Civil War Barons: The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation
by Jeffrey D. Wert
Da Capo Press, 2018
There was a time when laissez-faire capitalists distrusted war. It was said to waste resources, burden business with taxation, plunge nations into debt, and stoke royal egos more than boost national fortunes. In England, free-market firebrand Richard Cobden called armaments a "bottomless gulf of waste," and in America, Thomas Jefferson wished "protection against standing armies" were added to the Bill of Rights.
But as Jeffry D. Wert reveals in Civil War Barons: The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation, there was another way of looking at war and business, as well. War could be a business – and a profitable one at that. Armies had to eat, soldiers had to be clothed, guns and wagons needed to be procured, and horses had to be bought to move them around. When governments came knocking with cash in their hands, more than a few merchants overlooked arguments by men like Cobden – or, more likely, rationalized them into submission – and were only too happy to oblige. Indeed, so critical were Northern businessmen to the Union's victory in the Civil War that Wert pronounced Appomattox a triumph both of "military power and a capitalistic economy."
Civil War Barons builds its case with punchy profiles of nineteen men, combining household names like Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt with others of dimmer memory like iron maker Edward Cooper and gun manufacturer Thomas Parrot. Much of the book's appeal lies in the variety of its subjects. A few of them were as moved by idealism as opportunity. Cooper's Trenton Iron Works supplied the Union with gun metal and rails throughout the war even though, thanks to heavy capital costs, the company limped along with marginal profitability. For others, profits trumped principles and politics. Parrot sold arms to both sides as long as he could (which wasn't long after Fort Sumter), and Chicago's famous farm equipment magnate Cyrus McCormick kept Northern agriculturists productive even though he sympathized with the South and owned slaves in Virginia.
Wert clearly admires the men about which he writes, partly for their acumen and partly for their military importance, but he documents their foibles and failures, as well. Or at least he mentions them. As a result, a darker subtext familiar to twenty-first-century readers emerges in the crevices between the triumphs, though Wert leaves it largely unexamined. The North wasn’t just capitalist – it often was crony capitalist, and the fuel it burned was government largesse. In 1862 and 1865, federal officials awarded legendary financier Jay Cooke monopoly rights to sell specific bond issues, and Pennsylvania Railroad executive Thomas A. Scott not only profited from government contracts, he literally joined the government when the War Department asked him "to take charge of all Government railways and telegraphs of those appropriated for Government use." Other Wert subjects went into the war with inside connections. Not only was James Buchanan Eads, who made a fortune building ships for the Navy, the namesake of a presidential relative, he also was a friend of Lincoln's attorney general, Edward Bates.
Despite holding the cronyism at arm’s length, Civil War Barons offers a brisk gallivant through nineteen biographies in two hundred pages, and Wert's eye for the telling detail makes it an entertaining romp. Though most likely to engage those new to the story of Civil War business, it’s a solid paean to Northern innovation that is at least willing to peek at a darker narrative. Yes, Appomattox had a lot to do with Northern capitalism. It just had a lot less to do with laissez-faire.
—Kip Wedel is an associate professor of History and Politics at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.