1862: “We Have The Greater Numbers”


January 13, 1862

…I state my general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers, the enemy has the great facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much…

Lincoln to Don Carlos Buell, January 13, 1862

Greater Numbers

The North had approximately 22 million people. The South had approximately 9 million. Part of Lincoln’s strategy for winning the war – as he described it to General Buell – was to simply outnumber the enemy.

The North could keep armies in the field. Their factories could produce the needed armaments and supplies. Their homefront was literally a recruiting field. And they were working on financial plans to fund the war.

With sheer numbers involved, it wasn’t going to matter how brave the Confederates were or how long they could out-smart the enemy. By the numbers, the Union had to win…eventually.

The Enemy’s Problem?

Lincoln wanted to attack different areas of the South simultaneously. While victory at these points would be nice, he didn’t feel it was crucial. Rather, these attacks would force the Confederates to spread out their troops. That situation would lend strength to the numerically larger Union armies, allowing them to grab strategic locations and cities.

However, it would take a while to break Confederate confidence even with their stretched armies. After-all, it would take Union generals some time to become leaders the Confederates truly feared.

Thus, Lincoln’s plan was ultimately correct, but it took longer than he anticipated to accomplish.

Historical Musings

Historically, larger armies haven’t always won. The Union won the Civil War, but it took longer than planned and could’ve gone beyond 1865 if Confederate commanders hadn’t squashed the idea of “organized” guerrilla warfare.

For argument’s sake, look at the Roman Empire or the French in the Spanish Peninsular War (Napoleonic Era) or the British in the American War for Independence. All those armies would’ve been “picked to win” against their adversaries, but they lost. Wearing down an enemy, guerrilla warfare, and logistical havoc (along with a host of other details) can turn a conflict in one side’s favor.

Just something to keep in mind when looking beyond the Civil War and putting the 1860’s conflict in context as a war that was won militarily by sheer numbers.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Why do you think it so long for the Civil War to end? I know, there are lots of factors, but which one stands out to you?

civil war quote


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