The geography of the United States on the eve of the Civil War

The geography of the United States on the eve of the Civil War

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On the eve of the Civil War, the United States form a very large country, which would soon become a vast battlefield. The physical geography of the country would closely condition the conduct of military operations as well as the strategies of the two camps. The same would apply to its population, as well as to its economic geography, starting with the distribution of resources and communications networks.

Physical geography

In 1860, the United States of America extended over an area slightly greater than 8 million square kilometers, which occupies a significant portion of the North American continent and stretches from coast to coast. Its main physical characteristics are two mountain ranges (the Appalachians and the Rockies), between which extends the basin of the Mississippi River, and coastal regions with varied landscapes, all over approximately 4,500 kilometers from east to west and 2,500 kilometers from North to south.

The ribs face The Atlantic Ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean. From rocky to the north of the Atlantic seaboard, they gradually become lower and sandy as you descend southwards, and then become downright swampy, especially around the Gulf of Mexico. As a whole, the Pacific coast is rather rocky.

The Appalachian Mountains stretch for 2,400 km, originating in the southeast of the country and then extending into Canada. Although culminating at only 2,037 meters at Mount Mitchell (North Carolina), these are still relatively young, craggy mountains that present a real obstacle. Most of the valleys run north-south, and few allow easy passage to the west. We will mainly remember the " Cumberland Gap », Connecting the valleys of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, west side, to those of the Roanoke and James, coastal rivers; and, in New York State, the "Mohawk Threshold," which provides access to the Great Lakes, and the Hudson Valley, which leads to Quebec.

The alluvial plain of Mississippi is bounded on the north by the Great Lakes, which feed the St. Lawrence River and mark the border with Canada. Heading south, the altitude decreases as the Mississippi and its countless tributaries and sub-tributaries unfold, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas or Red River to name but the most important. Uncontrolled, these rivers feed many swamps. The only notable landforms are the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains, which peak at 850 m and straddle Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Towards the west, on the contrary, the plain rises progressively to the piedmont of Rocky Mountains.

The latter are in fact just one part of the immense mountain range that runs through the entire American continent from north to south. Much higher than the Appalachians, they add to the extent since they measure in places nearly 1,500 km wide, which makes them an obstacle much more formidable. Going west, the mountain ranges give way to high plateaus crisscrossed with canyons (the most famous being that of Colorado) and basins (around the Great Salt Lake or the Snake River) more or less arid. .

These are bounded on the west by two contiguous mountain ranges, the Cascade and Sierra Nevada. It is in the latter, California, that is the highest point in the United States: Mount Whitney, 4,421 meters. Narrow plains (the largest being that of California) intersect between these mountains and a series of coastal ranges that plunge, more or less steeply, into the Pacific Ocean.

Climate and vegetation

Such a vast country obviously has a great variety of climates. Like all the eastern facades of continents in the northern hemisphere, the Atlantic coast experiences a contrasting climate, with often very hot summers and generally freezing winters, largely influenced by the Labrador Current, whose cold waters originate from the Arctic. The same contrast is found in the climate, of continental influence, of the interior.

Harsh in the Appalachians, the climate gradually becomes milder as you move south, until it becomes subtropical - hot and humid - around the Gulf of Mexico. Combined with the swamps of the lower Mississippi Valley and coastal regions, this debilitating climate allows for the proliferation of mosquitoes carrying tropical diseases : dengue fever, malaria, and the dreaded yellow fever. So many factors that were going to put a strain on the bodies of the Northerner soldiers, who were not used to such conditions.

As you move towards the Rocky Mountains, the climate gradually dries up as elevation increases, and the fertile lands of the Mississippi Basin give way to steppes of grasses. Wooded to the north, the Rockies are more arid to the south. Along the west coast, the climate is milder - Mediterranean in California, temperate and humid in the northwest. Between the two, desert areas : Indeed, the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada block the cloud formations, preventing them from bringing their humidity to the Great Basin or the Valley of Death.

In 1860, the country was still heavily wooded: deciduous and coniferous forests, often accompanied by thick undergrowth, would be the scene of a significant part of the battles to come. Even the cleared agricultural regions retain a significant forest fabric. As we can see, the fighters will not have it easy: those serving on the East Coast will be condemned to shiver with cold in winter and to suffocate with heat in summer (in woolen uniforms, whatever the season) ; as for those who will fight in the South, they will not be better off with a humid and unsanitary climate.

Territorial organization

Federal state, the USA, at the time when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, 33 states federated, which have extensive prerogatives in matters of sovereignty. Each of them varies in size and is divided into counties - except in Louisiana, where these subdivisions are called parishes. The rest of the country comprises 5 organized territories, with a local government appointed by the federal government, and the District of Columbia, where the capital, Washington is located. This district, along with two other unorganized territories, is administered directly by the federal government.

