Why Did The Civil War Last So Long? (11 Reasons Why)

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Jean Richardson

Jean Richardson is a lover of knowledge, in all forms. He has spent over 15 years as a high school teacher, instructing students in history, geography, mathematics, and more.

Triggered by different stances on slavery, the American Civil War lasted 1487 days. But did you know that the Union had expected their war with the Confederate States to last no longer than 90 days?

This brings us to today’s question: why did the Civil War last so long? Well, here are 11 reasons that contributed to the time stretch.

Why Did The Civil War Last So Long?


1. Generals Of The North Were Cautious

One of the main reasons the Civil War in America lasted more than 4 years is that the North generals were too timid at first. They lacked the fierceness that commanders should have in such situations.

Perhaps the most notoriously cautious leading figure on the Union’s side was General George B. McClellan.

Repeatedly, he failed to take the initiative when he had an advantage over the South or capitalize on any success that the Union had secured.

This resulted in President Lincoln expressing his frustration in a letter addressed to General McClellan in October 1862.

About a month later, President Lincoln replaced General McClellan with General Ulysses S. Grant who was much more assertive.

2. Clever Leaders Of The South

On the other hand, the Confederacy had highly skilled and capable commanders right off the bat. This was one of the greatest advantages when it came to leading the South army.

Topping the list is General Robert Edward Lee.

He was the commander of the Confederacy’s army from the beginning until its surrender, including at its most powerful faction; the Army of Northern Virginia.

Other significant names include Generals J. E. B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, Patrick Cleburne, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

3. Union’s Side Had A Bad Start

A good start is half the job done. However, the North clearly didn’t get the memo as they had one of the worst possible attitudes toward the conflict between their government and the Confederacy.

For some reason, the Union’s Federal government chose to ignore the issue as if that’s going to make it go away. This gave the South the perfect chance to establish an army and fortify their defenses without the enemy breathing down their necks.

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By the time the Federal government had noticed what was happening, the Confederacy had taken leaps ahead.

Before engaging in any major battles, the North had lost tens of thousands of soldiers and many important officers. They also lost heaps of weapons and various forts, which put them at a serious disadvantage.

One could argue that slow and steady wins the race, but the North really dropped the ball here. What they could’ve wrapped up in a few months took too many years and lives to finish.

4. Defense Was The South’s Strategy

Being on the defense was the strategy adopted by the Confederacy from the very beginning. They knew their resources weren’t as vast as the North, so they had to be smart about their approach.

Looking back now, we can say that it worked for an extended period. The South had one main goal to focus on, which is sustaining its existence as a separate political entity for as long as possible.

Sticking to such a completely defensive strategy also gave the Confederacy the advantage of being the home side.

Fighting on their ground allowed the South army to be in a position of tactical superiority, even with much fewer numbers and less experience compared to the North military.

Not to mention, the strategy of the Union was to dominate the Confederacy to obtain victory. This meant that the North had to break the defenses of the South to win, which took a long time.

5. North’s Military Had To Retake Territory

Every action in war has consequences. This is evident in the sequence of events comprising the American Civil War, particularly in this reason for its long duration.

Following the bad start provided by the Union and the resulting loss of soldiers, weapons, and forts, they had to do some damage control with a series of tasks to shift some of the power back to their favor.

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One of these tasks was to retake territory of around  750,000 square miles.

These lands weren’t an easy target either. They were heavily defended by thousands of soldiers who knew the different routes and terrain like the back of their hand.

Of course, this hindered the advancement of the North and extended the war period.

6. Decision-Makers Didn’t Want To Be Wasteful

Decision-Makers Didn’t Want To Be Wasteful

Once resources have been spent and blood has been shed, most leaders will dismiss the idea of stopping war to prevent all these sacrifices don’t go to waste.

Decision-makers in the Civil War weren’t necessarily different, be it on the Union’s or the Confederacy’s side. Both sides had invested too much to back down.

It goes without saying that this approach is faulty. Knowing when to cut your losses is a skill on its own, and war should only continue if the outcome is better and comes at a reasonable cost.

Sadly, politicians and leaders may not have the same views, especially if the conflict is domestic.

7. They Had Winter Breaks

During times of war, it’s no secret that when winter rolls in, fighting becomes almost impossible (unless you’re Russia).

For this reason, it’s common practice that both sides of war seize fighting during winter. The American Civil War was no exception.

Armies of the North and the South took several months off over the years to winter, during which there was no actual fighting happening and, consequently, no progress.

8. Communication Was Poor

In the 1860s, communication methods were nothing like they are now. While you can deliver and receive information in mere seconds today, back then it took days or even weeks on end.

To help put things in better perspective, the telegraph was a pretty new technology at the time.

With such delayed means of communication, it took a very long time by today’s standards to send instructions and receive orders.

This goes for relaying any type of information from one state to the other. The duration was extended even more due to the cautionary measures that messengers had to take to avoid being intercepted by the enemy.

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9. Supply Chains Were Underdeveloped

Similar to the poor communication methods of the time, supply chains were also very undeveloped compared to after the Civil War.

The railway system was far from completion, the logistical experience was severely lacking at best, and the infrastructure was still in its crib.

10. Soldiers Were Few And Untrained

One additional reason that the Civil War lasted so long was that there weren’t really enough soldiers on both sides to get the job done. Even the numbers that existed were mostly untrained.

It took time for the North and the South to build their military forces. Not to mention, the Union lost plenty of its power early on and had to re-establish it.

11. Crossing The Appalachian Range Was Tough

Last but not least, the mountains of the Appalachian range residing near the east coast played a part. They geographically slowed down the march of soldiers.

Granted, these mountains aren’t especially tall, but they were slippery and dangerous.

Crossing them was almost a suicide mission due to falls and getting stuck in narrow routes where troops could easily be cornered into an ambush.

To learn more, you can also read our posts on why this world is so messed up, why men wore white wigs, and why humans are so weak.

Wrap Up

As you can tell by now, there are various reasons to answer the question “why did the Civil War last so long?”

From skillful commanders, timid generals, and defensive strategies to poor communication, harsh winters, and underdeveloped supply chains, the Civil War had it all.

Author

  • Jean Richardson is a lover of knowledge, in all forms. He has spent over 15 years as a high school teacher, instructing students in history, geography, mathematics, and more.

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