This is why the North invaded the South (during the Civil War)

When we look at the timeline of the civil war than we see that most battles took place in the South. And we also see that the North first invaded the South almost immediately after the war had started and that it wasn`t until later that the South would launch campaigns into northern territory.

But why did the North invade the South in the early stages of the civil war? What did Abraham Lincoln hope to archive by that?

Lincolns` goal was to restore the US but he saw no chance of peacefully bringing the South back into the Union. Since he saw the secession as an unconstitutional act of rebellion a quick military intervention seemed appropriate to return the seceded states to the Union as fast as possible.

Let`s take a closer look!

Why did the North invade the South

When we look at the actions that followed after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter we always have to keep the goals of both Union and Confederation in mind. And the goal of the North and Abraham Lincoln was to end the status of secession and bring the South back into the Union.

In order to achieve that the North had to act swiftly. Especially since the 8 border states, 4 free and 4 slave states still hadn`t chosen a side yet. Please check out my article here for more information on why the division into slave states and free states caused the problems that would eventually lead to the Civil war.

At first, Abraham Lincoln was convinced of a short war with a quick and decisive victory. And he had good reasons to believe that the North would be victorious, at least in a medium-term.

Not only did the 23 states of the Union have more than 22 million inhabitants but the 11 states of the Confederacy only had 6 million. The North also had a superior economy and a superior transportation system (beneficial for quickly transporting troops from one battleground to the next).

Please feel free to check out my article here where I go into depth on the different economies of the North and the South and how these differences can be traced back to the early days of the US. And here you can find out more about why the confederate flag had 13 stars but only 11 official members.

But although all these points meant a clear advantage for the Union they didn`t mean that the war would be easy to win for the Union. But more on the plan of the confederacy in the next paragraph!

There is one other major reason why Lincoln wanted to reunite the US as fast as possible. And that was the cost of war.

Since the Confederacy was perfectly fine with upholding the status quo and only advancing into northern territory when there was a chance to force the Union into accepting the secession it was on the Union to take action to restore the United States.

But the longer the status of separation continued the harder it would be to reintegrate the seceded states.

And when we look at not only the long and hard road after the end of the Civil War but also at how the population supported the war efforts at the beginning of the war then we see that Lincoln’s fear was definitely justified.

At the start of the Civil War, both population and politicians in the Confederate states were much more unified in their support of the war than their counterparts in the North.

Abraham Lincoln on the other hand did not only have to deal with different and sometimes quarreled fractions within his republican party but also with the loud opposition of the so-called peace-democrats in some of the states of the Union.

These peace Democrats, also known as Copperheads, opposed the civil war and damaged the efforts of the Union by opposing the draft and encouraging desertion. Their local centers were the rural states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

In order to end the war as fast as possible Abraham Lincoln fell back on using emergency powers.

These emergency powers that Abraham Lincoln used in 1861 were…

  • Demanding the states of the Union on April 15th, 1861 to raise 75.000 Militiamen in addition to the 16.000 regular soldiers
  • April 19th, 1861: Lincoln imposes a sea blockade against the coastline of the Confederacy
  • Right to implement arbitrary arrests only based on a suspected case

While especially the last point, the right to implement arbitrary arrests that were solely based on suspicion, was not covered by the constitution and was publicly critiqued large parts of the population still accepted it as necessary.

With all these preparations in place, the North tried to end the secession with a swift advance into the South in July of 1861.

That first offense of the Union was targeted at Richmond, the capital of the Confederate States of America. Once again the goal to quickly end the status of secession can be found here. The Union had hoped that by taking the capital of the Confederate States of America the rest of the Confederacy would return to the Union.

But the advance of the Union troops was stopped at the first battle of Bull Run. Both the union and the confederate army had around the same size and also the same (lack of) experience.

At the first battle of bull run, the confederate victory has to be attributed to the superior tactical talent of the confederate generals.

The victory at the first battle of bull run in July of 1861 was used by the Confederacy to proclaim a turning point of the war.

But the people in the South also realized that the coming battles would cost a high price in human lives. Because of that Jefferson Davis ordered to raise another 400.000 volunteers.

And not even a year later the river bull run would become the sight of the second battle of the bull run. But that is a story for another time.

For now, I would like to present why the Confederacy played a more defensive role during the early stage of the Civil War.

