Secession and Civil War

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What geographic advantages did the South have over the North?

During the Civil War, the South had the advantage of being more knowledgeable of the terrain, having shorter supply lines, and having sympathetic local support networks. They were also more resistant to the heat and local diseases.

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The geographical vastness of the South gave it some advantages. These benefited the South for the war both on land and at sea.

The South's large size gave it leverage. The South was able to trade land for time—particularly in the Western theater of operations. For example, in 1864, Confederate General Joseph Johnston faced Union general William Sherman in northern Georgia. Outnumbered by the much larger Union force, Johnston skillfully withdrew. His plan was to trade space in order to gain time. Abraham Lincoln faced a presidential campaign in 1864, and the North was tired of the war. If Johnston kept his army intact and defended Atlanta, Lincoln might lose the election and the new president would grant independence to the South. Confederate President Jefferson Davis grew tired of Johnston's cautious strategy and unwisely replaced him with a different general; that new general failed, and Atlanta fell. Also, the North could not prevent Confederate raiders from roaming about the West. The most famous of these hit-and-run Confederate generals was the inimitable Nathan Bedford Forrest. And finally, Texas and other large areas of the Confederacy were not occupied during the war.

The Union's war plan included a blockade of the Confederate coastline. That coastline was 3,500 miles long, though. Although the key city of New Orleans fell early in the war, other Confederate port cities—such as Wilmington, North Carolina—held out until late in the conflict. The Confederacy used these ports to launch blockade runners against the North.

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As the other answers describe, geography gave the Confederacy the home field advantages of being more familiar with the landscape, needing shorter supply lines, and dealing with a friendlier civilian population. It also worked in their favor because they were more accustomed to the hotter climate and local diseases. Large swaths of the South are home to the preferred habitats for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Indeed, numerous battles, such as Bull Run, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and the Peninsular Campaign, were fought in the warm swampy areas that mosquitoes prefer.

Though most survive it, malaria can be fatal. This mosquito-transmitted disease killed as many as ten thousand Union soldiers. Malaria was rare in the northern states. Therefore, few Union soldiers had experienced it before. Even though the majority survived, sick soldiers were unable to fight and were a burden when the army was on the move. It is thought that as many as half of all Union soldiers contracted malaria at some point during the war. This disease greatly hampered Union efforts. While southerners still succumbed to malaria, they tended to be more resistant to it overall because of a lifetime of exposure.

The climate itself also aided the Confederacy. Union soldiers were less accustomed to the southern heat. Heatstroke and dehydration was a problem for northerners unaccustomed to the heat. General Robert E. Lee was aware of this advantage when he wrote in 1863 that "[Union] troops ordered from Virginia to the Mississippi at this season would be greatly endangered by the climate. ... The climate in June will force the enemy to retire."

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The main geographic advantages that the South had come from the fact that they were fighting in the South as opposed to in the North. Being closer to home, the South was able to keep their supply lines significantly shorter than the Northern ones, and so were able to get food, ammunition, and medicine to their soldiers much more quickly than the Northern army could.

In addition, fighting in the south offered their armies the ability to travel and fight in areas with which they were familiar—including the Appalachian Mountain range, which is very rough terrain. Some guerrilla warfare was employed by members of the Southern armies which was aided by this terrain.

Finally, the South encompassed a significant area—the South encompasses at least two thirds of the land area of the country at that time, which made it more difficult for the Northern army to penetrate and invade.

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While the North had some significant advantages—including a sizable population to serve as soldiers, an industrial base with factories to produce necessary materials, and a navy which could be deployed to fight along the coast—the South did have some geographic advantages over the North.

First, the South was fighting a defensive rather than offensive war. In other words, they had the "home advantage" of fighting from an expansive territory which they were intimately familiar with, and had no need to "invade" anywhere. This resulted in the South having short internal supply lines (as opposed to the North's lines, which had to stretch down into enemy territory) and a strong base of local support from Southerners who were in support of the "cause." The South was able to sufficiently produce the food needed to feed civilians and soldiers. This access to necessary supplies was also aided by the long stretches of coastline in the South, which allowed for the receipt of shipments of materials from Europe and created yet another obstacle for the North—the necessity of blocking said shipments.

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The South had three main geographic advantages over the North at the outset of the Civil War. 

  1. The South’s territory was quite large.  This was relevant because the strategic situation dictated that the North had to invade the South.  Because the South was so large, it could use a strategy of defense in depth.  As the Union advanced, it could pull back, leaving the Union forces dispersed over a larger and larger area.  This makes things hard on an invading army.
  2. The South was going to be fighting using internal lines of communication while the North’s lines of communication would lengthen as it tried to defeat the South.  This meant that it would be easier for the South to move people and materiel around to its troops than it would be for the North.
  3. The South had a very long coastline that the North had to blockade.  The North had to try to prevent the South from getting shipments of arms and other needed supplies from Europe.  In order to do this, it had to try to blockade this coastline.

All of these were geographical facts that, when combined with the strategic reality of what the North had to do to win, gave the South an advantage in the war.

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