, but that it somehow kept armies in the field for four years.
The Southern home front faced manifold problems. Food could be grown in abundance, but getting it to where it was needed over the section’s rickety transportation network was a never-ending headache. Facilities for producing the tools of war were woefully limited. Indeed, one measure of General Lee’s genius is that in successfully protecting Richmond he not only saved the seat of the Confederate government, but also the great Tredegar Iron Works located there, which the Rebels simply could not afford to lose. The South had no financial structure to speak of, making runaway inflation inevitable. The blockade limited the imports upon which an agricultural economy depended, and strong-minded proponents of states rights further hampered the Davis administration in its attempts to mobilize the South’s resources. For a time, home-front patriotism, self-sacrifice and ingenuity kept these problems at bay. Finally, even they were not enough, and the Confederacy collapsed from within.
The North, by contrast, often seemed to be fighting the war with one hand. Neither its manpower nor its great industrial potential was ever fully put behind the effort to crush the rebellion. Graft and corruption rent the economy and saddled men on the fighting lines with shoddy and inadequate equipment. As one war profiteer put it, “You can sell anything to the government at almost any price you’ve got the guts to ask.” (Graft plagued the South’s war effort as well; the difference was that there was less to steal in the Confederacy.) The system of cash bounties to enlistees and the badly drawn military draft plan made it increasingly difficult to fill ranks depleted by casualties; as the war progressed, new levies contained thousands of bounty jumpers, useless on the fighting line and waiting only for the chance to desert and reenlist elsewhere for another cash bounty. And dogging the Federal government’s every step were strong pro-Southern elements and politically motivated advocates of “peace at any price” who formed a veritable fifth column of disloyalty that led Lincoln to contend, “The enemy behind us is more dangerous to the country than the enemy before us.” To be sure, the North contained millions behind the lines who loyally sacrificed for the cause. It is a particular tragedy of the Civil War that their sacrifices were not enough to measurably shorten the conflict. Problems on the home front produced countless unnecessary losses on the battle front.