Civil War Barons

The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation


By Jeffry D. Wert

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Before the robber barons there were Civil War barons–a remarkable yet largely unknown group of men whose contributions won the war and shaped America’s future.

The Civil War woke a sleeping giant in America, creating unprecedented industrial growth that not only supported the struggle but reshaped the nation.

Energized by the country’s dormant potential and wealth of natural resources, individuals of vision, organizational talent, and capital took advantage of the opportunity that war provided. Their innovations sustained Union troops, affected military strategy and tactics, and made the killing fields even deadlier. Their ranks included men such as:

John Deere, whose plows helped feed large armies

Gail Borden, whose condensed milk nourished the Union army

The Studebaker Brothers, whose wagons moved war supplies from home front to war front

Robert Parrott, whose rifled cannon was deployed on countless battlefields.

and many others.

Individually, these men came to dominate industry and amass great wealth and power; collectively, they helped save the Union and refashion the economic fabric of a nation.

Utilizing extensive research in manuscript collections, company records, and contemporary newspapers, historian Jeffry D. Wert casts a revealing light on the individuals most responsible for bringing the United States into the modern age.



AS THE SECESSION CRISIS DEEPENED IN THE WINTER OF 1860–1861, William T. Sherman penned a letter warning Southerners of the consequences of a possible civil conflict brought on by their acts. In it, the former army officer stated: “You are rushing into a war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth—right at your doors.… If your people would but stop and think, they must see that in the end you will surely fail.”

Sherman’s words and similar predictions went unheeded in the descent into the bloodbath of the Civil War. After the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, both sections embraced the whirlwind. Northerners suddenly confronted a formidable challenge of conquering fellow Americans in the Confederate States of America, a vast region of 750,000 square miles. The preservation of the Union required a mobilization of manpower and resources on an unprecedented scale.

The Union military’s demands unleashed the agricultural and industrial might of the North, from New England west to Minnesota and beyond. The region had been undergoing a transportation and industrial transformation during the antebellum decades. Fort Sumter awakened an economic giant.

The federal government and private enterprises in the North created an organization that linked the resources of the home front to the conduct of military operations and campaigns. In the end, after four years of fighting, this combination achieved victory. Military power and a capitalistic economy waged the struggle against the redoubtable Confederates, which ended at Appomattox.

The administration in Washington, DC, depended on private business in mustering the region’s natural and man-made resources. Firms, large and small, produced the war materiel that made Union forces the best armed and best equipped, arguably, in the world at that time. American businessmen and workers met the challenges of an unparalleled undertaking.

This book chronicles the accomplishments of nineteen of these businessmen. Undoubtedly, this is an eclectic group, inclusion in which rests solely with me. They were administrators, inventors, dreamers, tinkers, organizers, entrepreneurs, investors, patriots, builders, improvisers, and a visionary. Their contributions to the Union war effort varied in size and importance. Some of them contributed directly, whereas others supplied materiel. All of them were remarkable individuals in their era and, most likely, would be in ours.

Some of these men are not familiar to most Americans today—Henry Burden, Jay Cooke, James B. Eads, Abram Hewitt, Collis P. Huntington, Gordon McKay, Robert P. Parrott, Thomas A. Scott, Christopher M. Spencer, and J. Edgar Thomson. Others, however, are well known to millions of contemporary Americans because of their creations or their wealth—Philip D. Armour, Gail Borden Jr., Andrew Carnegie, John Deere, Cyrus McCormick, Edward Squibb, the Studebaker brothers, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Frederick Weyerhaeuser.

The common factor that links them was the Civil War. Unquestionably, each man was affected uniquely by the conflict, but each man has a fascinating story to be told. Some of them have been the subject of singular biographies, and others have received far less historical attention. My book is the first to combine their stories, set amid America’s greatest saga, into one account. Their individual achievements during the four-year struggle left a legacy that has endured even until today.

As always, my book has benefited from the gracious assistance of others. All errors of omission and commission are entirely mine.

