The Business of Civil War

I finished Mark Wilson's The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865 and am glad to recommend it.

Now for some nits.

* This is a book about the military procurement effort so the title is misleading.

* On whatever terms they set for themselves, the author (and publisher) are promising way too much for a 225 page survey, the chapters of which are essentially essays.

* The point of this book may not interest Civil War readers as it is aimed at debunking certain received wisdom in Gilded Age history. The Civil War procurement effort is fodder for demonstrating the formation of immense bureaucratic organization centrally directed by the government (pre-Gilded Age) and for showing massive industrial enterprises at work (again pre-Gilded Age). As a result, there is just enough material supplied to carry Wilson's points but not enough to describe the procurement effort in systematic way.

* Certain arguments internal to the book are not sustained or developed (such as that Montgomery Meigs inherited a well managed, thoroughly professional department without adding much value to it).

Nevertheless, the author has marked out a territory which he now owns: the origins of modern bureacratic and corporate forms being rooted in the Civil War's Quartermaster Department, through which the bulk of military spending passed.

Meigs' authority and responsibility were big stuff: over 100,000 civilian employees in the first half of the war; factories run at arsenals employing huge workforces; untold millions in disbursements. The man was essentially at the head of a government trust made up of many large state enterprises any one of which far outstripped the largest American firms of the day. And he was the head of a truly massive military bureaucracy.

In terms of organization and scope of work, the Army's quartermasters were operating at exponentially higher levels than captains of industry, cabinet officers, or field generals. They seem quite modern.

When you juxtapose the patronage, informality, and personal dealing that represented federal civil government standards, 1861-1865 with the orderly, rules-based administration of the parallel government run by the chief quartermaster, you get some sense that indeed here is a precursor of what reformers intended for the Civil Service in a later day.

So a Civil War result can come out of what is essentially not a Civil War book. We learn what all those quartermasters were up to during the war.