The captains of industry refused to serve in a war that they profited from.

August 9, 2015

Andrew Carnegie, (in the center) was one of the leading industrialists of his time. He was drafted in the Civil War, but paid a substitute ($850.00) to serve in his place. He was not alone.

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In the beginning, it did not matter. There was no shortage of young healthy men wanting to fight. After a year of war, and with the loss of over 100,000 of those young men, attitudes began to change. By 1862 both armies were experiencing such huge battle losses that it was clear that a compulsory draft, or conscription was needed.

Many of the soon-to-be “captains of industry” were drafted, but refused to serve, and were able to do this by taking advantage of the 1863 law called the Conscription Act. The Act allowed an exemption from military service by simply paying $300.00 for a substitute.

In 1863, $300.00 was more than the average working person’s annual salary. The amount made exemption impossible for everyone except the richest members of society.

The “captains” would have probably liked to have been remembered as pacifists. It is unlikely, however, if they were all pacifists. They were more like young business lions, carefully studying their prey, thirsting for the meal and willing to do anything to have it. The meal, of course, were the profits to be made off the Civil War. Risking their own necks was not part of the deal.

They were all in their twenties when the war began. Here’s a brief list of some of the young tycoons – it reads like a Who’s Who of the industrial age:

J.P. Morgan – He was the leading financier of his time. He helped organize such companies as U.S. Steel and General Electric.

John D. Rockfeller – The founder and owner of the Standard Oil Company. At one time, his company controlled 90% of the oil products used in the United States.

Philip Armour – A meatpacking industrialist, Armour established Chicago as the meat center of the world.

Jay Gould – He was an investor, speculator and railroad executive. During his career a number of his business dealings were considered unethical and highly suspicious.

Andrew Carnegie- Carnegie was the central person in the development of the steel industry. Carnegie Steel eventually became part of U.S. Steel.

Even as a young man J. P. Morgan displayed his unscrupulous talents in business. In one deal he purchased 5,000 defective rifles at $3.50 each, and later, when the Union army was desperate for weapons, sold them back for $22.00. Unfortunately, many of the weapons exploded when used, blowing off thumbs and even hands. J. P. Morgan escaped facing any criminal or financial consequences.

Although Andrew Carnegie said he hated the institution of slavery, he would not serve in the war, even though it was about freeing the slaves. Instead, Carnegie worked in the railroad business and began to expand his investments into many areas, including the developing steel industry.

John D. Rockefeller was an abolitionist who supported the war. Like Carnegie, Rockefeller’s passion for making money was stronger than his desire to free the slaves. Known for his ruthlessness, and strong-arm tactics to eliminate competitors, which included threats of violence; young Rockefeller made a fortune selling grain to the military during the war.

During the war, Jay Gould invested heavily in gold. When a battle was lost by the union army, the value of the dollar dropped and the price of gold climbed. As gold climbed so did Jay Gould’s wealth. Abe Lincoln apparently became so incensed by the profits that Gould, and others, made off the deaths of young men, that he banged his fist on a table and called for all gold speculators to have their heads shot off.

It is clear that these so-called “captains of industry” viewed the Civil War as a ripe business opportunity to begin building their fortune’s.  The Civil War has been referred to by some as “a rich man’s war being fought by the poor man.” There is ample proof to support that notion.

For more information, check out Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalist 1861- 1901.

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