The industrial Wars 1861–1945

The period of military history that commenced around the time of the American Civil War in1861 and concluded when American B-29 bombers dropped the world’s first two atom bombs on Japan in1945 might easily be called the industrial wars period. It was a time when the outcome of individual battles counted for far less than whichever of the combatants or alliances held a significant manufacturing, logistic and manpower advantage over the other. As long as the more robust industrially power was willing to press ahead with the fighting, it was virtually guaranteed a previously rare occurrence of total victory.

It should be no surprise that men in the middle of events might lack the sort of perspective for seeing the big picture that time provides. There is, however, no excuse for historians writing long after major events to comprehend certain basic threads. Yet it happens all the time, as writers seem to want to over hype the importance of their particular subject matter.

During what I have coined the industrial wars period, where manufacturing advantage was by far the overriding factor that decide who won or lost major wars you see writers issue outlandish statements that totally ignore this basic fact. For instance some will say that the outcome of the American Civil War rested on victory or defeat for the Rebels at the Battle of Gettysburg. Others will claim that the fate of World War Two in Europe depended on the Allies success with the D-day lands or that the German counter offensive in the Ardennes in December of 1944 came close to changing the war’s outcome. Or that with an additional head start Hitler’s super weapons like the ME 262 jet fighter and the V1 and V2 rockets might have allowed the Nazis to win the war. What utter nonsense. Let me clarify this by saying that victory was assured for the Allies once America, the so-called “arsenal of democracy,” entered the fray.

That famous Union general of our own American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant, was no special genius. In fact he was considered an abject failure until he rose to high command in the Federal Military. Grant’s strength as a military leader was that he fully grasped the war’s essentials. He knew that the Lincoln administration and the Republican radicals in Congress wanted a general who was not shy about spilling blood in order to defeat the Rebels. Moreover, Grant stayed cognizant of the fact that the loyal states of the North held an overwhelming advantage in industry and manpower relative to that of the agrarian South. Thus he knew that if victory could not be secured by faster, less painful means, at least Union forces must prevail in an unyielding war of attrition. Ultimate victory was just a question of the political and military will of the North to press on with the nation saving crusade. And thus it came to pass that Grant and Lincoln successfully formed a bond that won the war for the Union cause.

Moving toward the back end of the industrial wars period, Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Imperial Fleet and architect of the Peal Harbor attack, is quoted as saying: “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.

The Admiral no doubt was thinking of the great industrial might of the United States. Because of his studies at Harvard University in the early 1920’s and his two postings as a naval attachéin Washington, D.C, Yamamoto had come to know and admire America. He made many friends in country, explored the nation’s heavy industry and the Texas oil fields.

Knowing first hand what Japan would be up against in a war with the US, he vigorously opposed those driving his country toward a war with the West. But when war became inevitable he did the best he could to take on “the sleeping giant, “ a phrase that has been falsely attributed to him, but nonetheless was probably how he saw his new enemy.


For eons prior to the industrial wars period it was not uncommon for serious military conflicts to be decided by a single grand battle. And though one hears of the Thirty Years War or the Hundred Years War these were in reality more a long series of wars with common threads that were easy to lump together under single headings for purposes of historical simplicity.


There where three factors that determined victory in World War Two: oil, industrial production potential and logistics capability. The latter factor meaning the ability to project fighting men and their supporting means — weapons, fuel, food and thousands of other critical items necessary to sustain military operations — all about the globe. Logistics capability was particularly important for the American military campaign against Imperial Japan, stretching as it did across the vastness of Pacific Ocean with its thousands of islands.

The simple fact remains that America at that time, alone, came to dwarf the Axis powers when considering these foundation factors critical for attaining total victory in the Second World War. When you add in Great Britain and its colonial partners such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India and its African and Middle Eastern holdings, not to mention most importantly the might of the Soviet Union with its vast landmass and sizeable population advantage over Germany, along with the unconquered parts of China, there was not the slightest chance for the Axis powers to prevail. Indeed, the Second World War was far and a way a war of industrial production and natural resources advantage. And if all that was not enough there was America’s ace in the hole, The Manhattan project, and its product of enormous technical and industrial capacity that eventuated as the world’s first atomic bombs.

For post war writers who try to over hype the importance of the allies D-Day landing or Hitler’s Ardennes counteroffensive, saying that a failure of the first or the success of second could have turned the war around for what was left of the Nazi power simply are self-blinded to the big picture. By 1944 American war production was humming along in high gear and even Russian heavy industry had made a significant and miraculous comeback. By contrast German cities were quickly being turned to rubble with their populations quickly heading for the edge of starvation.

There simply was no way that Axis powers could ever have hoped to compete over time with the United States and its allies war making capacity in the best of times, let alone by the start of 1944, a point well past the best of times for Germany and her military partners. Even if the Germans had manage to drive the D-Day assault back into the sea or temporarily overrun allied positions in Belgium to the point of retaking much lost ground and holding it for some months, it would in the end have been but a minor speed bump on the road to total allied victory, and historians who claim otherwise are simply trying to find an angle to sell books.

And finally, even if German scientists had managed to solve the mysteries needed to build atomic weapons a little sooner than its rivals, it still could never have had the industrial capacity to put together that which could match the industrial backing of America’s Manhattan project to scientific understanding into a finished product of enormous destructive supremacy.

POST Industrial Wars Period

The relatively brief industrial wars period ended as both major powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, following World War Two soon came to possess massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, making a direct confrontation between Russia and the United States a suicide mission for both. Thus military actions between the super powers have ever since been self-limited to proxy wars, Korea and Vietnam being the two primary examples. And of course these proxy wars have been massively supplemented with terrorists uprisings around the globe fueled by religious strife, along with man’s other destructive impulses for a want of power and wealth.


Circling back to the front end of the industrial wars period, hands down the most over hype battle as to its importance to a war’s outcome is the Battle of Gettysburg, commencing on July 1, 1863. Both the public and some Civil War writers have confused its symbolic importance with it potential to decide the war’s outcome. In symbolic splendor it was the largest battle of the war, being fought over a period three days; it was a clash of arms that transpired north of the Mason Dixon line; its timing was about midpoint of the war; it did manage to spread panic throughout the North for a brief time; and it served as the place from where President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the worlds most remembered and beloved speeches, giving the battle and place a perception of significance, regarding the war’s potential outcome, well beyond its true capacity to do so.

Before proceeding to an overview of the Gettysburg Campaign, because the American Civil is solidly a part of the industrial wars period it is beneficial to review the advantages that the North in general held over the South. The following basic data comes from the national park service: “By 1860, 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturing output came from northern states. The North produced 17 times more cotton and woolen textiles than the South, 30 times more leather goods, 20 times more pig iron, and 32 times more firearms. The North produced 3,200 firearms to every 100 produced in the South. Only about 40 percent of the Northern population was still engaged in agriculture by 1860, as compared to 84 percent of the South.” Therefore by the premise of this article this very straightforward data makes it abundantly clear that the eventual winner of the American Civil War was virtually a forgone conclusion.

From a contemporary public relations standpoint, the grand Battle of Gettysburg was fought in a beautiful, idyllic landscape that is within easy reach of large, eastern, metropolitan populations. Each year hundreds of thousands of Americans and foreigners flock to the extensively laid out Gettysburg Battlefield Park that is presented by the locals as the war’s be-all military event in American history. Even today local hype portrays the outcome of the war as hinging on the consequence of the battle simply because such over the top hype is good for business.

This brings us to Glenn Tucker, 1892–1976, and his famous book, High Tide at Gettysburg. The following is a typical blurb about the book: “High Tide at Gettysburg tells the story of the Army of Virginia. How near the South came to victory is clearly set forth in these pages. The author vividly conveys the background of the crucial battle of the Civil War so that the reader can fully appreciate its unfolding.”

For those who love military history, particularly American Civil War history, Tucker’s book is a highly enjoyable read, though some critics think his newspaperman’s style of writing is somewhat boring. Moreover, since its publication in 1958, continued historical research has revealed a few of Tucker’s minor facts to be myths. Yet for most Civil war buffs that have read Tucker’s work, I strongly suspect they will have found it quite enjoyable.

The book’s details, which include micro biographies of many dozens of the battle’s secondary personalities as well as the leading participants on both sides of the clashing lines, along with all the tactical movements of the various corps, divisions, brigades and regiments, are exquisitely captivating. But like so many military writers trying to stress the importance of their focus of attention, author Tucker wonders into unfounded fantasy speculation when it comes to the larger picture.

