McDougall on Wartime Production

25 02 2009

Let me preface this by pointing out that this blog does not discuss modern politics.  While some may see this as an opportunity to comment on current events, please don’t try it.

Last night, the President gave a televised speech that included the following:

For history tells a different story. History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry.

As you may have noticed, I love to match narrative with numbers.  How many of you have been left scratching your heads when you compare the tables I post to the narratives of the Official Reports?  How many times have we all read of a field covered with dead cavalrymen, only to find the action produced a casualty rate of 2%?  I got that same tingly feeling when I read the President’s words, because I recently read words to the contrary in Walter A. McDougall’s Throes of Democracy (a pretty good book, by the way, but he got some operational stuff about the Civil War flat out wrong).  Here’s what he has to say about the Civil War years and industrialization (pp. 494-495):

Did the Civil War at least stimulate industrialization?  Historians of both Marxist and liberal bents once took this for granted, and it must be said that progressive optimism is a wonderful asset for a people to have.  In retrospect, the Union’s national mobilization and distribution of resources doubtless taught American business powerful lessons in how to achieve economies of scale, a phenomenon to be discussed in due course.  But professionals in the dismal science of economics are not surprised when their numbers reveal civil war to be a very ill wind that blows good to some firms, industries, and regions, while it slams like a hurricane into everyone else.  Americans pioneered no major civilian technologies between 1861-1865 and ceased doing pure science.  They invented no new models of management and paid a huge cost in lost opportunities.  To be sure, hot-air balloons for artillery spotting, the Gatling gun, submarines, and ironclad warships debuted in the Civil War, but only the ironclad had a significant impact on combat.  Railroads and telegraphs, by contrast, made a huge impact, but they were mature technologies before the war.  So the Union’s impressive war effort really absorbed the energies of an industrial machine already in place.  Production of pig iron had grown by 17 percent between 1855 and 1860 and would grow 100 percent from 1865-1870.  During the war it grew 1 percent.  Railroads had spread 8,700 new miles in the five years before the war and would spread 16,200 miles in the five years after.  During the war just 4,000 miles of track were laid.  Data on river and harbor improvements, overall manufacturing, commodity production, and exports tell similar stories. 

While I’ve read about railway destruction and repair during the war, I can’t recall reading anyting about new rail lines appearing during the conflict, reaching previously remote areas and thus impacting operations.  What do you think about what McDougall says here?  Does it jive with your impression of wartime production and innovation?

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5 responses

25 02 2009


Intriguing post, and one I wouldn’t thought of. One explanation for the low number of miles might be the amount of track that was upgraded or replaced during the war. Granted, the Union’s infrastructure wasn’t nearly as damaged as the Confederacy’s, but I read somewhere that Haupt was kept some what occupied by such matters.

25 02 2009
Harry Smeltzer


I amended this post while you were reading it. Check out the last paragraph again. I’ve often wondered how the Confederacy might have fared had it gone “whole hog” laying track early on. But then, internal improvements on a national level was anathema to the founders of the Confederacy.

25 02 2009
Stephen Schmidt

Naked assertion of authority: I am a professor of economics, one of the fields of my Ph.D is economic history, and another is industrial organization. Two chapters of my Ph.D dissertation and some of my published work is on modern railroad economics. So I’m not just some random commenter. I may not be any smarter than the average random commenter, but if I’m not then a lot of education was wasted on me ;)

McDougall is mostly correct. There was indeed a time when the Marxists in the profession had the view that the Civil War wrought some sort of technological or industrial transformation on the economy, moving it out of an agricultural mode into an early industrial mode in which the proletariat started to form, but I think we’ve all since realized that it wasn’t so. The Civil War was, as McDougall puts it, more a consequence of an industrial society that was already developing than it was the source of one. In particular, I would concur that the Civil War had little or nothing to do with developing economies of scale in industry.

That said, I think McDougall may have put the case a little too strongly, and I’d pick a few nits:
1) Americans weren’t doing any pure science before the war either, nor immediately afterwards. Americans didn’t start doing serious scientific research until maybe the 1890s or so.
2) I would not agree that railroads were a mature technology in 1860, not close to it. I do think that the Civil War was a useful spur to the railroad industry in a number of small but significant ways. I’m less sure about telegraphs but I suspect that there was some development as a result of the wartime experience in this as well.
3) The postwar increase in the production of iron had more to do with the exploitation of new iron ore sources, particularly in Alabama, than it did with anything foregone during the war. Indeed, to the extent that the war replaced an agriculturally-oriented oligarchy in Alabama with a more industrially-minded one, it probably made possible greater development of the mineral resources of the South than would have been the case had the war not been fought.

