The Business of Civil War

5 09 2007



 Washington, D.C. Brig. Gen. Charles Thomas, Assistant Quartermaster General, with Benjamin C. Card and George D. Wise, Division Chiefs, and other staff on steps of Quartermaster General’s office, Corcoran’s Building, 17th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., NW Courtesy LOC


Right now I’m reading The Business of Civil War by Mark Wilson.  It’s an account of the politics and economics of the giant military supply project in the North during the war, and the development of the systems that existed at the outbreak of the war.  It’s a fascinating study.  The federalist method, in which the states provided for their troops’ needs to be reimbursed later by the national government, pretty quickly gave way to one managed almost wholly by the War Department.  But the state-based system still prevailed at the time of First Bull Run, as evidenced by the well known stories of uniform based confusion on the battlefield.

So far the book is illustrative of the truly massive logistical problems the Bull Run campaign must have presented to the military establishment.  Consider that the biggest mobilization that took place post Mexican War was the 5,300 man expedition to Utah in 1857-58.  While about 85,000 men took the field in the war of 1846-48, no single army exceeded 15,000 troops.  McDowell’s army, on the other hand, numbered in the neighborhhod of 33,000 not counting Runyon’s reserve division.

This is a decidedly un-sexy topic.  It’s not fun or exciting reading, and it doesn’t appeal to what interests most of us lay enthusiasts.  But I learned long ago to force myself to read about topics that on the surface don’t necessarily interest me.  Otherwise, it’s a pretty short leap from only reading what you find enjoyable to only reading what serves to confirm that what you already know to be true is, in fact, true.  I remember once in an email discussion group a member asked what we found most enjoyable about doing research.  Some members responded that some of the most enjoyable and rewarding discoveries were those that challenged previously held notions.  But one person actually replied that he found that most of his research merely confirmed what he already knew.  Setting aside the supreme arrogance of that statement, I had to ask myself: If that’s the case, why in God’s name does he persist in this line of study?

I think we all need to challenge ourselves in our reading.  I guess that’s the only point I have to make.

Tomorrow I’ll try to post my thoughts on the Ken Noe essay in Civil War History that I talked about in my last post.  Dmitri mentioned it here, and it seems the topic of the problems with the narrative form in the study of war has been heating up the blogosphere.