The following individuals merit my particular gratitude and recognition:

Rachel Ornstein, Director of Administration, and her staff and volunteers, Putnam History Museum, Cold Spring, New York, for their assistance and graciousness in researching West Point Foundry.

Michelle Tom, Librarian/Archivist, Windsor Historical Society, Windsor, Connecticut, for her kindness and cooperation in providing me material on Christopher Spencer.

Gregory Gill of the New Jersey State Archives, Trenton, for assisting me in securing pertinent copies of the Ringwood Manor Papers.

Dr. Thomas Carroll of Troy, New York, for giving leads on sources related to Henry Burden.

Dr. Joseph Whitehorne, a fellow historian, for providing me with important contacts related to Henry Burden.

Dr. Clarence Geier, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, for the encouragement and for educating me about horseshoes.

Childs Burden of Middleburg, Virginia, great-grandson of Henry Burden and staunch Civil War preservationist, for his advice and contacts on his ancestor’s company.

Nicholas Picerno Sr. of New Market, Virginia, a dear family friend and devoted Civil War preservationist and collector, for his advice and assistance with research material.

Amber Morris, project editor, and Christina Palaia, copyeditor, for their excellent efforts on my behalf.

Don Fehr, my agent, for endorsing the idea of my book and for his counsel.

Bob Pigeon, my editor, for believing in my work.

Our family—our son, Jason Wert; our daughter-in-law, Kathy Wert; our grandchildren, Rachel and Gabriel Wert; our daughter, Natalie Wert Corman; our son-in-law, Grant Corman—for all that truly matters in life and for their love and support.

My wife, Gloria, who has been with me through all these years of research and writing and who has typed every page, found my mistakes, offered advice, and has been my best friend and cherished love. For all these reasons and for so much more, this book is dedicated.

Jeffry D. Wert

February 2018

Chapter One


ESTIMATES PLACED THE CROWD AT 250,000 FOLKS IN NEW YORK City on April 20, 1861. They covered city blocks from Fourteenth Street to Seventeenth Street and from Broadway to Fourth Avenue. Several stands for orators rose above the throngs. When Major Robert Anderson, the “hero” of Fort Sumter, appeared, the people cheered even louder. A prominent city attorney, George Templeton Strong, called the entire scene “an event,” adding, “Few assemblages had equaled it in numbers and unanimity.” A week later he reported, “Here the flag is on every public building, every store, every house almost.” Historian George Bancroft exclaimed, “I witnessed the sublimest spectacle I ever saw.”1

New Yorkers were not alone in their reaction to the outbreak of civil war and the threat to the Union. Across the entire North, in villages and cities, similar rallies occurred. Husbands, fathers, and sons hurried to enlist in volunteer units. In New York, more than 13,000 men joined the ranks of seventeen regiments, and nearly 21,000 Pennsylvanians signed up in twenty-five regiments. Without legal authority, on May 3, President Abraham Lincoln requested 42,034 volunteers to serve for three years. An angry wind had been embraced.2

In Massachusetts, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked on the “whirlwind of patriotism, not believed to exist, but now magnetizing all discordant masses under its terrific unity.” Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox recalled, “The wonderful outburst of national feeling in the North in the spring of 1861 has always been a thrilling and almost supernatural thing to those who participated in it.” It was that “national feeling” that brought Cox and his fellow Northerners into the ranks, or, as a private put it, Southerners had “insulted our flag and we must insult theirs” and “stand by the Union and constitution of the states.”3

Defense of the Union seemed to be the common motivation behind enlistments. One volunteer told his brother, “If I fall, I die in defence of the Flag I was born under and which I will die under.” A Wisconsin recruit asserted to his parents, “With thousands of others I was so much excited at the thought of treason breaking out in our Old Union that I thought nothing but to be if possible the first to enroll my name amongst those of her defenders.”4

A member of the 38th New York Infantry invoked Revolutionary War patriots in explaining to his parents why he had volunteered: “Don’t feel sorry that one of your sons enlisted in this struggle for our rights and the rights of our forefathers who died for their country and made it free and now we are duty bound to protect it and keep it free, for without Union there cannot be Peace so down with Secession.”5

One of Lincoln’s secretaries, twenty-two-year-old John Hay, visited the camp of the 1st Rhode Island Infantry and declared afterward, “When men like these leave their houses, their women, their wine, harden their hands, eat crackers for dinner, wear a shirt for a week and never black their shoes—all for a principle, it is hard to set any bounds to the possibilities of such an army.”6

The volunteers gathered at training camps, generally located in state capitals. The War Department in Washington, DC, ordered regiments to the capital in concern for the security of the city. By early June, thousands of troops had arrived in the national capital, and any immediate threat had disappeared. A New Jersey soldier asserted at the time, “Things look very mutch like war here but there is so mutch military that it cant look other ways.”7

President Lincoln soon became a familiar figure to many of the arriving troops. Whenever the opportunity beckoned, Lincoln escaped from his second-story office above the East Room in the Executive Mansion and visited with the officers and men in their camps. An acquaintance of the president described him as “eminently human,” and the soldiers came to see this in him. When he went among their tents—he had a “forward-bending form” when he walked—Lincoln greeted all that he could with some words.8

An officer recounted an incident during one of Lincoln’s visits when “a boy came by with a pail of water for us, and the President took a great swig from it as it passed.” Another officer said of the commander in chief: “It is easy to see why he is so popular with all who come in contact with him. He gives you the impression of being a gentleman.” It was this common touch of his that impressed the rank and file.9

The president’s reported homeliness drew inevitable remarks. A lieutenant decided that “he is ten times a homlier man than I expected he was.” A fellow officer contended otherwise, “It is really too bad to call him one of the ugliest men in the country for I have seldom seen a pleasanter or more kind-hearted looking one and he has certainly a very striking face.” With each visit, with the speaking of words or shaking of hands, Lincoln established a bond that he would need in the fearful days ahead.10

Before the floodtide of soldiers, slightly more than sixty-one thousand folks resided in Washington City, as it was termed at the time. Nearly fourteen thousand persons lived in Georgetown or in the district’s rural areas. Free blacks and slaves comprised one-fifth of the population. The Capitol, Executive Mansion, General Post Office, Patent Office, Treasury, and Smithsonian Institution were the city’s impressive structures. A pair of small brick buildings housed the State and War departments.11

A politician or visitor described the capital as a “city of magnificent distances.” When he came to Washington before the war, British novelist Anthony Trollope believed the streets were a baffling maze. Pennsylvania Avenue, “the avenue” to locals, had earned a distinction as “‘the worst’ street in the country.” A journalist thought that it had been called that “with justice,” for “in dry weather [it was] a highway of choking dust, in the rainy season a quagmire of yellow mud and many pitfalls.” Older residents remembered that a large billy goat had charged Senator Henry Clay on “the avenue.”12

Albert Gallatin Riddle, a congressman from Ohio, described the nation’s capital in the spring of 1861 “as [an] unattractive, straggling, sodden town.” He noted also, “The Washington Monument, the Capitol, and the Treasury building were melancholy specimens of arrested development.” Both the monument and the Capitol dome remained unfinished at the time.13

A visitor shared Riddle’s sentiments, writing: “Everything worth looking at seemed unfinished. Everything finished looked as if it should have been destroyed generations before.” Inside the Capitol, however, both houses of Congress had flowered carpets, ornate mirrors, and chairs of morocco leather. Along Fourteenth Street stood the Willard Hotel, an impressive private building.14

Washington City struck Dr. George William Bagby, a physician-turned-reporter from Virginia, as “a paradise of paradoxes—a great, little, splendid, mean, extravagant, poverty-stricken barrack.… The one and only absolutely certain thing is the absence of everything that is at all permanent.” Bagby went on, claiming it “has the reputation of Sodom… a monument that will never be finished; a capitol that is to have a dome, a Scientific Institute [the Smithsonian] which does nothing but report the rise and fall of the thermometer.”15

