Feeding the Union on Steel

Feeding the Union on Steel

Feeding the Union on Steel
Cheyanne Welch and Dr. Austin Mardon

With the dawn of the American Civil War on the morning of April 12, 1861, the ovens of America lit up with a new fire — the fire of war. Despite traditional assumptions of how war is fought, “Not all the victories of the North…were achieved on the battlefield. Some were won in the industrial areas far behind the lines. And of all the industries which contributed to the war effort on both sides, the iron mills unquestionably deserve to be ranked first.”  says Civil War historian Allan Nevins. The ability of the North to produce more steel than the South resulted in superior industrial capability that greatly contributed to its eventual victory in the war. This Northern industrial strength manifested itself in more than just weaponry for the Union army: it fed them.

Produced by Pittsburg
With massive volumes of steel required to feed the war machine, the North had to have a means of production within its borders. Having grown into a major producer of steel by the early 1800s, Pennsylvania had just the right combination of high-quality coal, new smelting technology, and motivation to build corporate America, and later supply the Union army. The heart of the steel empire was Pittsburgh, producing $764 thousand in iron; $249 thousand in brass and tin, and $235 thousand in glass products by 1815.  In 1857, Pittsburgh was an industrial supercenter with 939 factories, 400 steam engines, and at least 10,000 workers, producing approximately $12 million in goods and consuming 22 million bushels of coal and 127,000 tons of iron, a significant number for this period. It had the third busiest port in the nation, with only New York and New Orleans being surpassing its traffic. 
Following declaration of war in 1861, Pittsburgh became the lifeblood of the Union war effort. In addition to being an established steel supercenter, the city was also conveniently close to the frontline fighting that was centered around northern Virginia and could easily supply Union troops fighting there. Key battles such as Fredericksburg and Gettysburg were likely supplied by steel manufactured in Pittsburg and other Pennsylvanian cities. These cities manufactured many supplies in significant amounts and shipped excess steel to other factories in northern states. Together, their contribution resulted in the Union army being consistently better supplied than the Confederate troops, and by the end of the war until the mid-1950s, Pittsburgh was responsible for nearly half of all American steel production. 

Mechanized by Steel
On the eve of the Civil War, over half of America’s population lived on farms, more than 15.5 million people, with 75% of the country’s exports derived from farming,  but geographic differences were stark: about 40% of the Northern population was engaged in agriculture compared to 84% of the South.  Despite the seemingly larger agricultural sector, Confederate soldiers were often starving during the Civil War while Union soldiers were well-fed. This was extremely demoralizing to the South and physically exhausted the Confederate army, with caloric intakes far below average. As Napoleon Bonaparte and Frederick the Great have said: "An army marches on its stomach,” and it is difficult to muster the will to fight when one can barely pull the trigger of a rifle. Unfortunately, bullets are not edible. 

The Union’s successful food supply was partially attributed to a high degree of mechanized agriculture which allowed northern farmers to be significantly more productive with less labour. Union states had nearly double the amount of farm machinery per acre and per farm worker as did Confederate states including steel grain reapers, baling beater presses, threshing machines, and John Deere’s cultivators.  As a result, in 1860, the Northern states produced half of the nation's corn, four-fifths of its wheat, and seven-eighths of its oats.  Additionally, nearly 800,000 immigrants arrived in the North during the Civil War, many of whom were farmers from areas such as Germany and Scandinavia. In just six midwestern states, 430,000 new farms were established during the war. 

With men joining the army (and dying in battle) cost of labour skyrocketed and mechanized equipment became a necessity.  By 1863, canned food, using the steel flowing out of Pittsburg, became a reality for the Union army. This provided significantly better tasting food than the salted alternatives, fundamentally raising army morale after years of hardtack bread and salted pork. Additionally, it provided a health benefit to Union soldiers as they could finally consume fruit and prevent a common issue for both sides: scurvy.  On the other side, the Confederacy was faced with the stark reality of rejecting industrialization in favour of cotton production. The Shenandoah Valley was one of the few places in the Confederacy that utilized mechanized agriculture, and it was constantly under attack from the Union (albeit defeated via Jackson’s Valley Campaign).  Towards the end of the war, because of this lack of industrial food production, many Confederate soldiers often went hungry for days, causing the battle to be over before it started in many cases. 

