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The Civil War Contracts Committee Fred Nicklason The investigation of Civil War contracts meant exposing a "Carnival of Fraud" and the ironic revelation that victory sometimes depended on bureaucratic laxity. As important, responses to the inquiry into the unprecedented corruption of Civil War contracts raised questions of personal and party loyalty, military and Cabinet appointments, and, of course, the issue of emancipation. Into the maw of these related but occasionally conflicting problems stepped the members of one of those ubiquitious congressional investigating committees known, descriptively , as the "War Contracts Committee." What arises from a study of its work often confuses and should always interest scholars of the Civil War. What began as an effort under unified control became an experience that disunified Republicans, worked against the administration and earned the wrath of Abraham Lincoln and antislavery radicals alike. Republican leadership chose party unity at the price of whitewashing corruption, and antislavery radicals, rather than being always divisive, chose early in the war to work for Lincoln at the price of supporting Republican conservatives.1 Studies of congressional committees usually take political motivation as an organizing principle. This study takes the nonpartisan, moral fervor of a "little man from Massachusetts" as one ordering device. "I have just been put on another of those Investigating Committees,'' Massachusetts Republican Henry L. Dawes wrote his wife in mid-July, 1861. "So you see I have no peace. I could decline serving, but I have a desire, if possible, to reach some of the corruption with which every Department seems reeking here."2 Dawes referred to the committee, sponsored by New York Republican Van Wyck, to investigate the letting of and profits from war contracts.3 Although appointed as chairman, Van Wyck soon busied himself raising a New York regiment and met only infrequently with its other members. Illinois Republican EIihu B. Washburne, a personal friend of Lincoln and an able man of strict integrity , served as the de facto chairman and shared the investigative 1 T. Harry Williams sees the committee as a tool of the Radicals, a point of view this paper disputes. Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals (Madison, 1941), pp. 27-28, 37-38. 2 Henry L. Dawes to Electa Dawes, July 12, 1861, Henry L. Dawes Papers, Library of Congress. 3 Congressional Globe, 37 Cong., 1 sess. (July 8, 1861), 23. 232 burden with Dawes, who spoke for the committee on the House floor. As for the rest of the committee, along with the fourth Republican, Reuben E. Fenton, there were two hard-headed War Democrats, William G. Steele of New Jersey and William S. Holman of Indiana, whose sense of economy on committee junkets laid the groundwork for his deserved reputation as the "Watch Dog of the Treasury." Dawes, for his part, promised the House no whitewash investigation.4 Within six months he would defend his work against very different accusations. The committee worked quickly. Concentrating on contracts negotiated in New York City and in the troubled Western Department, the committee for its first report traveled seven thousand miles and received testimony from 265 witnesses in eight major northern cities.5 Investigation of one contract led to another and from there into a morass of incriminating evidence, all the time increasing the danger of ex parte or unsubstantiated testimony. In the process the committee impugned Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and General John C. Fremont, commander of the Western Department with headquarters in St. Louis. Gideon Welles was perhaps the least culpable of the three. A competent administrator, Welles ran the Navy Department efficiently and without excessive use of patronage. Yet his troubles began when he appointed his brother-in-law, George D. Morgan, a wealthy New York wholesale grocer, as the exclusive purchasing agent of naval vessels. With naval inspectors to evaluate the quality of ships he bought, and with his time devoted solely to haggling over the price of vessels, Morgan skillfully applied his mercantile experience with complete honesty. With each ship purchase, however, he received 2.5 per cent commission from the ship sellers themselves. In four and one half months under this arrangement Morgan received commissions of $95,000 according to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 232-244
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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