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The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865

Author(s):Wilson, Mark R.
Reviewer(s):Ransom, Roger

Published by EH.NET (October 2007)

Mark R. Wilson, The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. xii + 306 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-8348-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Roger Ransom, Department of History, University of California – Riverside.

Virtually every account of American economic development identifies the decade of the Civil War as some sort of turning point in the path towards industrialization. Yet, as Mark Wilson observes, by “using chronology frames that begin in the 1870s many studies have ensured that the war years figure only as a part of a shadowy background.” In this well-written and well-documented monograph, Wilson sets out to demonstrate that ignoring the changes brought about by wartime mobilization causes the conventional wisdom to greatly understate the impact of the war on the “Gilded Age.”

Wilson begins by presenting figures to document the enormous demands for men and materiel resulting from the wartime mobilization. His table should satisfy those who demand quantitative proof rather than eloquent descriptions of economic change. His estimates show that expenditures for the army, the navy ? and everything else the government spent money on ? rose dramatically from 1845 to 1861 (see Table 2.1, p. 38). During the war years of 1861 to 1865, Federal spending on the Army and Navy totaled $3 billion ? more than seven times the cumulative total of dollars spent by the military between the outbreak of the Mexican War and Bull Run! Even allowing for inflation (roughly a doubling of prices) during the war, this is a binge of spending throughout the economy on an unprecedented scale.

However, Wilson is less interested in the macro picture of military spending. We all knew the Civil War cost a lot. Wilson’s goal is to provide a detailed narrative showing how it was spent. To put all this in perspective, we must remember that in 1860 the United States Army had just over 16,000 men; most of whom were stationed in the trans-Mississippi West. By the end of the war, the North had mobilized over two million men. Simply clothing soldiers was a gargantuan task. Every Union soldier was allowed “one or two caps and one hat, two coats or jackets, three flannel shirts, three pairs of trousers and three pairs of drawers, four pairs of stockings, and four pairs of shoes” (p. 91). The Union Army spent twice as much money clothing soldiers as it did supplying them with weapons and ammunition. It also spent millions of dollars on draft animals, foodstuffs, and the logistics of transporting men and supplies across the country.

The task of meeting these demands fell upon the army quartermasters who worked out of sixteen major depots scattered in a broad arc from Boston to San Francisco at the beginning of the war. These depots formed the basis of the system of procurement and supply throughout the war. As the war expanded, operation of these depots evolved into a complex set of government and privately operated organizations that included both the production of goods in government-operated factories, as well as the purchase of goods and services through contracts supervised by military personnel. At its peak, this huge operation of supplying the war machine accounted for more than ninety percent of all government expenditures. The quartermasters were thus at the head of a vast operation that involved, in addition to their own employees, state officials who equipped many of the army units organized in the first year of the war; contractors seeking to sell directly to the army; middlemen acting as agents between the army and various large and small providers; and representatives of labor groups ? such as seamstresses and ironworkers ? concerned about the exploitation of individuals working for government suppliers or in government factories. To further complicate the picture, all of this was carried out under the watchful eye of congressmen anxious to see that their constituents were treated “fairly” in the distribution of contracts. Wilson provides a well-documented narrative of how the military procurement process dealt with these contending groups and how it eventually met the challenge of supplying an army that could win the war.

The underlying argument of Wilson’s book is that the story does not end with Lee’s surrender. The bureaucracy and methods of conducting the “business of war” developed in the four years of war were put to good use by the “captains of industry” who built the industrial organizations that emerged in the decades following the war. “More than is commonly acknowledged,” he argues, “economic and political developments in the decades before World War I can be described as a process of militarization” (p. 209). This point is well taken. Indeed, if anything, Wilson probably understates the impact of the changes he examines by focusing on questions of supply in the war decade. He credits the experience of setting up a military bureaucracy with playing a role in the establishment of the civil service. An even more direct example of how wartime bureaucracy spilled over into the postwar economy, which he does not mention, would be the creation of a pension system after the war.

What I like most about this book is the manner in which Wilson manages to bring home the enormity of the task that confronted those supplying the armies. It’s easy enough to simply cite the numbers showing that spending increased during the war. The story behind how the decisions were made to actually spend those dollars turns out to be a fascinating tale of tug of wars between large and small producers; between public and private provision of goods; and, of course, the struggle between capitalists, farmers, and laborers as to who should gain the fruits from the increased wartime spending. I confess that at times Wilson went a bit too far delving into the details; at one point I felt I had been personally introduced to every quartermaster in the Army in 1861. But such detail is a small price to pay for the wealth of information packed into this monograph. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the author is to say that after I finished reading his book I felt compelled to re-write the lectures in my Civil War course that I devote to mobilization.

Roger Ransom is the author of The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been (W.W. Norton, 2005).

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century