President Lincoln dealt with many war profiteers during the Civil War and a couple will be discussed as the Gruesome Twosome. Lincoln had the ability to juggle political benefactors and speculators deftly, while trying to manage a national divide, bloody conflict and civilian dissention. All who participated in Lincoln’s victory in 1860, now wanted to be rewarded handsomely for their support. Logistics and supply were avenues that had to be addressed in order to arm, clothe and feed the new Union Army and literally millions of dollars would be spent meeting these needs. Civilian contractors lined the corridors at the Presidential Offices and Lincoln could direct some of these petitioners to Secretary of War Stanton, however many of the political elite audienced with the President directly. These captains of industry, represented media and manufacturing based in New York and the revenue generated through that Port Authority was the most significant in the United States. Money and power greased the skids of awarding government contracts and bribing the officials in positions of oversight was the name of the game.
The first of the Gruesome Twosome, George Opdyke, had learned the clothing business, as a tailor, in New Orleans. Opdyke made a small fortune selling his shabbily sewn, sweat shop garb to Mississippi River slave owners, in order to clothe their chattel. Opdyke opened the largest dry goods store in New Orleans and became one of that cities wealthiest residents. He sold that concern, moving to New York, increased his holdings in the garment trade and established himself as one of its wealthiest and most influential merchants. Opdyke used his wealth and influence to garner media and political favor, serving a term in the New York State Legislature and losing a bid for Mayor in 1859. The bona fide financial jewel in the crown of that metropolis, was the position of Collector of Customs for New York City.
One of Opdyke’s supporters and political mentors was, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio. With the election of Abraham Lincoln , Chase sent Opdyke and a delegation of influential politicos to Springfield to interview the President elect and lobby for a cabinet post for the Ohio politician. Lincoln appointed Chase as Secretary of the Treasury, which dashed Opdyke’s dream of being recruited as the Collector of Customs for New York City.
George Opdyke, ever the aggressive business mogul and political aspirant, again ran for Mayor of New York, was elected and served one term from 1862 thru 1863. He managed to take advantage of The Civil War financial boon reaping profits from shoddy uniforms, caps and hats, boots and knapsacks, all that would fall to shreds in the first exposure to inclement weather. It has been inferred, that Mayor Opdyke was a recipient of skimming and kickback intrigues regarding the Collector of Customs for New York City. His term as Mayor was marred by the draft riots of 1863, with several Opdyke factories and warehouses looted and burned to the ground. This civil unrest buried any further political aspirations and his legacy as an influential and wealthy power broker ended with the Civil War.
The second of the Gruesome Twosome, Elisha Brooks and his brothers, of Brooks Brother’s fame, were the first recipients of a Government military uniform contract. These uniforms were turned out in a matter of weeks and issued to the new recruits. However, they were missing buttons and button holes, were barely threaded together, fit poorly and were made from a wool substitute consisting of sawdust, scraps and threads, glued and ironed together, falling apart in the first rain. A total 48,000 of these uniform frauds were paid for, before a government board of inquiry required Elisha Brooks to testify why he had used sub standard materials. Brooks stated,
“I think that I cannot ascertain the difference without spending more time than I can now devote to that purpose.”
In the meantime Brooks Brother’s had contracted to supply other military items including, belts, shoes, tents, felt hats, ponchos and blankets. A reporter for the New York Tribune termed the accoutrements,
“Shoddy, poor sleazy stuff, woven open enough for sieves, 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.”
Brooks Brothers manufacturing and warehouses were also looted and burned during the draft riots of 1863, a little retribution for their “shoddy” treatment of the men that were bleeding and dying, in order that Elisha Brooks and his brothers could guarantee a profit.
Brooks Brother’s company survived the Civil War, Lincoln was even wearing a Brooks
Brother’s suit when assassinated. Today Brooks Brothers suites are worn by celebrities and Presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama, a reputable brand name known internationally.
War profiteering was rampant in all contracting during the Civil War, anything an Army needs from livestock, ordinance, food or transportation were all over priced and the quality sub standard. Lincoln’s War Profiteers were not limited to the Gruesome Twosome, but are examples of the successes and failures of the garment cartel of New York City.