CIVIL WAR BARONS by Jeffry D. Wert


The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation
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Popular history of the economy of the Civil War era, a transformative time on the commercial/financial as much as the military fronts.

The usual picture of homefront conditions during the Civil War is a grim time of illness, cold, and hunger. From the Southern side, that’s not off the mark, but as Wert (A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863, 2011, etc.) records, the Northern economy boomed, the result of decades of investment and industrialization during which the South relied on slave-based agriculture. So it was that “private gunmakers in just one Connecticut county produced more firearms than gunsmiths in the entire slaveholding South,” good cause for William Tecumseh Sherman to warn secessionists that they would be overwhelmed by “one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth.” The economic strength of the North was fueled by inventors, financiers, and industrialists, nearly 20 of whom Wert profiles here. Readers will have heard of many of them, if only because their names endure in companies that have descended from them: John Deere, for instance, whose Illinois blacksmith shop took advantage of immigrant labor and the nearby Mississippi River to mass-produce a plow that, along with Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, enabled large-scale agriculture. Other familiar names carry stories that are sometimes more puzzling than inspirational: Gail Borden, for example, who tried to promote a “meat biscuit” in the place of Army rations but failed abjectly, since it “was simply not palatable,” only to thrive by selling condensed milk to the federal commissary. Wert glances over some key moments: for instance, the abolitionist sympathies of the Californians who would become transcontinental railroad barons, thwarting Jefferson Davis’ push to take that railroad first across the South. Still, he turns up some fine nuggets, such as repeating-rifle inventor Christopher Spencer’s failure to keep his fortune, consoling himself with the deathbed thought that “the best I can say is I don’t think I am leaving any enemies.”

Diverse character studies that give a broad view of the sweeping economic revolutions of the era.

Pub Date: Nov. 6th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-306-82512-5
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Da Capo
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2018


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