Most of the soldiers, if not nearly all of them, had never been to the capital. When the opportunity arose, they roamed the streets as sight-seers, visiting the public buildings. “Washington is the prettiest place in the World,” thought one of them. A chaplain contended, “The Capitol is beyond the possibility of description.”16

Some of the officers and enlisted men expressed different impressions to folks back home. A volunteer used a common expression at the time, calling the city “just no place at all.” A lieutenant believed that it resembled “a half grown tree withered by the premature extraction of sap.” Another soldier grumbled to his parents, “Hogs run around the street just like dogs.”17

Whether the city impressed them or not, their presence, in numbers unprecedented, spoke to a grim reality ahead of them and the Northern home front. The government that they had come to defend was woefully unprepared and undermanned for the approaching struggle. Americans had seemingly always possessed a deep ambivalence to war and, ironically, Congressman Abraham Lincoln had described military glory in the Mexican War as a “rainbow that rises in showers of blood.” When the conflict began, the Regular Army consisted of approximately sixteen thousand officers and men strewn in forts and outposts across the frontier and along the coasts. Barely more than thirty-six thousand civilian employees worked for the government and, of this force, 85 percent worked for the post office.18

John Hay recalled the days before the president-elect’s inauguration: “The picture was as confused and bewildering as a dissolving view. The old time was passing away, and all things had not become new.” Then came Fort Sumter and, with it, war and a shattered past. New was afoot everywhere. Writing after the conflict’s beginning, Hay understood the stakes: “The North will not have mercy, for mercy would be cruelty now. The Government must die or crush its assailants.”19

THE FOUR-STORY BRICK WAR DEPARTMENT SQUATTED ON SEVENTEENTH Street due west of the Executive Mansion, or the White House. District residents called it “the lunatic asylum.” The building housed the offices of Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Across the street stood a more imposing structure, Winder’s Building, where Commanding General Winfield Scott and the quartermaster and ordnance bureaus were located. As the war progressed and the demands increased, War Department employees eventually occupied eleven buildings.20

Scott served as the president’s military adviser. The brevet lieutenant general had been a soldier for nearly four decades and was a hero of the Mexican War. He was now, however, seventy-four years old, his physical stature—he stood six feet five inches tall—wracked by time and obesity. He could neither work long hours nor mount a horse without assistance. Proud and vain, Scott still possessed a brilliant intellect.21

The commanding general had no illusions about the daunting task that awaited Union forces. A native Virginian, Scott regarded the Confederacy as a formidable opponent. Geographically, the Rebel states covered an area of more than 750,000 square miles. The Appalachian Mountains ran nearly the length of the Confederacy in the east and would be a towering barrier to military operations. Numerous rivers scarred the Southern landscape, offering natural defensive lines. The conflict’s outcome would depend on the Union army’s and navy’s ability to conquer the Confederacy.22

Scott informed Lincoln that it would require three years and incalculable men and resources to defeat the Rebels. The army commander proposed a three-prong plan—a naval blockade, capture and control of the Mississippi River, and offensive invasions into the Confederate heartland. When Scott’s plan was made public, Northern newspapers derisively dubbed it the “Anaconda Plan.” The press demanded an immediate advance against the enemy, clamoring for “On to Richmond,” the Confederate capital.23

The Federals went forth from Washington in mid-July, marching toward a Confederate force near Manassas, Virginia. The clash came on Sunday, July 21, and, before the Battle of First Manassas, or Bull Run, had ended, the Yankees were fleeing back toward the capital in a demoralizing rout. Concern for the security of Washington mounted. Officials earlier had sandbagged and stocked with food and ammunition the Treasury as a final stronghold for the president and cabinet members if the enemy entered the city.24

MUCH MORE THAN MEN DIED ON THE PLAINS OF MANASSAS ON THAT July Sabbath. Gone were the illusions of a brief and bloodless conflict and of a weak opponent. In turn came the realization of a prolonged struggle, as Scott had predicted, and, with it, the further realization that a war effort required a mobilization of the entire Northern society. As never before in America, on an unprecedented scale, the fortunes of the Union military were linked to the production of the home front.25

That linkage between the civilian producers and the Union’s army and navy required a mobilization never before undertaken in the country. It became necessary to convert industrial capacity into military might. The North’s advantages in a conflict—manpower, natural resources, factories and farms, railroads, and taxable wealth—had to undergird the war effort. Union military strategy had to be predicated on the ability of the government and the home front to muster, arm, supply, and transport ultimately more than two million men. Invading Union armies and the navy had to rely on an economy whose industrial foundation had materialized only within the past two decades.26

Responsibility for this mobilization of an entire society rested with a federal government woefully unprepared for it in the spring of 1861. Henry Adams wrote: “The government had an air of social instability and incompleteness that went far to support the right of secession in theory as in fact, but right or wrong, secession was likely to be easy where there was so little to secede from. The Union was a sentiment, but not much more.”27

Secretary of War Simon Cameron put in stark terms what the administration faced after the attack on Fort Sumter: “I found the nation without an army; and I found scarcely a man throughout the War Department in whom I could put my trust.” The adjutant general and quartermaster had joined the Confederacy, and “more than half the clerks were disloyal.” Even President Lincoln confessed, “I hardly knew who to trust any more.”28

Congressman Riddle asserted that the civil service was “in a bad condition.” To the Ohio Republican, work in all of the government’s departments appeared to be “sadly in arrears.” He continued, “The public offices were apparently used chiefly as lounging-places, where men gathered to read Democratic papers, smoke, chew tobacco, and damn Lincoln and his myrmidons.”29

No matter how inadequate the government was to the onslaught of volunteers, it and state governments endeavored to fill the supply needs of the soldiery during the war’s initial weeks. Responsibility for the efforts remained uncertain, causing much confusion. Legislatures in the state capitals issued bonds or borrowed from banks or wealthy individuals to raise money for supplies. The national government owned armories and some factories, and several states operated clothing factories. None of the facilities could fill the escalating demands.30

When Lincoln called for the volunteers on May 3, supply needs doubled seemingly overnight. Behind the regiments arriving in the capital came hordes of civilian suppliers in search of contracts. The granting of contracts fell initially to agents of the War Department appointed by Secretary Cameron.31

A powerful Pennsylvania politician, Cameron had sought the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1860. But the odor of corruption clung to him because he combined elective office with personal financial gain. Along with William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, Cameron owed his cabinet seat to machinations at the 1860 Republican convention.32

Cameron’s appointment surprised Congressman Riddle, who said later of the secretary, “I did not then know so well that intellectual ability was a small factor in selecting a Cabinet Minister.” Riddle thought that Cameron “was not at home” at the department.33

Lincoln’s secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, offered contrasting opinions of the Pennsylvania politician. In a memorandum, Nicolay declared, “Cameron [is] utterly ignorant and regardless of the course of things, and the probable result.” He described the secretary as “selfish and openly discourteous to the President” and “obnoxious to the Country,” adding that he was “incapable either of organizing details or conceiving and advising general plans.”34

Hay contended otherwise, arguing that much of the opposition to Cameron rested outside of the administration. The secretary “never is vindictive,” wrote Hay. “There has never been the slightest unkindness or distrust between him and the President.” It appears that Hay had it right because Lincoln and Cameron got along personally, and the president granted his cabinet members rather wide latitude in the conduct of their departments.35

Unfortunately for Lincoln and his administration, Cameron appointed political friends and supporters as purchasing agents. It took some time before it was revealed that contracts had been given to spurious businesses that sold poorly fabricated uniforms and shoes, in particular, to the War Department and the states. “Shoddy” became a household word throughout the North. It referred to fabric made of cuttings and waste gathered from the floors of clothing factories and then glued together to resemble a sturdy fabric. In foul weather and heavy use, shoddy uniforms fell apart.36

Lincoln endeavored, however, to bring organization to the purchase and transport of supplies as early as June 1861 with the appointment of Montgomery C. Meigs as quartermaster general. Meigs had led a secret expedition to reinforce Fort Pickens in the harbor of Pensacola, Florida, during the crisis before the firing on Fort Sumter. When the president was considering Meigs for the post, he wrote about the officer to Winfield Scott, “I do not know one who combines the qualities of masculine intellect, learning and experience of the right sort, and physical of labor and endurance so well as he.” This proved to be one of Lincoln’s finest personnel choices.37

Meigs was forty-five years old, an 1836 graduate of West Point, and a career engineer officer. His mother said of him as a six-year-old that he was “high-tempered, unyielding, tyrannical toward his brothers, and very persevering in pursuit of anything he wishes.” He could be arrogant and demanding with others, but his talent was unquestioned. Gideon Welles described him as “prudent, cautious.”38

Meigs’s major antebellum feats remained unfinished at the war’s outset. He had designed and overseen the construction of the capital’s main aqueduct a dozen miles up the Potomac River at Great Falls. He worked on the building of the Post Office and served as a designer and primary engineer of the Capitol dome. The aqueduct and the dome remain as legacies of Meigs’s brilliance as an engineer.39

The new quartermaster general found his department and the supply system in disarray. States continued to purchase arms and equipment. Three days after the Union defeat at Bull Run, Meigs claimed: “The nation is in extremity. Troops, thousands, wait for clothes to take the field. Regiments have been ordered here [to Washington] without clothes. Men go on guard in drawers.”40

With his experience and administrative abilities, Meigs brought order to the mobilization undertaking. In the fall, he directed state governments to cease the purchases of supplies, leaving his bureau primarily responsible for the massive procurement of uniforms, boots and shoes, blankets, and other equipment. He established large clothing depots in New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Saint Louis under the direction of army officers. Small depots branched out from the principal installations.41

Congress had passed a law that required open bidding for government contracts, and Meigs demanded compliance. Although he wisely dispersed orders throughout the states to satisfy senators, representatives, and governors, his department retained relative independence from the politicians and their supporters in the patronage business. Meigs established new guidelines for manufacturers, including standard measurements, or sizes, for uniforms.42


  • "Jeffry Wert has brought his inimitable style and verve to the story of the key individuals who helped mobilize the resources through entrepreneurship, invention, and innovation necessary to win the Civil War for the Union."--Brian S. Wills, author of Inglorious Passages
  • "Jeffry Wert has done all of us a great service. Civil War Barons conveys the story about those who helped forge our American Civil War. All of those profiled here had a profound impact not only on the war itself but our lives today. Civil War Barons illustrates why the war is relevant even after more than 150 years."--Wayne E. Motts, CEO of The National Civil War Museum
  • "Civil War Barons will be long regarded as a must-read for historians and enthusiasts alike. Each chapter chronicles the genius and determination of a handful of individuals who changed forever the way wars were fought; saved the Union; and sparked the industrial might of twentieth-century America. To read Wert's book is to understand the war and its outcome like never before."--Keven Walker, CEO at Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation
  • "Diverse character studies that give a broad view of the sweeping economic revolutions of the era."—Kirkus
  • "Wert's skill in weaving together historical argument and satisfying narrative are on full display in Civil War Barons."—The Civil War Monitor

On Sale
Nov 6, 2018
Page Count
288 pages
Da Capo Press

CivilWarBarons_JeffryWert_Author Photo

Jeffry D. Wert

About the Author

Jeffry D. Wert is the award-winning author of nine previous books on Civil War topics, including Cavalryman of the Lost Cause and A Glorious Army. His articles and essays on the Civil War have appeared in many publications, including Civil War News, Civil War Times Illustrated, American History Illustrated, and Blue and Gray. A former history teacher at Penns Valley High School, he lives in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania.

Learn more about this author