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The Business of Civil War

Military Mobilization and the State, 1861–1865

Mark R. Wilson

Publication Year: 2006

This wide-ranging, original account of the politics and economics of the giant military supply project in the North reconstructs an important but little-known part of Civil War history. Drawing on new and extensive research in army and business archives, Mark R. Wilson offers a fresh view of the wartime North and the ways in which its economy worked when the Lincoln administration, with unprecedented military effort, moved to suppress the rebellion. This task of equipping and sustaining Union forces fell to career army procurement officers. Largely free from political partisanship or any formal free-market ideology, they created a mixed military economy with a complex contracting system that they pieced together to meet the experience of civil war. Wilson argues that the North owed its victory to these professional military men and their finely tuned relationships with contractors, public officials, and war workers. Wilson also examines the obstacles military bureaucrats faced, many of which illuminated basic problems of modern political economy: the balance between efficiency and equity, the promotion of competition, and the protection of workers' welfare. The struggle over these problems determined the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars; it also redirected American political and economic development by forcing citizens to grapple with difficult questions about the proper relationships among government, business, and labor. Students of the American Civil War will welcome this fresh study of military-industrial production and procurement on the home front—long an obscure topic.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

It is a pleasure to be able to thank the many people and organizations who helped me to complete this book. The research and writing of my doctoral dissertation, on which this book is based, was supported by grants and fellowships from the University of Chicago, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Harvard Business School, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Illinois Historic Preservation...

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pp. 1-4

The American Civil War of 1861 – 65 was a giant economic project. In four years, the national government in the North spent roughly $1.8 billion in 1860 dollars, more than the combined total of all previous U.S. government expenditures.¹ Not only by domestic measures but also in global terms, the war’s economic scale was remarkable. The North’s war spending amounted to roughly four times the combined French and British outlays for the Crimean War of 1854 – 56, one of the largest conflicts of the period involving Europe’s ...

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CHAPTER 1: The Rise and Fall of a Federal Supply System

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pp. 5-33

When the North went to war in April 1861, it contested the right of Southern states to secede from the national union. In a fundamental sense, the Civil War represented a struggle over the survival of the American federal system. But secession was not the only test for federalism in 1861. Normally, state governments retained considerable authority independent of Washington. But the national mobilization effort, which demanded unprecedented numbers of soldiers and extraordinary amounts of money, immediately ...

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CHAPTER 2: The Formation of a National Bureaucracy

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pp. 34-71

When state military supply departments and governors gave up their procurement authority in late 1861, the Northern war economy became national. At state capitals such as Albany and Columbus, U.S. military officers arrived to take charge of the work that state authorities had handled previously. At the same time, national officers at the War Department in Washington and army supply depots in major Northern cities — including Philadelphia, New York City, Cincinnati, and Saint Louis — consolidated their ...

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CHAPTER 3: The Making of a Mixed Military Economy

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pp. 72-106

In October 1861, President Lincoln received a letter from Sarah Jacobs, a resident of Saint Louis. In recent weeks, Jacobs had been working as a seamstress for the army-run clothing halls in that city. Now, however, these facilities were being scaled back and might soon be closed altogether. Such a change, Jacobs advised Lincoln, promised to add to the burdens of hundreds of “women of the medium class, and those of humble life,” who had been working side by side in the army clothing halls while the Saint Louis economy ...

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CHAPTER 4: The Trouble with Contracting

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pp. 107-147

Although public enterprises were important in many areas of the North’s military economy, in the end most procurement dollars went to contractors. From 1861 to 1865, the Quartermaster’s Department and other military supply bureaus signed thousands of agreements with hundreds of prime contractors all over the country. But contracting, while routine and essential to the Union’s war effort, never ceased to be troublesome — in more ways than one. The laws and regulations governing contracting created ...

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CHAPTER 5: The Middleman on Trial

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pp. 148-190

For the men and women who worked directly for the North’s military supply system — including seamstresses and quartermasters — the procurement project was never simply a problem in maximizing economic efficiency but also had significant political and ethical dimensions. Many Northerners, even those outside the supply system, shared this understanding of the business of war. In a maelstrom of accusations and investigations running from the very beginning of the war through the end, members of Congress, ...

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CHAPTER 6: The Unacknowledged Militarization of America

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pp. 191-226

To understand the legacies of the Union’s giant military supply project, one must accept two distinct conclusions. On the one hand, no one could doubt that peace was radically different from war. When the Union declared victory in April 1865, the North’s procurement project was called suddenly to a halt. In a matter of days and weeks, the previously voracious wartime state turned to a starvation diet. The demobilization involved not only severe slow-downs and stoppages but also some outright reversals. Buyers became sellers ...

APPENDIX A: Note on the Value of a Dollar during the Civil War Era

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pp. 227-230

APPENDIX B: Leading Northern Military Contractors in Selected Industries

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pp. 231-236

APPENDIX C: Note on Data Collection and Record Linkages

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pp. 237-240


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pp. 241-284

Essay on Sources

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pp. 285-294


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pp. 295-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780801888830
E-ISBN-10: 0801888832
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898204
Print-ISBN-10: 080189820X

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 7 halftones, 2 line drawings
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology