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Comparing Union and Confederate Resources


Wars are not just fought by opposing armies. The outcomes of war are impacted by the availability of resources during war. Armies need people—people to fight, and sail, and transport supplies, people to farm and build and repair—and food, clothing, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies for those people. They need raw materials like iron and wood to make the things they need. They need methods to transport what they make to the people who need it. And they need money to pay for supplies and wages.

The Union and Confederacy had different economies and different resources at their disposal when the war began. The free population of the Union was three times as large as that of the Confederacy, and by the end of the war they had enlisted twice the men. They also had three times the money of the Confederacy. The Union’s economy was based more on manufacturing, so there were significantly more factories and factory workers above the Mason-Dixon line. The Union also had many more miles of railroad and a significant navy, which it used to block Confederate ports so they could not import or redistribute supplies. The Confederacy’s economy was based on agriculture, but the Union produced more food than the Confederacy. The Confederacy struggled to keep its army supplied throughout the conflict, and eventually the lack of supplies contributed to its downfall.

However, it is important to remember that supplies alone do not determine the course of wars:

“While Robert E. Lee said at war’s end that his army had bowed to “overwhelming numbers and resources,” this did not mean the Confederacy’s defeat was inevitable. The Confederacy lost both on the battlefield and behind the lines. Both sides faced the challenge of backing up words with actions, of figuring out how to prepare for and fight a war that, in its cost and duration, no one had envisioned. Ultimately, the Union’s success in meeting military, economic, and political challenges, in mobilizing resources more effectively, enabled it to prevail.”

— Masur, Louis P. and J Ronald Spencer. “Civil War Mobilizations.” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History (April 2012), 11.

In this lesson, students analyze data and then make graphs to compare the resources of the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War. They then make informed inferences about the importance of each resource and the effect of the disparity of resources on the outcome of the war.


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Compare and contrast the Union and Confederate resources during the Civil War.
  • Infer the importance of different resources on the war effort.
  • Infer and discuss the impact of the disparity of resources on the outcome of the war.
  • Read to comprehend information presented in a variety of ways, including graphs and charts.
  • Draw graphs to synthesize data.



  1. Project the Primary Source of the Month image for students. Give students some background information about Tredegar.  Ask students, “How are resources like iron important in war times?” and “What other resources would be important during a war?”
  2. Break the class into groups of 4-6 students.
  3. Either print copies of the National Park Service website for groups, or have groups view the webpage on computers or tablets.
  4. Give each student a copy of the Graphic Organizer.
  5. Have students fill out the table based on the information on the web page. This can be done in one of several ways, depending on the level of your students. You could have your students:
    • mark the box of the side that had the advantage in each category
    • write the amount of each resource in each box
    • make notes about each resource—not just amount,  but how that amount is broken down into subcategories, and any othe relevant information—in each box
    They should make inferences in the “Why Is This Important?” column about the impact of that resource on the war.
  6. Give each group graph paper. Have each group choose three catagories and draw graphs demonstrating the difference in resources in each category.
  7. Gather the class. Ask students to share the inferences they made about the importance of each resource. Add additional information as necessary:
    • Point out the connection between high levels of agriculture and slavery.
    • Review the pie chart of occupations in the Union and Confederacy on the website. What differences do students notice between the jobs people are doing in the Union and Confederacy? Why might it be advantageous for the Union to have many more mechanics and laborers than the Confederacy?
  8. Conduct a discussion about how each resource might have impacted the outcome of the Civil War.
  9. Brainstorm a list with students of what other factors impact the course of a war.

Lesson Extension

Discuss with students the various ways the National Park Service site presented the information.

  • Were the visuals more effective than the text?
  • What can the text explain that visuals can’t?
  • What different kinds of graphs were used?
  • Are some graph formats better at presenting certain kinds of information than others?

This lesson was written by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Master Teachers Ron Adkisson, Prospect, KY, and Teresa Potter, Oklahoma City, OK.