War profiteering enriched opportunists—and shortchanged soldiers.
Every now and again, a news article surfaces on the subject of war profiteering. The alleged villains range from an individual reaping dirty millions for making faulty body armor to corporations such as Halliburton, accused of providing “shoddy services to U.S. troops in the field.” Where an opportunity exists to sacrifice quality for the sake of a greater profit margin, a contractor or manufacturer will sometimes seize it— and then we, as citizens of the richest and most powerful of the world’s nations, are shocked. To cheat in business is one thing, but to send our soldiers to war with substandard equipment surely must constitute a form of treason.
Yet war profiteering is nothing new. During the Civil War, corruption reached an almost incomprehensible level as government representatives awarded contracts based not on the best product, or the fairest price, but on the highest bribe. The problem became epidemic as the war progressed, and nowhere was it more blatant than in New York City.
During one week alone in November 1861, New York businesses generated nearly $3 million from military contracts. Brooks Brothers, for example, was awarded an initial contract for 12,000 uniforms just two weeks after war was declared. It had obtained the contract through questionable means, and proceeded to fill the order in much the same way. Turned out in only a few weeks, the uniforms were so ill fitting—many lacking buttons and buttonholes—that the New York Volunteers who wore them were taunted by other soldiers. The New Yorkers had to pay for their own uniforms out of their clothing allowance, so they took a double hit.
But this was not the worst of it: Facing a shortage of wool, Brooks Brothers glued together shredded, often decaying rags composed of various materials, pressed them into a semblance of cloth and sewed them into uniforms. Far from protecting soldiers from inclement weather, these uniforms fell apart in the first rain.
In 1861 alone, Brooks Brothers filled orders for 36,000 uniforms. So brazen was the company’s chicanery that the New York Legislature finally ordered $45,000 worth of uniforms replaced. Asked why he did not lower his prices in consideration of using lesser materials, proprietor Elisha Brooks replied, “I think that I cannot ascertain the difference without spending more time than I can now devote to that purpose.”
Nor was Brooks Brothers alone. Woolen mills all over the North, operating at outlandish profit margins, shamelessly cheated the government. And when the government looked for cloth abroad, the mill owners and contractors cried foul in the name of patriotism. Other manufacturers learned to cut corners as well, as greedy businessmen produced cheap knapsacks, blankets and hats. In some instances, the soles of soldiers’ shoes were made with glued-together wood chips that would fall apart after only half an hour on the march.
With officials more concerned with lining their own pockets than establishing a system of standards, there was little quality control over the goods that went into the field. The production of third-rate uniforms and accessories gave the language a new word: shoddy.
Harper’s Weekly defined shoddy as “a villainous compound, the refuse stuff and sweepings of the shop, pounded, rolled, glued, and smoothed to the external form and gloss of cloth.” A writer for the New York Tribune painted an equally graphic picture: “Shoddy” was “poor sleezy stuff, woven open enough for seives [sic], and then filled with shearman’s dust….Soldiers, on the first day’s march or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, overcoats, and blanket, scattering to the wind in rags or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain.”
Some uniforms were made from whatever cloth was available, of nonregulation color, which sometimes resulted in soldiers firing upon their own comrades by mistake.
Victuallers made huge profits selling spoiled meat, and hostlers—responding to the constant call for horses—provided old, blind and spavined mounts to the government at outrageous prices.
Sadly, the practice of over-pricing under-quality goods began with the firing on Fort Sumter and continued to the surrender at Appomattox, making fortunes for many New York businessmen. In 1860, when the war remained a threat rather than a reality, there were only a few dozen millionaires in all of New York City; by the end of the war, they numbered in the hundreds and were known as the “shoddy aristocracy.”
The New York Herald was indignant. “The world has seen its…silver age, its golden age….This is the age of shoddy. The new brown-stone palaces on Fifth Avenue, the new equipages at the Park, the new diamonds which dazzle unaccustomed eyes…the new people who live in the palaces, and ride in the carriages, and wear the diamonds and silks—all are shoddy. From devil’s dust they sprang, and unto devil’s dust they shall return….Six days in the week they are shoddy businessmen. On the seventh day they are shoddy Christians.”
Countless analyses have been written comparing the industrialized North with the agricultural South. The comparison goes far toward explaining why the Confederates couldn’t replace worn-out uniforms, shoes and blankets, or create weapons in the number and quality of Colt and Remington handguns or Spring – field and Sharps rifles.
What the South lacked in armament, materiel and foodstuffs, the North had in plenty. There was no excuse for denying its troops adequate, serviceable supplies. Yet the great fortunes that sprang from this time of national conflict came about, more often than not, from shortchanging the soldier. Greed, and greed alone, was the motivation. As one historian put it, “If the soldiers contracted pneumonia doing picket duty on cold nights…that was but an unfortunate incident of war.”
In the end, no one was shot or hanged for profiteering; in fact, the more opulent the transgressor, the more socially acceptable. “The individual who makes the most money—no matter how—and spends the most money—no matter for what—is considered the greatest man,” the Herald opined.
One of the most conspicuous of – fenders was elected mayor of New York in 1862. During George Opdyke’s mayoral campaign, prominent New York attorney John H. White called him “a faithful public servant, a sincere philanthropist and an honest man.” But in reality, as the city’s largest clothing manufacturer, Opdyke made a good deal of his money producing cheap clothes that he sold to Southern planters for use by their slaves. And shortly before the election, it was Opdyke himself, in his capacity as clothing inspector, who approved the shoddy uniforms produced by Brooks Brothers.
Before the war ended, a noted statesman observed that Opdyke “had made more money out of the war by secret partnerships and contracts for army clothing, than any fifty sharpers in New York.” His unflagging support of the Lincoln administration and his efforts in raising troops for the cause, however, did much to mask his earlier unsavory activities.
War always attracts bottom feeders. There were opportunists aplenty, and they plagued the administration almost from the start. Regrettably, the government was unable—and in some cases, unwilling—to stop it.
Writer and historian Ron Soodalter is co-author of The Slave Next Door.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.