- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

One of the few recorded times when Abraham Lincoln lost his temper with his wife, Mary, occurred late in 1861, when the U.S. government was unprepared for war and its soldiers were often lacking proper equipment.

Mrs. Lincoln had gone on a shopping spree in Washington and New York, buying furniture and decorations for the White House. Unfortunately, she had spent way more than the congressional budget allocated for such items and was looking around for other sources to pay off the bills.

When her husband heard about this, he lost it: “It can never have my approval. I’ll pay it out of my own pocket first — it would stink in the nostrils of the American people to have it said that the president of the United States had approved a bill over-running an appropriation of $20,000 for flub dubs for this damned old house, when the soldiers cannot have blankets.”

How had it happened that the wartime bottleneck uppermost in Lincoln’s mind just then was a blanket shortage?

When the Civil War broke out, the U.S. government had about 17,000 soldiers, most of whom were scattered across the Western states. The Lincoln administration, and the South for that matter, had to catch up as quickly as possible, and, inevitably, there were problems.

The first hint of blanket trouble came when Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs released an official circular dated Oct. 1, 1861, admitting that the government could not produce enough blankets for all its soldiers. With autumn well under way, this was becoming a serious problem. The circular was addressed to the state governments and to the people, asking for help.

Responses varied. For example, on Oct. 14, the front page of the New York Times reprinted a proclamation by Gov. William Dennison of Ohio — “Call For Blankets In Ohio.” The governor said that because the state government’s appropriation had been used, the state had to appeal to the people. Ohioans were beseeched to donate or buy any spare blankets they could find and send them to the state capital, Columbus. Dennison also requested lists of the donors’ names and addresses — but didn’t actually promise to recompense them. Nor was it explained why the legislature didn’t appropriate more money. At any rate, he said, “I will not doubt a prompt and generous response.”

Such proclamations helped. The New York Times of Oct. 23 and 24 praised the women of Maryland, Vermont and New York state for their gifts of blankets and quilts. One 72-year-old woman even sent a comforter she had knit herself.

Even so, Meigs began checking foreign sources as well, and he settled on British suppliers. This naturally led to complaints from domestic businesses. The Boston Journal of Oct. 21 mentioned a visit to Meigs by Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts. Andrew gave Meigs a formal statement of the capacity of the New England mills and lobbied Meigs to buy American. Meigs in turn promised to buy all the New Englanders could produce, but he added that he still needed to buy from overseas, too, at least for a while.

To make matters worse, some of the blankets bought by the government turned out to be worthless junk from crooked contractors, American and British. The most common swindle was the use of “shoddy,” a word that has since entered the language in a more general sense. Shoddy was made from old woolen rags. The rags were cheap, costing only $5 to $10 a ton. A “rag machine” would tear the material back into fibers and remove the dust. The used wool then would be soaked in milk or oil and mixed with virgin wool.

To be sure, shoddy was accepted by the Lincoln administration as a way to extend wool supplies, but only if the suppliers kept the proportion low, at about 10 percent of the item’s content.

At this time, New York state alone had at least six shoddy mills. Of course, some contractors cheated the government — and the soldiers — by using as much shoddy as they could get away with including. The results were bad news for the men shivering in the field, for such blankets were neither warm nor durable. Sometimes the blankets would fall apart after brief use — or no use. Shoddy also could rub out of a blanket and leave the soldier sporting a layer of fur.

There was a related product called “mungo,” which used black cloth scraps at $100 to $150 a ton. It was often used in felt, coarse cloth and carpets. It didn’t last very long, either.

Newspapers of the time warned against such cheap material. For instance, in late October or early November, the editor of the Commercial Bulletin, a Boston newspaper, visited the U.S. Depot for Army Clothing in New York City. Most or all of the blankets were from Britain. When the editor pulled at one such blanket, “the piece in our hands parted company from the main body.”

The editor went on to inspect the whole depot and concluded “that there was either gross swindling, an undue reliance on representations of certain parties in New York, or a gross ignorance and incompetency on the part of those who act for the Government.”

Some of these shortages carried through the winter into 1862. The New York Times of Jan. 9 described an inspection of several regiments — 75 percent of the regiments had at least one good blanket per soldier, and 20 percent had two blankets, though usually of inferior quality. Nevertheless, 5 percent of the regiments still had some men with no blankets.

The issue faded out of the news after that. Presumably, enough time had elapsed by then for suppliers to step up production. And Mary? Congress quietly passed an extra appropriation, after all.

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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