Eli Whitney: Nemesis Of The South
Having given slavery a new lease on life, he then made Northern triumph inevitable
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
It is one of the ironies of history that the man who inadvertently contributed to the downfall of the South by his invention of the cotton gin should also have blazed the trail leading to the technological supremacy of the North. The loss of the will to fight in the closing days of the Confederacy can be traced in large part to the feeling that the South had reached the limit of its resources, whereas in the North every deficiency in equipment could always be made good.
As to inherent fighting ability no distinction can be made between the Union and Confederate soldier, but in the quantity as well as the quality of their equipment the advantage was all with the northerner. While it is true that the extraordinarily resourceful General Gorgas, the Confederate chief of ordnance, managed to keep the gray armies supplied with the necessary weapons and munitions up to the very end of the war, even General Gorgas could not keep pace with the inventiveness and the productivity of northern arsenals and northern factories. On more than one occasion a single northern regiment, armed with breech-loading rifles, held in check a whole brigade armed with the ordinary musket. As one Confederate soldier put it, “it is no use for us to fight you’uns with that kind of gun.”
The disparity in clothing and equipment was even more marked than the disparity in weapons. The southern soldier had to find most of his own equipment, whereas the northerner was supplied by the government. If the northern soldier faced privation, as he often did, it was the fault ol shady contractors and incompetent quartermasters. The New England factories were turning out all the uniforms, the boots, and the varied accoutrements he could possibly need.
The Civil War, at bottom, was the first of the truly modern wars, in which the industrial “potential of a nation forms the foundation on which all military plans and achievements must ultimately be built. Given that situation, the advantage was all with the North.
Before the war even began, William Tecumseh Sherman warned a southern friend that a purely agricultural nation, like the South, could not hope to fight against a nation of mechanics. “You are bound to fail,” he said, sharply, and events bore out his contention. As the war progressed, the entire southern economy came under intolerable strain. In the end. it simply became impossible for the Confederacy to carry the burden any longer.
But the North could produce, in almost any required volume, the infinite variety and number of goods needed to support a nation at war. For this technique it was, to a large extent, indebted to Whitney.
Eli Whitney died in 1825, long before the “irrepressible conflict” had cast its shadow over American history. He himself was unaware of the part he had played in the expansion of slavery, just as he was unaware of the mighty industrial forces he had set in motion. He had invented the cotton gin and he had manufactured muskets on a new system for a war against France that never materialized, but by those two achievements he had affected the whole course of American history. By the first he riveted slavery on the South and thus created a tension between the two sections of the country which could only be resolved by war. And by the second he gave an impetus to the mass production of inexpensive goods which has created what the world knows as the American standard of living, and which has reunited us, in spite of all the differences in our backgrounds, into an amazingly homogeneous nation.