Civil War gave birth to much of modern federal government


“Lady Clerks Leaving the Treasury Department at Washington,” published Feb. 18, 1865, in Harper’s Weekly, reflected the first time women had worked in government. The Treasury, needing moreclerks to cut sheets of money, decided that hiring women was a cheap way to solve its labor shortage. (Courtesy of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar)
October 7, 2011

Almost as soon as he took office in 1862, Francis E. Spinner’s job as U.S. treasurer began to spin out of control.

Many of his employees had resigned to join the Army — just as a revolution in the country’s money system was underway. He clamored for more clerks.

“The work has been performed by devoting not only almost every hour of each day, (Sundays not excepted,) but many hours of night, to continuous labor beyond the endurance of most men,” Spinner wrote in a report.

To help pay for the Civil War, the government had abandoned the gold standard and was printing greenbacks for the first time. The new notes had to be cut and counted, and Spinner, a motivated bureaucrat in tight budget times, turned to an untapped labor pool that would work for less than the going wage: women.

This is how the federal government began to remake itself into a national, wartime force. The Civil War and its wartime Congresses gave birth to many of the pillars of the modern federal government.

The government sold bonds for the first time and Congress approved the first national banking system. The Agriculture Department was born to help farmers. A national cemetery system was created to bury the Union dead.

Congress passed the nation’s first income tax — necessitating a whole new staff that today numbers 93,000.

Government contracting exploded, with private companies supplying weapons and gunpowder, mules and blankets in what would become a model for late 19th-century industrialists.

“Before the war, there was a federal government and a bureaucracy,” said Richard Bensel, an American political historian at Cornell University. “But there was no allegiance to a national government.” After the war, “you have a social base that supports federal power. That’s a big change.”

The Bureau of Pensions, which opened to write checks to wounded soldiers and the families of the dead, did not just grow into one of the country’s biggest bureaucracies and earliest social welfare systems; it became a sort of national retirement system that buoyed the Republican political machine. (The bureau was folded into the new Veterans Administration in 1930.)

Without Southern Democrats to impede them, activist Congresses authorized land grants for new universities, western settlers and a transcontinental railroad. Three key amendments to the Constitution adopted shortly after the war — abolishing slavery, guaranteeing equal protection and giving African Americans the right to vote — further cemented federal power.

There were 5,837 federal employees in 1861, excluding the 30,000 postal workers who represented the largest arm of government before the war and well after. By 1871, based on data from the first census after the war, that number had grown to 15,344.

Today the workforce stands at roughly 2 million.

Jobs as patronage

Who would fill these new jobs? Connections mattered.

Right up to the final hours before his inauguration, Abraham Lincoln was mobbed by crowds at the White House steps. Not all were well-wishers.

They were desperate for jobs in the new government. “I have waited some 6 hours with the view of having a five minute interview with thee,” an irate man wrote, claiming his “rights” to a federal appointment. The spectacle drew this parody from humorist Artemus Ward: “Good God! cride Old ABE, ‘they cum upon me from the skize — down the chimneys and from the bowels of the yearth!’ ”

After decades of mostly Democratic rule, the Republicans had plenty of spoils to dole out, from postmasters to patent examiners. In an era before transition teams, Illinois newspaper editor William O. Stoddard, one of the first to endorse Lincoln, had to appeal directly to a U.S. senator to get himself hired as a clerk in the Interior Department, signing the president’s name on land patents.

The new administration also had to cleanse the government of Southern sympathizers.

“A great many removals in the Pension Office, and a clamorous crowd ready to fill vacancies,” Horatio Nelson Taft, a patent examiner in Washington, wrote in his journal on March 23, 1861.

“Many are trembling expecting decapitation,” he observed a week later.

By August, Lincoln was alarmed that Southern sympathizers were still lurking on the federal payroll. A House Select Committee on Loyalty of Clerks produced enough evidence of subversion that Congress imposed a new oath affirming that all workers would uphold the Constitution and the government.

Once war began, the demands on the government grew quickly. Soldiers streamed into Washington. To supply bread to the troops, the War Department rushed to open a bakery in the basement of the Capitol, seizing flour from the mills in Georgetown.

Preparing the Union army for war overshadowed everything. Uniforms, blankets, gunpowder and other supplies poured in, delivered by Northern companies under contract with the Quartermaster Department.

These military bureaucrats employed more than 100,000 civilians at the height of the war, from seamstresses to gravediggers. Many were free blacks and fugitive slaves. University of North Carolina historian Mark R. Wilson, author of “The Business of Civil War,” described the operation as a sophisticated, massive supply system of depots and arsenals that scrupulously watched over the budget as it managed huge flows of money.

The government put up new warehouses to store supplies. Cattle pens were built on the land that is now the Mall. By 1862, employment at the Navy Yard had swelled to 1,700.

When the war ended, the government’s debt stood at $2.2 billion, an unheard-of sum.