In his foreword Tucker writes, “The South came near to victory — how near may be judged by these pages. After a series of triumphs, Lee’s army reached the field of greatest opportunity at Gettysburg. Had Lee destroyed Meade’s forces there and captured Washington, Baltimore, or other seaboard cities, of what possible consequences would have been the loss of Vicksburg or the threat of other Northern armies? This was indeed the moment when the Confederate cause was at high tide.”

Throughout the book the writer repeats this absurd theme that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia came very close to winning a battle that would have allowed it to rampage deep into the North and win the war. Truth be told, Lee would have had an easier time transporting his troops to the moon than gobbling up cities like Philadelphia and New York and forcing defeat upon the North following any degree of victory at Gettysburg.

To underscore this fundamental point, lets review the big picture situation for the Confederacy at the start of Lee’s Gettysburg campaign and the specific limitations placed upon his Rebel army when coming to grips with General George G. Mede’s Army of the Potomac among the rolling hills of south central Pennsylvania.

First off, as most historians will admit, the high tide of the Confederacy came not at Gettysburg in July 1863 but rather at the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) fought directly on the Western Maryland side of the Potomac River the previous September.

Ever since the turning back of that first invasion of the North by Lee’s steadfast soldiers, the South’s initial limited resources to wage offense warfare had been even further undercut by the Federal blockade of Southern ports and the irreplaceable loss of men, particularly the army’s leadership corps such as the death of “General Stonewall” Jackson and hundreds of other leaders of lesser rank. Indeed, Lee’s ability to sustain an offensive punch by the time of his Gettysburg Campaign was far less robust than his first failed strike at the North.

Moreover, the only true hope of the South for winning its independence from the North had always depended on receiving massive backing from the European powers, England and France. But following Lee being checked at Antietam by General George B. McClellan, who at the time was leading the Army of the Potomac, President Abraham Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation, partly framing the war as a war of freedom. This bold move by Lincoln killed any chance that European powers would wish to side with the Southern slavers.

Going into his Gettysburg Campaign the realist Lee accepted his second probe of northern soil as a mostly forlorn hope, a desperate tossing of the dice to try and frustrate the northern citizenry by some sort of victory on Northern soil that would at last convince those of the loyal states that the South could not be defeated and therefore the people of the North must demand of Washington that it sue for a peace that would grant the South its independence. It was the longest of long shots.

Lee’s first problem with his second invasion of the North was that President Jefferson Davis gave him far less that he desired. The main ingredient that was missing as far as Lee was concerned was a second army under General P. T. G. Beauregard to threaten Washington while he moved his own troops into Pennsylvania. Lee’s second great problem was that anytime he was out of range of his Richmond base of operation, being above the Potomac River and out of Virginia, he had no line of supply. Therefore the survival of his army — particularly food wise — depended on it living off the land.

It north of the Potomac it was always dangerous for Lee to concentrate his three army corps for very long. The land would quickly be stripped of food resources, putting his troops on the verge of starvation. Lee would often say that it was not battlefield tactics that consumed his attention when he was on enemy soil but rather where the army’s next meal might be obtained. This food-limiting factor would come to have a profound effect upon the outcome of the Gettysburg battle both in terms of how it was fought and as to its fundamental outcome.

Almost from the moment Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Lee’s senior corps commander, arrived on the battlefield and examined the Federal deployment, he became insistent with Lee that the Army swing around the enemy left and get between it and Washington, forcing the enemy to do the attacking. Longstreet was highly mindful of the advantage of fighting from a defensive stance. This had proved especially effective at Fredericksburg Virginian in December where the Federals suffered grievously when attacking the Confederate entrenchments up hill, behind the town.

The advent of the rifled musket going into the Civil War gave the basic infantryman deadly firepower over a much-extended range. Thus from the time of the American Civil War until the perfection of airplanes and tanks in going into World War Two, defense was king. Thus from the later part of the Civil War, when tactics finally caught up to weapon advancements, through World War One, trench warfare became the rational way of battle.

With his army cut off from a reliable food source north of the Potomac, the logic is that Lee did not see where he had the luxury of taking up a defensive position and waiting to be attacked. Being concentrated, he must soon attack or see his army collapse of hunger. Thus his reply to Longstreet’s repeated calls for swinging left to a defensive position was always the same: To the effect that that is where the enemy and that is where we are going to attack him.

