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Published by EH.NET (September 2002)

Harold S. Wilson, Confederate Industry: Manufacturers and Quartermasters in

the Civil War. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. xxii +

412 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-57806-462-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Surdam, Graduate School of Business, University of

Chicago.

Harold Wilson, a professor of history at Old Dominion University, has written

a well-researched treatise on Confederate quartermasters and their relations

with southern manufacturers during the Civil War. In addition, Wilson devotes

roughly a fifth of the text to the postwar recovery.

Historians will be impressed with the author’s exhaustive use of primary

materials. Economists, though, may be disappointed by the endless litany of

details without much analysis. As a piece of descriptive history, Wilson’s work

is thorough and meticulous. Certainly there is a need for information regarding

the performance of the southern economy during the war. Readers will discover

how important cotton and wool were for a Victorian-era army: clothing,

harnesses, bandages, flour sacks, and tents are only the most obvious uses of

these products.

Wilson also does an excellent job in demonstrating that the southern economy,

although dominated by the production of staple products, compared well as an

industrial economy, ranking fourth behind England, the northern states, and

France. The supply of raw cotton and wool augured well for the quartermaster

department. Unfortunately, the migration of skilled laborers out of the

Confederacy or into the army hindered the productive capability of southern

manufacturers. Southern factories also depended upon imports of equipment and

machinery and, during the war, upon a shaky railroad system. The Union Navy’s

blockade impeded the flow of replacement parts, while forcing an over-reliance

upon rail transport instead of coastal and river transport. Despite these

handicaps, the quartermaster department generally succeeded in equipping the

soldiers with clothing and footwear, although frequent shortages did occur.

However, in the absence of the disrupted antebellum trade patterns, the

Confederate government could have more cheaply purchased such items. Wilson

could have more fully developed the losses arising from disrupted international

trade.

The book also ably demonstrates the tension between southern manufacturers and

planters (although these were not mutually exclusive groups). Many of the

manufacturers were northern-born men who maintained their Whig beliefs. The

manufacturers were able to get the Confederate government to enact tariffs in

May 1861 that closely resembled those used by the Federal government. For

modern-day adherents of the belief that tariffs and not slavery caused the war,

the Confederate tariffs serve as a sharp rejoinder.

The manufacturers also confronted inept Confederate policies with regard to

labor, inflation, pricing, and taxation. Wilson does not necessarily believe

that greater Confederate control of the economy was desirable or useful, a

relative rarity among Civil War historians. Confederate policies included price

controls on output based upon a fixed percentage above costs. Such a system

created perverse incentives, and southern producers were not hesitant to react

accordingly. In general, though, government work paid less than private work,

and many producers followed the widespread practice of avoiding government work

when possible. To compel their effort in producing supplies for the government,

the Confederate government controlled manpower via impressing labor.

The book lauds quartermaster general Alexander Lawton’s efforts to rationalize

the procurement process. Lawton attempted to monopolize the purchase of wool

and cotton; he succeeded, for a brief time, in getting the bulk of the raw

cotton and all of the wool, but ultimately, his efforts proved futile. Lawton’s

predecessor, Abraham Myers, does not receive as much praise, but he was

starting from scratch. Myers’ detractors based their criticisms upon such

personal traits as his Jewishness. Wilson also supplies the reader with such

juicy gossip as the contretemps between Jefferson Davis’s wife and Mrs. Myers.

Wilson discusses the profitability of manufacturing during the war years, but

his lack of analysis is a real drawback. Wartime profit figures are inherently

suspect due to the chronic inflation and archaic accounting system in use.

Businesses did not make explicit depreciation charges against their revenues

during this period. In a period of rapid inflation, such a lack could easily

exaggerate profits. The dividends paid out may have been a cannibalization of

capital. In fact, trying to ascertain wartime profits is likely to be an “Alice

in Wonderlandesque” exercise, but I hope someone will attempt the endeavor.

During the postwar era, manufacturers scrambled to demonstrate their “loyalty”

to the Union. The Confederate policies of impressments sometimes helped

manufacturers convince Federal authorities that their production for the

Confederate government had been based upon compulsion. Patriotism, whether to

the Federal or Confederate governments, may have influenced some manufacturers

during the war, but almost all were enthusiastic adherents of self-interest.

The manufacturers adjusted to the new labor conditions in the South.

Eventually, they created a segregated labor force whereby blacks did most of

the unskilled work, while poor whites did the semi-skilled work.

The author also does not analyze how well the Confederate policies worked. He

amply describes such policies, but I wish he had devoted more effort to such an

analysis.

Future researchers interested in Civil War economics will need to read this

book — its surfeit of information is valuable. If and when a definitive

account of the wartime southern economy is written, this book will be among the

chief secondary sources.

David Surdam recently published Northern Naval Superiority and the

Economics of the American Civil War (University of South Carolina Press).