Ms. Smith goes to Washington

“A woman can use scissors better than a man, and she will do it cheaper,” Spinner told Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase when he proposed to ease his labor shortage with women.

At first, they did use scissors to cut the long sheets of money. When machines were introduced to do the cutting, female clerks were transferred to counting the currency. They worked side by side with men, but they were paid $600 a year, half the salary of the lowest-paid male clerks.

“To do this was a huge step and a challenge to the existing order,” said Cindy Aron, a historian who describes the country’s first white-collar experiment with integrating the workforce in “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Civil Service.”

To get the jobs, the women needed connections. Grace Bedell, the New York girl who become famous for writing to Lincoln in 1860 to urge him to grow a beard (he did), reached out to him again four years later.

“I have heard that a large number of girls are employed constantly and with good wages at Washington cutting Treasury notes and other things pertaining to that department,” she wrote in a letter discovered by the Lincoln Archives Digital Project in 2007.

“Could I not obtain a situation there?” Her father had lost most of his property.

It is not known whether the president wrote her back or Bedell made her way to Washington. She married and eventually settled in Kansas.

Sexual harassment quickly became an issue in the National Currency Bureau. By 1864, a special committee of Congress was investigating rumors that supervisors were extracting sexual favors from female employees. The possibility — confirmed in testimony by women and their fathers — confirmed many Americans’ worst fears about introducing women into the bureaucracy: Either the women were loose, or they were innocent and the government was corrupting them.

The stigma of the “Treasury Courtesans” persisted for years.

Questions of competence

The Civil War government was limited to eight departments: State, Treasury, War, Navy, Attorney General, Interior, Post Office and Agriculture. Hours were 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The quality of the workforce shortly became a subject of controversy.

“Poets, preachers, lawyers, doctors, artists, authors, merchants, mechanics and loafers are represented in the various departments,” John Ellis wrote in 1869 in “The Sights and Sounds of the National Capital.” “You may know them as a general rule by their affectation of superiority to the townspeople, their general seedy appearance, and their imitations of the air and style of the first men in the Government.”

He believed that the patronage system reeked of incompetence: “Two-thirds of the men holding office under the Government are incapable of discharging their official duties.”

Walt Whitman tried to dispel the image of the lazy bureaucrat based on his experience during the war as a low-level copyist in three government departments, according to Kenneth Price, co-editor of the Walt Whitman Archive.

“I do not refer to swell officials — the men who wear the decorations, get the fat salaries,” Whitman told biographer Horace Traubel when reminiscing about his experience. “I refer to the average clerks, the obscure crowd, who after all run the government: they are on the square. . . .

“I found the clerks mainly earnest, mainly honest, anxious to do the right thing — very hard working, very attentive.”

The jobs were routine, though, and that led to boredom.

“Business in the Patent office is very dull this winter as might be expected,” Taft wrote in his journal in early 1861. By spring, there was little work to do because of the war, and by summer he had been riffed. Too few people were applying for for patents.

Taft eventually landed another job as a clerk in the Land Department (part of Interior), filling out land certificates to buyers. “That is certainly better than no business in this extravagant city and I shall take it till I can do better,” he wrote in November 1861.

Counterfeiting and corruption

In spite of their efforts to suppress counterfeiting, Treasury officials had trouble on their hands once greenbacks were issued. A congressional investigation revealed some big inside jobs: Employees were taking impressions of the lead currency plates, which bore an image of Lincoln and a bald eagle, to pass on to outsiders.

At the end of the war, it was estimated that as much as one-third of the nation’s currency was counterfeit.

The imbroglio led in 1865 to creation of the government’s first investigative agency, the Secret Service. (Its role of protecting the president was not added until 1901.)

Other scandals shook the multimillion-dollar military supply machine, led at the war’s start by Simon Cameron. Lincoln’s first War Secretary wasted money on inferior supplies and rewarded dozens of friends with jobs. Contracting irregularities were legendary as companies took advantage of the Union’s ballooning needs. Shoddy, the respun wool material used to make uniforms, overcoats and blankets, tended to dissolve into rags. The term remains a symbol of poor quality.

Leading the effort to stop the corruption was a federal employee, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. Lincoln appointed the West Point graduate to mobilize an unprecedented logistical machine to support the Union armies, an effort that would prove crucial to victory.

Meigs defended the varied appearance of some Union soldiers after the shoddy scandal.

“The troops were clothed and rescued from severe suffering, and those who saw sentinels walking post in the capital of the United States in freezing weather in their drawers, without trousers or overcoats, will not blame the Department for its efforts to clothe them, even in materials not quite so durable as Army blue kersey.”

In the end, along with the valiant soldiers and canny generals, it was a bureaucrat who helped win the war.

This story was included in a Washington Post special section, “Civil War 150: Ripples of War.” See more stories on the Civil War.

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