Distributed by Rail
With food supply secured, the North faced the challenge of distribution. Steel came to the rescue again: supply chains linked through new steel-based transportation methods such as river boats, wagons, and most of all — rail.  The “war for rail” was another major area in which steel production became crucial and both sides knew the importance of the rail lines. Confederate general and owner of Tredegar Iron Works, Joseph R. Anderson, said the railways were “of an [utmost] importance to the defense of the country, next to putting arms in the hands of our troops, feeding & clothing them—& essential to even accomplish these objects.”  Because of its advanced industrialism, however, the North manufactured 96% of locomotives in the country by 1860  and at the start of the Civil War, Northern rail networks comprised 21,973 miles of track, while the South had less than half of that at 9,283 miles.  

The Union utilized its rail network to great success, with supplies, including food, flowing steadily down major lines such as Baltimore-Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad from the industrial centers of the North.  Expanding upon the already powerful Union rail network, the Union War Department created the United States Military Railroads agency to utilize all captured Southern rail lines for movement of troops, supplies, and weapons to push deeper into the Confederacy. The Union also made use of railroads to connect the Union to California with the Pacific Railway Act of 1862.  Overall, the Union’s success on the railroad front provided it greater flexibility in troop movements and allowed it to fully utilize its other advantages to truly damage the South. 
Despite panicked orders for Confederate railway expansion, little railroad iron was truly ever produced for the lines that the South relied on the most, namely the Richmond-Danville, and the Southside Railroad, both of which were crucial in supplying Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s defense of Virginia.  The iron produced was simply allocated to other railroads due to poor management. Additionally, Union forces destroyed Southern railroads in an effort to dismantle Confederate supply networks, so much of the iron produced had to be allocated to repair work. The ultimate failure of Jefferson Davis’ Confederate administration was failing to maintain close control over rail transportation and the supply of railroad iron, which translated into failures to supply people, weapons, and food for Confederate troops in crucial battles.  By the time the government had realized the importance of steel production and railway-based supply chains, chances of Southern victory were nearly non-existent. 

Conclusion
By the end of the Civil War, it was obvious that the industrial might of the North directly contributed to its eventual victory. The Union had over six times more manufacturing establishments and almost twelve times more workers.  This industrial superiority, especially in steel production and use, was demonstrated through agricultural technology and transportation methods, allowing the North to dominate the war for food and supplies, and maintain Union army morale. While the South’s inadequate supply system to Lee often resulted in an undermanned, ill-equipped, and ill-fed army that could not "[wait] it out if it [took] all summer", Union general Ulysses Grant took advantage of railroad lines and new steel steamships to move his seemingly endless supply of troops, arms, and food, ultimately defeating Lee and unifying the United States of America. 

  Allan Nevins, Abram S. Hewitt, With Some Account of Peter Cooper (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935), 192. 
  Stefan Lorant, Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1964), 77. 
  Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. 1857. Boston: M.M. Ballou.
  "The History of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania | Visit Pittsburgh". 2022. Visit Pittsburgh. https://www.visitpittsburgh.com/things-to-do/arts-culture/history/.
  Douglas R. Hurt, Food and Agriculture During the Civil War (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016), 13.
  Benjamin T. Arrington, “Industry and Economy in the Civil War,” National Park Service—U.S. Department of the Interior, accessed April 13, 2022. 
  Andrew F. Smith, Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 76.
  Arrington, “Industry and Economy in the Civil War.”
  Hurt, Food and Agriculture During the Civil War, 52-53. 
  Smith, Starving the South, 81-82.
  Smith, Starving the South, 170. 
  Smith, Starving the South, 83-84.
  Charles Dew, Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 269.
  Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won, 18.
  Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 18.
  Thomas Weber, The Northern Railroads in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1952), 2-6. 
  Arrington, “Industry and Economy in the Civil War.”
  Dew, Ironmaker to the Confederacy, 272.
  Dew, Ironmaker to the Confederacy, 269-272.
  Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won, 18.
  Arrington, “Industry and Economy in the Civil War.”

References
Arrington, Benjamin T. “Industry and Economy in the Civil War.” National Park Service—U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed April 13, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/resources/story.htm%3Fid%3D251 
Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. 1857. Boston: M.M. Ballou.
Dew, Charles. Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966. 
Hattaway, Herman, and Archer Jones. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
"The History Of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania | Visit Pittsburgh". 2022. Visit Pittsburgh. https://www.visitpittsburgh.com/things-to-do/arts-culture/history/.
Hurt, Douglas R. Food and Agriculture During the Civil War. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016. 
Lorant, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1964. 
Nevins, Allan. Abram S. Hewitt, With Some Account of Peter Cooper. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935.
Smith, Andrew F. Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011.
Warren, Kenneth. The American Steel Industry 1850-1970: A Geographical Interpretation. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. 
Weber, Thomas. The Northern Railroads in the Civil War, 1861-1865. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1952.

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