The Union and Confederacy: Examining Their Differences

US map divisions during civil war with Union and COnfederate flags main

The American Civil War was a “brother vs. brother” conflict. Each side had many similarities and the differences were often a matter of degree. The Union and Confederacy each had large militaries that took advantage of new technologies. Each side had to address strong opposition forces. They each used similar economic policies. The two sides had different views of freedom, but even here, they shared various sentiments.  

Brother v. Brother 

The American Civil War (1861-65) is known by many names.  Different people and sections of the country call it such things as the “War of Nothern Aggression” or “The War Between the States.”  A common sentiment, however, is that the conflict was between “two brothers.”  

A child is often in many ways like their parents.  The same was true of the Confederate States of America.  The Union (the United States) and Confederacy were alike in many ways, just like independence from Great Britain did not erase the similarities between the two sides four score and seven years before.  This complex familiarity remained years after the war.  

Definitions of Freedom

The people and leadership of both sides arose in the traditions of the American way of life, including its ideas of freedom.  When the Confederacy set about to write a constitution, it was mostly patterned on the U.S. Constitution.  The differences show some disagreement on details.

The Union and Confederacy both supported the basic idea of a republican form of government with certain basic rights. The Union saw slavery at best as a necessary evil, with a growing number believing it must be ended.  But, the Union was still much more racist than we are today.

The Confederacy was more concerned about upholding slavery, which it believed was essential to its way of life. Vice President Alexander Stephens called it the cornerstone of the Confederacy.  The South was willing to give up freedom temporarily to defend slavery.  

The Confederacy also was less nationalist than the Union, arguing that the states should have more power to govern on their own, particularly regarding slavery.  When the Union refused to give up a fort in South Carolina without a fight, additional southern states joined the Confederacy, believing this an unjust violation of local sovereignty (power).  


The Civil War was a long bloody conflict. A major reason is that both sides raised large armies.  The South had more military veterans to lead them in the beginning. The North had more resources, including military personnel (black soldiers too), and a much larger navy.  

But, both sides had large militaries, which helped lead to a long, bloody civil war.  

Economic Policies 

War is not only about feet on the ground.  It is about the economic policies that allow them to do things well.  Both sides, even the South with its greater opposition to governmental control, had a draft.  A fancy term for a military draft is “conscription.”  One more thing to pay for.

The three major ways to raise money were taxes, loans (including war bonds), and paper money.  Each side used these economic policies. Paper money and income taxes first being used on a national level in a broad way.  The Confederacy had less ability to raise money and at times simply had to seize materials, including food and supplies, with little but promises to back it up.

(Confederate money sometimes promised that you could redeem the paper for gold or silver “six months after the war.”  That didn’t work too well, especially after paying Confederate debts was constitutionally blocked by a provision of the Fourteenth Amendment.) 

Both sides also used economic means to fight the other side. The Confederacy stopped trading cotton to foreign countries while the Union blockaded Confederate shipping.  The ultimate Union threat to Confederate “property” was threats to slavery, including the Emancipation Proclamation.  People can read more about that at the link.  

New Technologies

The Civil War was perhaps the first “modern war,” which not only directly affected the people at large (especially in the South), but took advantage of new technology.

The Civil War was a beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution.  Railroads played an important part in a war for the first time, delivering troops and supplies over vast distances. Railroads were a major target for both sides, including during Sherman’s “March to the Sea” (1864).

Each side also took advantage of major improvements in military technology, including ironclads (steam-powered warships protected by iron), communication by telegraph, new and more deadly guns, and trench warfare years before World War I.  We even saw primitive submarines.  

The South had fewer resources than the North, including access to technology.  Nonetheless, new technologies played a major role and increased the death toll. The still largely primitive nature of medicine in the mid-19th Century often could not keep pace.  

Sectarian Violence and Civil Disobedience

There was also strong opposition on both sides to the Civil War.  

There was a strong belief on both sides that it was wrong to oppose the war.  The opposition was often over tactics (such as the draft) or the burdens of war (bread riots in Richmond). 

There were also peace factions on both sides, denounced in the North as “Copperheads” (deadly snakes) and as traitors in the South.  The biggest opposition, lest we forget, was the slaves in the Confederacy.  They helped fight the war in a variety of ways, including in the army itself.

Opposition meant that each side had its own “brother vs. brother” conflicts, including different regions in the South that were pro-peace and attacks on blacks in the North in the draft riots of 1863.  The best-selling book and film Cold Mountain show the divisions in the Confederacy.

Final Thoughts 

President Lincoln argued that the South never truly left the Union. He hoped for a “reconstruction” that took advantage of each side truly being part of one nation. 

The nation itself, before the rights of blacks were truly secured, ultimately wanted to move on as well.  The end of Reconstruction in 1877 left in place great racial inequalities.  

These sentiments took advantage of many similarities on each side during the Civil War. Similarities, as parents and children well know, do not mean the same.  We see this here as well.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.