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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