At the time, "East" meant the territories east of the Appalachians. "The West" proper corresponded to the territories between these mountains and the Mississippi River; to the west of the latter is the "Wild West". The "South", meanwhile, essentially designates the states where slavery is practiced, as opposed to those in the "North", where it is prohibited.

We can distinguish several large regions. First, the New England, which includes Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. It is in a way the "old" America, the one with the oldest colonization, especially around its great metropolis, Boston.

The heart of the country is a region sometimes called "Center" at the time and which includes the State of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia: the most populous states and the most industrialized, which already have very large cities like New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The Midwest corresponds to the fertile lands located north of the Mississippi basin and on the shores of the Great Lakes: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. They experienced rapid development from the turn of the century, accelerated by the advent of the railroad and the development of navigation on the Great Lakes. Cities such as Chicago, Detroit or Cincinnati are starting to gain importance.

The " High South » (Upper South) designates the slave states which are most in contact with the North, playing a sort of buffer role. We find Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas. Less urbanized, these states have Saint-Louis, Memphis, Louisville and Richmond as their main agglomerations.

The " Old South » (Lower South) refers to the states where southern culture and traditions are most deeply rooted. These are mainly those bordering the Gulf of Mexico: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, plus Georgia and South Carolina. Large ports such as Charleston, Mobile and of course New Orleans, by far the largest city in the South, act as metropolises.

With its great empty expanses, the far west offers a very different face, with its five territories: Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah and Washington. Kansas will be integrated into the Union, as a State, on February 28, 1861. This integration will be accompanied by a reorganization of the territories, just before the outbreak of hostilities: Colorado will be created from regions borrowed from the five previous territories, the western end of Utah will become Nevada, and northern Nebraska will form the vast territory of Dakota. Several other changes will occur during the civil war.

It will be noted that two territories remain unorganized. None of them officially have a name. The first, in western Minnesota, is populated mainly by Sioux. As for the second, to the west of Arkansas, it corresponds to present-day Oklahoma, and is intended to welcome the Amerindian populations gradually deported ever further west by European colonization. This " indian territory Is reserved for them and they are free to live there according to their laws, as long as they do not leave the areas, often confined, which have been allocated to them.

Finally, the Pacific coast then had only two states, California and Oregon. The second, of recent creation, is still embryonic, but the first is in full development following the famous " gold Rush From 1848-49. The towns founded by the Spaniards, in this territory recently torn from Mexico, quickly developed, notably Los Angeles, Sacramento and, above all, San Francisco.

Human geography

In the United States, a census is taken every ten years, and the last one dates from 1860. It has a population of about 31.5 million inhabitants, an increase of more than a third over that of 1850. The main cause of this increase is particularly dynamic immigration. At the time, there were no quotas or restrictions of any kind on entry into the United States. The migrants come mainly from Western Europe: British Isles, Germany and to a lesser extent, Scandinavia. The Irish, driven from their island by the famine which raged there during the previous decade, are particularly numerous.

The population is very unequally distributed over the territory: nearly 85% of the population lives east of the Mississippi. The Old West is nearly empty: together, the territories have 220,000 inhabitants, while California and Oregon on the West Coast have little more than 400,000. The population is also very unbalanced, and the majority of the colonists of the Far West are adult men.

East of Mississippi, too, the distribution of the population is very uneven. The majority of the population is concentrated in the North and even more so in the Northeast, New York State being the most populous with close to 3.9 million inhabitants. The slave states as a whole consist of 12.3 million inhabitants, including 4 million slaves; but the majority of these are concentrated in the Old South. The 11 states that will formally secede during the war have a total population of only 9.1 million, including 5.4 million whites. The Confederation will suffer greatly from this demographic disparity, and will have to resort very soon to extreme measures - systematic conscription - in order to provide its armies with men and to face the northern numerical superiority.

In addition to the four million slaves, there are about half a million free blacks, half living in the North and half in the South. If these African-Americans are lucky enough not to be considered, unlike those who are enslaved, as movable property, they are denied citizenship status and they have neither the right to vote nor to bear arms. . Other minority, Native American. The census only counts those said to be "civilized", by which means those with a sedentary lifestyle. They are a little over 100,000; almost two thirds live in the “Indian Territory”. The others are only subject to estimates, and are estimated to be between 200 and 300,000.

So very majority, the " WASP » (white, anglo-saxon, protestant) represent the dominant culture in the country. Notable differences, however, exist between North and South, largely related to the different economic functioning of these regions. The recent and massive arrival of Irish immigrants, moreover, has considerably strengthened the Catholic minority. The other notable religious community is that of the Mormons, persecuted for their then sectarian tendencies and their pro-independence tendencies. They eventually went into exile in the territory of Utah, where in 1860 they formed the majority of the 40,000 inhabitants.


