Abstract: Unanticipated Casualties: The Institutional Rebirth of Coal and Oil during the American Civil War

Sean Patrick Adams


The American Civil War profoundly altered the political economy of energy. Coal and oil production did not see rapid increases as the result of war demand; instead, the institutional setting in which resource extraction occurred saw a massive reorganization from 1861 to 1865. The corporate form of enterprise, long held in political suspicion as "soulless monsters" in the antebellum period, benefited from the Union's procurement systems during the American Civil War just as many northern railroads saw a boost in traffic, incentives to increase carrying capacity, and a source of revenue with tonnage taxes. The close relationship between railroads, indeed with corporations in general, and state and federal policymakers emerged as a major factor in the postbellum economy; this relationship did not develop "naturally," but instead came as a response to the unique challenges of wartime. The American coal and oil trade, largely centered in Pennsylvania, thus saw a swift and critical institutional reorganization occur that wedded railroads, the corporate form of enterprise, and state government into a lockstep arrangement that would persevere for decades. This development occurred without much plan or foresight; indeed, that institutional change in Pennsylvania was the result of distraction as much as determination.