The Preparedness of the Union and Confederacy

At the outset of the Civil War, the discrepancies between the Union and Confederate armies were evident. Despite their differences in background and appearance, both sides were poised to not only revolutionize the American method of warfare but also to change life for civilians throughout the country.

After the war began, there was immense pride in both armies. One young woman, Mary Ward, described the sight of the Georgian soldiers assembling and preparing to report to General Joseph Johnston:

“Every soldier, nearly, had a servant with him, and a whole lot of spoons and forks, so as to live comfortably and elegantly in camp, and finally to make a splurge in Washington when they should arrive there, which they expected would be very soon indeed. That is really the way they went off; and their sweethearts gave them embroidered slippers and pin-cushions and needle-books, and all sorts of such little et ceteras, and they finally got off, after having a very eloquent discourse preached to them at the Presbyterian church . . . .”[i]

The Thomasville, Georgia Zouaves.

Volunteer military companies—including the “Tallapoosa Grays, Jasper Greens, Floyd Rifles, Lexington Wild Cats, Palmetto Guards, Fire Zouaves”—formed throughout the South.[ii]  While each unit was varied in its discipline, many of the gathered southern men took to drinking more than drilling.[iii] Perhaps this was not a surprise to their leaders as some had only joined in the hope to be part of the seemingly inevitable victory.[iv]

Assembled, the Confederate army portrayed an image at odds with the Union army. Whereas life continued uninterrupted in the upper echelons of Union society, the Confederates incorporated various segments of society into their army: “Numbers of wealthy planters serve as privates side by side with the professional man, the shopkeeper, the clerk, the labourer; and all go through the ordinary fatigue duties incident to camp-life.”[v]

As a general matter, southern men supposed themselves to be superior to their northern counterparts. A North Carolinian in May 1861 said, “Just throw three or four shells among those blue-bellied Yankees and they’ll scatter like sheep.”[vi] This confidence emanated from a myth that the North was a nation of mere shopkeepers, but even southerners knew that the North’s industrial capacity was greater than the South’s. Henry Wise, a Virginian, said, “It was not the improved arm, but the improved man, which would win the day. Let brave men advance with flint locks and old-fashioned bayonets, on the popinjays of Northern cities . . . and he would answer for it with his life, that the Yankees would break and run.”[vii]

The 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Color Guard.
Gideon Welles. By: Mathew Brady.

In one regard, southern confidence had justification: at the outbreak of the war, the Union army did not enjoy a superiority when it came to military preparedness. It “possessed few accurate maps of the South” (to such an extent that when the western theater of war opened in 1862, General Henry Halleck had to purchase maps from a St. Louis bookstore) and most of its stored arms were of an “antique vintage.”[viii]  The Union navy had 42 ships at the time Abraham Lincoln took office, and most were thousands of miles from the homeland.[ix]  One fact cut in favor of the Union when hostilities began: most of the experienced officers and sailors were northern and would remain loyal to their country and more specifically Gideon Welles, the gray-bearded chief of the Navy Department whom Lincoln gave the moniker Father Neptune.[x]

For all of the Union’s supposed ability to be industrious, it did not prevent widespread “inefficiency, profiteering, and corruption” in the providing of materials for its soldiers.[xi]  Manufacturers produced uniforms that ripped within weeks of first use, railroads overcharged the government for transportation, and contractors sold arms previously purchased back to the government with a nearly 600% markup.[xii]  Then-Secretary of War Simon Cameron came under fire for his mismanagement of the contracts, and ultimately, Lincoln sent him to St. Petersburg as minister to Russia, replacing him with Edwin Stanton, former attorney general under President James Buchanan.[xiii]  Secretary Stanton would work with Montgomery Meigs, who became quartermaster general of the army in June 1861, to oversee a logistical behemoth.[xiv]  They would organize the supplying and maintenance of “uniforms, overcoats, shoes, knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, mess gear, blankets, tents, camp equipage, barracks, horses, mules, forage, harnesses, horseshoes and portable blacksmith shops, supply wagons,” and ships.[xv]  The importance of this facet of warfare could scarcely be overstated because the North would inevitably have to invade the South, requiring each campaigning force to have a miles-long trail of supply wagons, mules, horses, and men.[xvi] The effects of Meigs and Stanton’s work spread beyond the military: Meigs’ Quartermaster Bureau would implement the concept of “sizes” of clothes that civilian men would become familiar with after the war’s conclusion.[xvii]

Montgomery Meigs. By: Mathew Brady.

The preparedness of the armies swelled the prides of both northerners and southerners. A writer for the New York World, Edmund Clarence Stedman, wrote regarding the war: “for the first time, I am proud of my country and my grand heroic brethren. The greatness of the crisis, the Homeric grandeur of the contest, surrounds and elevates us all.”[xviii] The heart of the war focused on the fact that it was “a complete revolution and renovation of all the customs and constitution of Americans North and South.”[xix]

One young woman, Mary Ward, captured the spirit of the South in describing how Rome, Georgia reacted to the outbreak of the war:

“The day that Georgia was declared out of the Union was a day of the wildest excitement in Rome. There was no order or prearrangement about it at all, but the people met each other and shook hands and exchanged congratulations over it and manifested the utmost enthusiasm. Of course a great many of the older and wiser heads looked on with a great deal of foreboding at those rejoicings and evidences of delight, but the general feeling was one of excitement and joy.”[xx]

The Confederacy and Union governments, as well as their people, had prepared their armies for warfare, and an incidental effect was a boost in morale for the respective sides. The growing passions of both sides ensured more tenacious, intense fighting. The success of the South’s revolution may have faced long odds, but its citizens had no interest in those odds when seeing its army lined up and ready for battle.

[i] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 63.

[ii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 317.

[iii] See id.

[iv] See id.

[v] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 64.

[vi] Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, I, 96.

[vii] John Jones,  A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary (Miers), 3.

[viii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 313.

[ix] See id.

[x] See id.

[xi] See id. at 323-24.

[xii] See id. at 324.

[xiii] See id.

[xiv] See id.

[xv] See id. at 325.

[xvi] See id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 53.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id. at 62.

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