The strategy of the South

When we look at the strategy of the Confederacy and why the Confederacy would not immediately go on the offensive we have to look at their initial situation in April of 1861.

When the seven seceded states South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had founded the Confederate States of America, more on that here, they believed to have all trumps on their side.

If the government in Washington would not do anything and just watch the events unroll that would encourage the other southern states to also leave the Union and join the confederacy.

And if the Government would take actions against the seceding states then the other eight southern states (Virginia, Arkansas, Tennesee, North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) would also join the confederacy.

That belief was mostly based on the idea that all southern states, including those still within the union, had a common goal and that the southern states within the union would join the confederacy just to be safe.

And on an economical level the confederacy was believed to be able to count on the selling of cotton, especially to Great Britain. Great Britain had always opposed the ambitions of the Union so British support for the secession seemed possible.

The problem was that the southern assumption that the British textile industry was wrong, Great Britain was not dependant on cotton from the Confederacy but could replace it with cotton from Egypt and India.

Great Britain wanted to stay out of the Civil War, not only because they had to consider Canadian feelings, but also because most Britains despised Slavery and had more sympathy for the inhabitants of the East Coast. So British support for the Confederacy was off the table.

One reason for the British sympathy with the inhabitants of the East Coast is a similarity in customs and traditions and can directly be linked to the European immigration into the US. More on that here.

By the way, if you want to learn more about the degree to which slave ownership was common among southern families I would like to recommend you my article here.

So the economy of the Confederacy that was heavily centered around growing and exporting cash crops didn`t do well. And the situation got even worse when union troops, according to the goals that have already been presented, marched into the South.

The destruction that the union troops created in the South in addition to the sea blockade ravaged the economy of the Confederacy. And that bears the question of why the Confederacy did not immediately attack the North and bring the fight to Northern territories.

Why did the Confederacy not immediately invade the North?

To answer the question of why the confederacy did not immediately invade the North we have to take a look at the goal of the Confederacy.

Unlike Lincoln who wanted to restore the Union, the Confederacy had no interest in convincing the North to join. The goal of the Confederacy was to keep its existence and to not be forced back into the Union.

Because of that, the southern strategy was completely different from Lincolns’ strategy.

The Confederacy could focus on preventing union troops from occupying southern territories. And as soon as a good opportunity would present itself the confederate troops would invade the North and force the Union to accept the independence of the Confederacy.

But in order to do that the most important thing was to focus on defending against invading Union troops and to wait until that golden opportunity to march into northern territory would present itself.

When we look at the Civil War we also have to look at two other aspects. First of all, how was the war financed, and were there differences between the Union and the Confederacy on how the war was financed.

And number two. Was the Civil War a conventional war of that time or was it the first modern war and a glance into the future of warfare?

How did the Union & the Confederacy finance the Civil War?

The North and the South of the US had been different even before the Civil War, more on that here. And these differences in population and economy also influenced how the Civil War was financed.

While the North could finance the Civil War with its efficient tax system and War bonds (that for the first time were also bought by the own population and not by foreign buyers) the South had to rely on printing new money which resulted in deep inflation.

So the burden on the population was high. Especially since both the Union and the Confederacy were forced to rely on conscriptions to get enough recruits. Once again the population of the Confederacy was much more unified and disciplined when it came to accepting these measures than the population of the Union.

But not only the practice of selling war bonds to the own population was new. Several other elements of the way the war was fought were also new making the Civil War the first modern war.

Let´s look at some of these new elements of warfare

Was the Civil War the first modern war?

The Civil War was different from the previous wars, especially in the following aspects:

  • The first use of mass armies (generally a sign of the age of democracy)
  • Extended use of railroads, telegraph, steamboats, and hot air balloons
  • Use of precursors of machine guns and repeating rifles
  • The first use of Trenches (for example at the siege of Vicksburg 1863)
  • Attempts to use the resources (including the human resources) to as great of an extent as possible

So one could say that the Civil War was either the first total war or at least the precursor of the total wars during the 20th century.

But these total wars, World War I and World War II are a story for another time.

For more information on which deceiving tricks Germany used in 1939 to frame Poland as the aggressor and to start World War II, I would like to recommend you my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


W. L. Barney (Hrsg.): A Companion to 19th-Century America, Malden, Mass./Oxford 2001.

W. P. Adams: Die USA vor 1900 (OGG,28), München 2009.