Although the United States was in 1860 at an advanced level of development close to that of Europe, the economic disparities internal are important. Thus, the agricultural lands are extensive and fertile, but not all of them allow the same crop to be cultivated. In the North, cereals are dominant: mainly wheat, corn and rye. The Midwest is, as such, particularly fertile, and plays the role of breadbasket of the country.

The South, meanwhile, specializes in high value-added crops that its warmer climate allows: sugar cane (around the Gulf of Mexico), tobacco (in the Upper South) and above all cotton. Exported on a massive scale to Europe, where it supplied the spinning mills born of the Industrial Revolution, southern cotton represented 60% of the half a billion dollars that American exports then brought in.

This wealth is the basis of the southern economic system: these cultures require intense and very painful work, for which a labor of slaves was then considered to be the best suited and the most profitable. Only a minority directly benefits from cotton cultivation: we only count 350,000 slave owners, generally exploiting more or less large plantations. The small white peasantry, for its part, is content to survive thanks to the consumption of the planters.

The industry is also very unevenly distributed, and is mainly concentrated in the North. Rich in coal and iron, Pennsylvania supplies factories on the Northeast Coast, but also in the Midwest. Theindustrialization engendered important social changes, and the more or less prosperous farmers of the North now rub shoulders with a whole working class, often made up of recent immigrants, and reduced to living conditions sometimes almost as miserable as those of the black slaves of the South.

The latter is not very industrialized, for cultural reasons (agrarianism, hostility to capitalism) as well as practical: the South is poor in minerals, and there is little coal in Virginia, and a little iron in Alabama. The main southern industrial basins are located in these two states (around Richmond and Birmingham) as well as in northern Georgia (Atlanta), and are still quite modest compared to the large industrial cities of the North.

The economy of the Wild West is quite different, given its peculiarities then. Except in the fertile valley of California, agriculture is mainly based on extensive breeding. Industry is non-existent there, except on the California coast, mainly in San Francisco. If the mining potential is important, it is hardly developed for lack of adequate transport, and the mining activity is limited to the precious metals - gold and silver - again especially in California and in the future Nevada.

These regional disparities constituted a decisive factor as to the outcome of the Civil War. Indeed, the northern victory owed a lot to its industry, and its ability to mobilize it over the long term. Conversely, the South was dependent on its cotton exports to import in return the manufactured goods it needed to continue the struggle, despite its late and limited efforts to build an industry worthy of the name.

Transport and communications

In this game, transport networks and communication routes also played a preponderant role. The road network is quite dense and includes many gravel roads, often tolled (which ensures development on private funds), along the east coast. The density of the road network remains linked to that of the population and naturally, the roads become rarer the further west you go. They are non-existent in the Far West, where only a few rough, difficult, and recently mapped trails allow you to reach the Pacific coast - it is overall easier and faster to get by boat to Nicaragua, from cross Central America there, then take the boat back to California.

Despite its quality, the US road network was to prove inadequate to cope, on its own, with the logistical demands of modern warfare. Supplying armies with food and ammunition, but also moving them over long distances, would highlight the new strategic importance of a still relatively new means of transport, the railroad. This developed considerably by the 1830s, especially in the North, where it was essential for the expansion of industry.

In 1860, the North thus had ’a very extensive rail network, although the lack of standardization (not all companies use the same gauge) would sometimes prove problematic. This was not the case in the south, where the railroad was not seen as necessary for the economy and served less densely populated areas. This would prove to be a plague for the Confederates, whose transport of troops and supplies would depend on few, disparate, and vulnerable lines.

Railroad tracks are scarce west of the Mississippi, and transcontinental lines still exist as barely sketched designs. The Appalachians are another big obstacle: only four lines allow you to cross them by train to reach the Midwest. Control of one of them, the Baltimore and Ohio, would prove crucial at the start of the war; and throughout the conflict, in general, the belligerents often clashed for control of railway tracks.

It will be the same for inland waterways. Canals and rivers, by allowing the transport of heavy goods, play an economic role as important as the railroad. It is mainly by river that cotton and other products of southern agriculture reach the ports from where they are then exported. The Mississippi Basin plays a major role here, and its control will be one of the major challenges of the war. The Union’s victory in this strategic struggle in 1863 will prove decisive.

Port control will also be. With a coastline of nearly 20,000 kilometers, the United States has no shortage of sites for establishing ports, and there are many of them. They are vital for the South, because it is through them that cotton exports and imports of manufactured goods from Europe pass. One of the essential elements of the northern strategy will therefore be to carry out the blockade of these ports in order to stifle the southern economy - which will not be easy, and will in fact only be fully realized in the last months of the war.

Sources : Any good atlas will get your hands on a physical map of the United States, but the University of Texas online map library has plenty of resources, including historical maps. More specifically, the site is full of documents on the development of railways in the United States in the nineteenth century. Finally, the extensive data from the 1860 census are available online.

Video: Lets Explore the. Expansion and The Civil War


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