Civil War Barons
The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation
Jeffry D. Wert
Da Capo Press, Boston, 2018, 288 pages
Book Review published on: October 5, 2018
It is a generally accepted belief that the industrial might of the North was instrumental in the victory of the Union army during the American Civil War. History teaches how the use of trains and factories manufacturing weapons and uniforms for the Union forces could not be matched by the agricultural South and tipped the scales in favor of the North in this war of attrition. But what is missing in the history books is the who and how all this “might” came to be a deciding factor. Jeffrey Wert’s book, Civil War Barons: The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation, takes a deeper look at this omission. Wert examines the actions of nineteen individuals—some well-known (e.g., Vanderbilt, Parrot, Deere) and others lesser known (e.g., Eads, McKay, Buren) that led to the explosion of industrialization during the U.S. Civil War that ultimately allowed the North to achieve victory. This is very reminiscent of a Paul Harvey “Rest of the Story” monologue, except you know the “who” up front.
Wert starts with a brief overview of the condition of the U.S. government and key leaders, the status of the Nation’s industry, and an impression of the requirements to mobilize the Union army. At the end of the book, he provides a summary of the barons after the war to provide some context to the lasting impact each had on America.
Wert categorizes the “barons” as visionaries, inventors, dreamers, etc., for each chapter. This organization aids the reader to draw connections between the similar actions of the persons he is discussing. This book is not an overview of how many pounds of meat were produced or miles of rail tracks built, but a much deeper look into the lives and the social and political connections of the men behind the companies that contributed significantly to the war effort. While hitting the obvious wartime industries such as weapons production and shipbuilding, he also addresses seemingly mundane areas such as condensed milk, horseshoes, and railroad management, so the reader gets a true picture of the diversity of requirements that were behind the scenes to history but very real to the public and the soldiers in 1861 to 1865. Wert provides opposing points of view of these men. While he provides praise for these giants from many sources at the time, he also presents information on the baron’s controversies with the public and the government about excess profits, contract disputes, and corruption.
An example of the lesser-known barons discussed is Jay Cooke, a Philadelphia banker. Wert brilliantly explains Cooke’s family history, his education, and how he obtained contracts to sell war bonds for the Union army. Cooke’s marketing technique of selling to families and individuals was later utilized for World War I and World War II “Buy War Bonds” campaigns. His bank sold over 50 percent of the war bonds, totaling more than $1.3 billion in bonds that greatly financed the Union war chest.
His writing style is very easy to follow and a quick read. The book is intended for an audience familiar with the Civil War. This would be a good book for those interested in the U.S. strategic-industrial base as some of the same characteristics and needs arose during World War I. The book illustrates the beginnings of the American “Can Do” identity that remains today.
Book Review written by: Col. James Kennedy, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia