Discussion Did the Southern men fight better than the Northern men?

Mango Hill

Corporal
Joined
Jul 23, 2020
This question has been asked many times and in many ways. The usual response (mostly according to Southerners') is yes, but the Northerners had better artillery. (That's what I've run into, anyways). The reason I'm making a thread on this subject is because it is raised by Francis Winthrop Palfrey in his book The Antietam and Fredericksburg Campaign. Palfrey wrote this book in 1882 as part of a series of 12 books on the land war and 3 on the naval war written mostly by active participants of the CW. What I find of interest in this question are Palfrey's own conclusions. He's very "diffident" with his opinions and says he only raises this question "as a contribution to the discussion of the subject, than as an absolute solution to the problem." This is a good guide to follow and it's within the spirit in which this thread is created.

Palfrey makes several observations of the fighting men of the ANV and the AOP of which some I'm sure are arrived at from personal experience; I'll list these in the following manner:

Man for man greater results were achieved by the ANV than by the AOP because;

1) "different modes of life at the South and at the North made the Southern soldier more fond of fighting than the Northern men."
2) "the intenser and more passionate character of the Southerner as compared with that of the Northerner"
3) "the comparatively lawless (not to speak invidiously) life at the South, where the population was scattered, and the gun came ready to the hand, made the Southern man an apter soldier than the peaceful, prosperous, steady going recruit from the North.
4) "The Southerner felt the gaudium certaminis (joy of battle). With the Northerners it was different. They were ready to obey orders, they were ready to do the work to which they had set their hands, they were ready to die in their tracks if need be, but they did not go to battle as if to feast"
5) "the needy condition which was common among the Southerners......while the Northern soldier were abundantly provided with everything" (typical Lost Cause argument?)
6) For the Southerner a field won was a field to plunder. "To the Northerners a field won meant simply a field won. In this difference it is almost certain there existed a powerful motive to stimulate the avidity with which the Southerners went into action."

The first thing I noticed is that Palfrey makes his observations and comparisons based only on the soldiers of the ANV and the AOP. In this case it would have been better to have replaced Northerner and Southerner with ANV and AOP soldiers. In my opinion Palfrey is making a general assumption based on a limited area of battle. I'm sure that if Palfrey had included the Northern and Southern soldiery of the Western Theater he would not have reached the same conclusions. I'm looking forward to any and all contributions.
 

JD Mayo

Retired User
Joined
Jun 12, 2020
Location
Greensboro NC
Eastern theater campaigns by far yes the south had the better leaders from VMI and West Point when war broke out. Out West Union had Grant was able to lead everyone into Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Shiloh victorie's and so on Which hardly any of the newspapers covered out west. I think other countries wanted to see a Southern victory.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
In the east, he was probably right.
But in the west, where the US controlled the river ferries and the steamboat taffic, the US soldier was so much better supported that the US almost always had the morale advantage. In addition, in the west the US junior officers and soldiers spent considerably less time on drill and learned the value of terrain and cover in combat.
And the commentator forgets that the US had such a big advantage in livestock and money, that the US cavalry was unstoppable by the end of the war.
 
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JD Mayo

Retired User
Joined
Jun 12, 2020
Location
Greensboro NC
That's where the south fail was at they couldn't pay most of there soldiers if lucky 1 dollar a month. If you where a officer you got to have some furlough etc. North was able to draft immigrants into their regiments right off the NY port to put onto the front lines. Plus after they passed the slave law allowing soldiers to go home who had 20 or more slaves they got to go home. So you had many Confederates desert in 1862 and 1863.
 

Scott1967

Sergeant
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Jul 11, 2016
Location
England
No , Both North and South were the same men with the same emotions in battle , You could argue the South was fighting on home turf for the vast majority of the war which gave them an added incentive.

You could also argue the South had more charismatic leaders to inspire their troops but in essence its all rubbish , In Numerous battles their were heroics on both sides , If you think the south had better soldiers i will point you to Marlye's Heights and the Union attack at Fredricksburg which Shelby Foote described as the bravest action by any troops in any battle.

This was a war full of volunteer armies to state a man is a better fighter because of what region he lives in is nuts imho because a man in battle needs mental toughness not just fighting ability.

BTW the Iron Brigade says hello :wink:
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The fierceness of the Confederate infantry, especially in the eastern theater, was a substantial factor prolonging the war. In shear fighting ability, they were probably better. But the US Army had a higher percentage of literate soldiers. They had a higher % of people who understood paperwork and quartermaster work. The Confederate soldiers are often described as wasteful and it was going to be a liability once they were not able to capture US quartermaster depots.
Grant put a lot of work into making his logistics based on water transport. Similarly Sherman made plans to protect his rail link to Nashville and Louisville and to be pre-stocked with rails, ties and switches, to repair bridges and tracks very quickly.
Once the Confederates were pinned down defending Richmond and Atlanta, their elan decreased considerably.
 
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Mango Hill

Corporal
Joined
Jul 23, 2020
There are two things that could be considered that contributed to Palfrey's 1st reason although it's not mentioned;

A) Fear of slave uprisings. This might be one reason why there were more military schools in the South.

B) Southerners were more of a homogeneous ancestry. There was more of a strict social hierarchy based on a more common form of Protestantism, family structure, the idealistic and chivalrous code that idealized women (the Sir Walter Raleigh influence).
 

JD Mayo

Retired User
Joined
Jun 12, 2020
Location
Greensboro NC
You could use points 1 to 6 to describe the Jacobite army at Culloden. Unfortunately for them the Government troops were better trained, disciplined and armed, among other things. The result was disastrous. Training, discipline and superior arms will almost always make a better soldier.

I'd say during big battles the north had more causlties killed and the south had more deaths killed from wounds they didn't have the right man power and medical equipment for that the north had so their causalities mounted more probably after battles. Specially with unkept records that where burnt from the North when coming during Sherman's March.
 

unionblue

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Feb 20, 2005
Location
Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
@Mango Hill ,

The book, The Militant South, by John Hope Franklin, might help shed light on your question.

From the Preface of the book comes the following paragraph:

"...While considerable attention has been given to the social, cultural, and psychological conditions of the South before 1861, certain aspects are yet incomplete. In the ante-bellum period, large numbers of observers, including Southerners, made more than passing references to those phases of Southern life and culture that suggested a penchant for militancy which at times assumed excessive proportions. The persistence of the rural environment, the Indian danger, the fear of slaves, an old-world concept of honor, an increasing sensitivity, and an arrogant self-satisfaction with things as they were contributed. Reflected in the culture and conduct of Southerners, it militated against a calm, deliberate approach to their problems. Several years ago, the late Wilber J. Cash, a distinguished Southern journalist, observed that the ante-bellum Southerner "did not think; he felt." Feeling or groping his way toward a solution of his increasingly complex problems, the Southerner not infrequently reached militantly, indeed violently..."

An interesting concept.

Sincerely,
Unionblue
 

Pete Longstreet

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Location
Hartford, CT
I think there are arguments on both sides. Overall, through the war you could say the Southern men had a certain determination that commands respect. But as previously stated, certain Union charges, like at Marye's Heights, was possibly the most courageous charge of the war. I think sometimes more credit is given to southern men because of the inferior supplies and weapons, yet they managed to repulse the larger , better equipped Union army on numerous occasions. Good posts. Enjoy reading this thread.
 
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