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
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
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
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
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).