Jeffry Wert Finds Victory Behind the Lines in Civil War Barons
Jeffry D. Wert, Civil War Barons: The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation (New York: De Capo Press, 2018).
I’ve gotta be honest, up until a few years ago, I had never considered topics such as finance, entrepreneurial activity, or technological advancement all that sexy - at least when applied to Civil War history. I acknowledged that the topics were important…just kinda dull - to me anyway.
When I introduced my students to a year-long advanced course in Civil War and Reconstruction studies, I changed my tune. Of course I knew that there was a profound connection between what happened on the battlefield and what unfolded behind the scenes - indeed…it’s a central theme of my course. But after digging a little deeper and directing students’ research projects that focused on topics ranging from the marketing of government bonds to cool Civil War era inventions I began to take a much greater interest. Hell…maybe I was getting caught up in my own students’ enthusiasm, but whatever - I actually started to find these topics exciting.
Enter Civil War Barons. What I particularly love about this book is that it quite perfectly serves as a doorway through which many a debate could ensue. For example: I have been critical in the past of the idea that abundance in resources guaranteed Union victory - as is oft-mentioned by folks as renowned as the late novelist Shelby Foote. Oh sure, Union resources in the form of industrial capacity, manpower, and raw materials far outweighed those of the Confederacy, but…it took imagination and ingenuity to bring those resources to bear on the enemy. Wert’s Isoroku Yamamoto-esque “sleeping giant” metaphor certainly works, but only because he couples it with a review of the individuals who had the determination and the foresight to use what they had before them. Numbers counters should take note - Union victory took vision, not just stuff.
Wert’s book also helps the reader better understand the emergence of the United States as a modern (and dominant) world economy. Investment, invention, and industrialization - foreshadowing a post-war Yankee behemoth - take center stage here as Wert details the contributions of such individuals as John Deere, Cyrus McCormick, James B. Eads, Robert B. Parrott, Collis P. Huntington, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Cooke, and many others. Wert convincingly argues that these men, binding themselves to the cause of Union, did as much to win the war for the United States as any uniformed soldier in the ranks.
Of course it would be silly to suggest that actors behind the lines were solely responsible for Union victory. After all, as George Pickett once said…“I think the Union Army had something to do with it.” But economic or industrial determinism is not Wert’s intention. Rather, he shows - with great style and concise argumentation, that in the Civil War a victorious force of arms extended beyond the military. Victory, in this case, rested with superior military leadership and the entrepreneurial, mechanical, and financial creations of those civilians who had a vested - and patriotic - interest in the Union cause.
This latest of Jeffry Wert’s many volumes on the Civil War is well worth the read. My guess is that it will pique your interest to read beyond this single work. At the very least, it will broaden your understanding of the landscape of war. Get it - read it - and talk to me in the comments.