I believe most of the development of new railroad lines was west of the Mississippi during the war. Not being in the area of operations, it doesn’t come up in military histories. Again, however, the War was in some ways a spur to what happened. In particular, the bill to fund the cross-continental railroad had regularly been killed in Congress in the 1850s because the government couldn’t decide whether to put the eastern terminus in a Northern or Southern state. Once the South seceded, that political logjam broke open and the railroad was funded in 1862. And that railroad did indeed spur commerce west of the Mississippi, and to a lesser extent industry, and so I would agree with Obama’s comment; I just wouldn’t read more into it than is there in its literal meaning.

It’s also worth nothing that the destruction of the South’s prewar railroad network led to its being reconstructed (the railroad network, not the South) on northern gauge, which created an integrated rail network which later helped integrate the South more firmly into the national economy than it would have been if the railroad networks had remained on incompatible gauges.

25 02 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Stephen and Bob,

Thanks for the detailed responses. I defer to you fellas in the areas of your expertise.

So, were thousands of miles oif track laid coast to coast during the war or not? Was an appreciable gov’t investment in those coast to coast miles made during the war, or did that come later?

Note also that McDougall’s figures don’t simply indicate an increase in pig iron production and rail miles after the war, but an appreciable dropoff in them during the war.

McDougall had more to say on this, but I hesitate to juxtapose it against the quote at the beginning of this post. That would be inviting comments that are not applicable to what this site is about.

25 02 2009
Bob Huddleston

It appears Obama was making a rhetorical point. He has confused the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, passed when the Southern States had abandoned Congress, with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Construction on the latter actually began in 1866, and was completed in 1869. The “bold action and big ideas” were there – the implementation just took a little longer!

McDougal, on the other hand, is making an old argument, which, worded as he did, is accurate, but incomplete. For instance, miles of new railroad construction were down during the war, but not necessarily miles of track laid.
However, the economic endeavors were aimed at military procurement and American armies are traditionally very well equipped and provisioned. The Civil War was no exception. The following paragraphs are from De Bow’s Review right after the war:


Those of us who were familiar with, and shared the fortunes of the late Confederate States from the earliest to the latest hours of its existence, will not fail to be impressed by the contrast of its statistical data with that which is furnished in the following, taken from the New York Tribune. To think of the woolen blankets, the boots and shoes, the drawers, flannel shirts and stockings, the inexhaustible provisions, the telegraphs and the railroads! Look upon this picture and then on that!

“We learn, then, that our Government, during the war, had at its command over 40,000 miles of railroad. Of this, 1769 miles were exclusively military, and managed by the Quartermaster’s Department. During the last year of the war, there were 6228 miles of telegraph; but as an illustration of how the armies swayed backward and forward — never, however, swaying beyond the grasp of the electric wire — he tells us that there were 15,000 miles abandoned, torn down and reconstructed during hostilities. The facility with which these roads were put down and wires put up, may be learned from the fact, which General Meigs mentions with natural pride, that the Etowah bridge, 625 feet long and 75 feet high, was built in six days, while the Chattahoochee bridge, 740 feet long and 90 feet high, was built in four days. During the last year we used 214,102 horses and 58,818 mules. These poor, dear creatures were hardly ridden, especially when the merciless genius of Sheridan controlled the cavalry of the Potomac. How fearfully he rode his men will be appreciated when it is known that a horse did not last a man more than four months, and that his army had to be remounted three times a year.

“To feed these horses, when in Grant’s army, cost $1,000,000 a month. Fifty years ago, the whole Government did not cost more than what was last year paid for forage for the horses of one of its armies. If our readers are anxious to know how much the horses of an army eat, Gen. Meigs will inform them. During the war we gave them nearly 23,000,000 bushels of corn, about 79,000,000 bushels of oats, more than 1,500,000 tons of hay, and 21,000 tons of straw. This does not include what was gathered from the country. It was enough, Heaven knows, for it cost us over $155,000,000. Horrible life and blood exhauster — war! How many schools this would have built — how many miles of railroad to the Pacific! It was eaten up by slavery in its vain struggle to live.

“During the last year $105,019,406 was paid for clothing and equipage. The boys were well clad and shod. They had about 400,000 jackets, but, being much on their feet, insisted upon having over 3,000,000 each of trowsers, drawers and flannel shirts. They were well protected, too, as Uncle Sam gave them 1,746,034 woolen blankets, to keep off the dew and rain and snow. Nor were they allowed to be thirsty, for over 1,000,000 of canteens were strapped to their knapsacks. Between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 of boots and shoes kept the stones from cutting their feet, while at least 6,000,000 of stockings kept their ever-tramping feet easy and warm. About 2,000,000 of knapsacks and haversacks held their food and clothing. As they marched, their country’s glory was reflected from 10,000 flags, while their hearts were made merry by the music of 1400 fifes, the shrill call of 4000 bugles, and the rolling of nearly 16,000 drums.”

De Bow’s Review, vol. 1:3 (March 1866)

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