By late the second day of the three-day battle, Union forces held a powerful position just south of town encompassing interior lines on high ground of a fishhook configuration. The barb of the hook rested upon Culp’s hill to the southeast of town, the deployment then running north and west and curving south across Cemetery Hill and continuing due south along Cemetery Ridge some two plus miles with the shank end of the hook planted upon the higher Round Top hills, behind which stood in reserve the largest and freshest of Meade’s seven army corps, the Sixth Corps.

It would have been inconceivable that Lee did not understand that what he intended to do was a virtual suicide mission. But with the Confederacy’s vitality in a state a dire atrophy one must assume by his actions that Lee felt it would likely be his last opportunity to strike a meaningful blow for Southern independence. Perhaps because of what Lee was intending to order, starting from the latter part of day two, it most likely being ugly in the extreme for his beloved troops, accounts for the Southern commander’s uncharacteristically agitated state during the battle.

There is not time here to explore all the various strategic and tactical maneuvers that encompassed the fighting at Gettysburg. The point is to stay focused on what a possible Confederate victory might have allowed, or more to the point what it would not have allowed — the big picture. One must kept in mind that in all the titanic struggles between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac leading to the Gettysburg encounter, no matter which army was considered to be the winner of a particular battle, never did one army come close to totally crushing the other.

The reason for this is very simple. When two great Civil War armies engaged in gigantic, all out, knocked down bouts of fighting, there inevitably came a point in the action whereupon both sides were so drained of energy as to be rendered nearly immobile. Thus had Lee’s army — after the first day of fighting when an additional concentration of Federal forces caused the Army of Northern Virginia to be outnumbered by approximately twenty thousand effectives — inexplicably managed to inflict some degree of a tactical defeat upon the Army of the Potomac, the situation for Lee’s forces would still have remained perilous. With his army cut off from its base of supplies and weighed down with thousands of prisoners and many more thousands of badly wounded, there would have been zero possibility that Lee could have sent his deeply scared divisions on a war winning rampage though the North as some writes of Southern lore, such as Glenn Tucker, like to suggest.

It was bad enough to be cut off from Richmond by the Potomac River but to get to Philadelphia it needed to cross a second great river, the Susquehanna, and to get to New York there would have been a third river, the Delaware, to cross. Being separated from Virginia and Richmond by one substantial river was dangerous enough, but by two or three additional rivers would have been sheer madness.

Eventually Northern industrial advantage would supply Union armies with what was necessary to conquer the South but never was the reverse potentially true. At Gettysburg, while Meade’s army was in a position to quickly be reinforced and resupplied, Lee must do with what was left after three days of heavy fighting.

Moreover, the adjacent loyal states were prepared during an emergence to call up tens of thousands of militia.

Normally militia were no match for a seasoned army, but for an army having gone through the wringer of a major battle would be adequate enough until the Army of the Potomac was quickly refreshed. Lee would never have wanted to be caught north of Potomac in a run down condition between a revived Army of the Potomac and thousands of state militia.

There was another probable outcome for Lee’s Gettysburg Campaign, or at least another terrible problem for the Confederate commander to have to face. After the first day of fighting in which by happenstance more Rebel troops arrived at Gettysburg than Federal fighters, Lee’s forces were caused to drive three Federal Corps in a rout through the streets of town. At that point had Meade decided to initiate his original Pipe Creek concentration instead of bringing the balance of his forces to Gettysburg, the Battle of Gettysburg would have simply been recorded as just another Confederate victory in a long string of Confederate victories that was depleting Rebel forces needed to carry on the war.

The problem then would have been that Lee still would have had to follow up his initial victory and gone after a fully combined Army of the Potomac that was situated in a deployment that Meade had fully contemplated and surveyed in advance.

However one wishes to explain the possible outcome of the American Civil War it did not hang in the balance of single battle in south central Pennsylvania any more so that it did with any one of the many battles in Virginia. In the end the South lost for the simple reason that it was fighting a relative industrial giant in an age where industry was king when it came to deciding final victory — the industrial wars period.

Jim Ridgway, Jr. military writer — author of the American Civil War classic, “Apprentice Killers: The War of Lincoln and Davis.” Christmas gift, yes!

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