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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Today's post takes a look at Jim Schmidt's book "Lincoln Labels," which has just been released in paperback.

There's money, big money to be made whenever a country goes to war and particularly when a country is in peace time mode and not geared up to fight. With a standing army a shade over 16,000, with large numbers of its West Point trained officers corps having resigned their commissions, with arsenals housing obsolete muskets, cannons, and food stores dating back to the War of 1812, the sudden call for 75,000 volunteers to secure Washington left the United States totally unprepared and unable to meet the immediate needs of State militia regiments arriving in the Nation's Capitol. It was not unusual for men to arrive unarmed or without ammunition, hungry and without provisions, and without proper accommodations.

That story is all too familiar to those who have read early accounts of efforts to safeguard Washington. But for a similar situation existing in the Confederacy, it's likely the Capitol building and White House would have been easily overrun before the first troops from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts arrived. What is less familiar are the efforts undertaken by privately owned companies to ramp up and quickly meet the needs of Union troops by providing, among other essentials, uniforms, black powder, candlelight, medicines, provisions, transportation, and mail; in other words all that makes an army go. James Schmidt tells that story and tells it well, by focusing on select businesses that not only aided the war effort, added to their own profit margin, but still survive into the twenty-first century. We've all seen their print and television advertisements, the ones that remind us to never leave home without them, or how to lather up when we shower, or how to glue things back together, or how chemicals and plastics improve our lives.

Were "Lincoln's Labels" a narrowly constrained history of some of America's most famous corporations, we could all yawn and leave the reading to those pursuing MBAs. You get an immediate sense that Schmidt is up to something completely different than we might have led ourselves to believe by titling Chapter One "An Army of Scarecrows."

"More than fifty years after the fact, Eugene Ware still remembered how the militia companies in Burlington, Iowa - one composed mainly of Germans and the other of Irish - had attracted his attention. 'They were both fiercely pugnacious," Ware wrote, "the Germans having a little more fight than the other...when there were festive occasions and these two military companies paraded, they paraded separately, and when the thing was over and military discipline at an end, there was liable to be a fight, and generally a fight that was stubborn.' "

Wait a minute...What in the heck does this have to do with Brooks Brothers, a New York clothier that introduced the first line of ready made clothing to America and obtained a government contract in 1861 to provide uniforms? A whole lot, because as Eugene Ware's narrative continues we begin to get a picture of the lack of uniformity in the uniforms worn by Iowa soldiers, whereby shades of blue varied from one man to another, from dark blue, to light bluish-gray, with another regiment nattily attired in pink satinet pants with light green stripes, while another sported "black and white tweed frock coats." In fact, it's not until seven pages in that we catch our first glimpse of Henry Sands Brooks, the man who built a fashion empire and whose sons would later attempt to transform Abraham Lincoln into a regular Beau Brummel. The company was also one of the first of the government contractors to be charged with shady business dealings, thereby ruining an otherwise stellar reputation, by stifling competition, while mass producing "shoddy" military garments. Brooks Brothers, very conscious of redeeming their reputation, did make good with the government and though not mentioned by Schmidt, they currently maintain 150 brick and mortar stores, and distribute a slick catalogue to mail order customers.

However, as the lead paragraph implies, Brooks brothers is not the whole story in Chapter One, which concludes with Eugene Ware's First Iowa regiment engaged at Wilson's Creek. In between we're treated to personal instructions for the tailoring of uniforms from George Custer and William T. Sherman, as well rampaging mobs in the New York City draft riots. It's a pattern Schmidt follows throughout the book, regardless of whether he's tracing the development of Gail Borden's consecrated milk, Charles Tiffany's modest beginnings to jeweler nonpareil, to Eleuthere Irenee du Pont's establishment of a powder-mill in Brandywine, Delaware. Dupont's story, as another example, begins with Henry Hunt, chief of artillery for the Army of the Potomac, surveying the alignment of Union cannon at Gettysburg on the morning of July 3rd.

I could go on and on, but why spoil the fun and surprises that come from reading a book that is not only interesting, but so chock full of well researched facts and subplots it'll have you begging for a sequel. It'll also have you wondering why no one thought to write this story before. I know I felt that way.


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