Chin on Thomson, 'Bonds of War: How Civil War Financial Agents Sold the World on the Union'

David K. Thomson
Aaron L. Chin

David K. Thomson. Bonds of War: How Civil War Financial Agents Sold the World on the Union. Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022. 288 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6660-0; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6661-7

Reviewed by Aaron L. Chin (University of New Hampshire) Published on H-CivWar (October, 2022) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version:

Wars are expensive. While the United States was no stranger to funding conflicts, the sheer scale of the Civil War made unprecedented demands on the federal government’s coffers. Unable to tax enough or secure direct foreign loans to make ends meet, the American government primarily funded the war by selling securities—namely, bonds and Treasury notes. But this did far more than just pay the bills. As David K. Thomson convincingly illustrates in Bonds of War: How Civil War Financial Agents Sold the World on the Union, these mass bond sales marked a critical turning point in the history of American finance. Thomson explores this both within the United States and abroad. Domestically, bond sales cut across gender, racial, regional, and class lines, allowing for Americans from different backgrounds to lay claim to civic inclusion by funding the war effort. Internationally, American securities found new, profitable markets in continental Europe and beyond, forging novel financial connections that outlasted the war. As Thomson points out, both domestic and global investment were built on the clever marketing of men like Jay Cooke, who sold a vision of the Union and its future to investors. Put simply, Thomson contends that “modern American finance materialized out of the Civil War” (p. 6).

The first two chapters explore American war finance up to early 1862. While the United States had successfully funded the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War, Thomson notes that most of the money came from wealthy elites at home or abroad. Once the Civil War began, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase turned to wealthy Northeastern financiers to loan the required cash. It quickly became apparent that this was not enough. As the war entered a second year, the government had to explore other options.

The next two chapters make up the core of Thomson’s book, showing how bond sales drastically reshaped American finance both at home and abroad. The Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke won exclusive rights to sell the government’s 5-20 bonds in 1862. Cooke launched an immensely successful marketing campaign. By employing thousands of traveling salesmen and commissioning endless articles and advertisements, Cooke successfully sold Americans on what Thomson terms “patriotic self-interest” (p. 56). Buying a bond could both prove one’s commitment to the cause while also ensuring a healthy return in interest payments down the line. And buy they did. Americans of all genders, races, and regions purchased these in bulk, literally and metaphorically buying into the cause of Union on an unprecedentedly democratic scale. But not only Americans were interested in American securities. When both British and French financiers hesitated to underwrite the war effort, American debt found healthy markets in the German states and, to a lesser degree, the Netherlands. Transnational actors used both “kinship and religious networks” (p. 86) to promote bond sales abroad. Like in the United States, “the confluence of profit, speculation, and the politics of slavery and emancipation all factored into the widespread investment in American debt in continental Europe during the war” (p. 118).

The final two chapters detail the culmination of these changes both domestically and internationally. Cooke again took the helm in 1864 when the government issued a new round of 7-30 Treasury notes. (Thomson points out that contemporaries usually just called them bonds.) These were even more successful than the 5-20 bonds from earlier in the war, and an even wider cross-section of the American public purchased these securities. Thomson argues that these also marked a crucial turning point in the relationship between Americans and their government, as purchasing a bond effectively meant that average people were directly loaning the United States money. Thomson’s final chapter explores the changes these sales wrought on American finance. Following the war, bonds and securities generally ended up concentrated in elite hands again, but Americans did not lose their taste for speculative ventures. Further, the financial networks that had promoted securities sales abroad survived the war. When the US government sought to refinance its staggeringly large loans with new, lower-interest bonds, it found international buyers. Financiers in Britain and France again waded into American securities, but so too did investors in Germany, the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire, and Australia.

Bonds of War contributes to gaps in several overlapping historiographical fields. The first major intervention is in the scholarship on the Civil War’s economic legacy. While scholars have written extensively on the war’s lasting influence on the money supply and fiscal policy, Thomson is the first to center securities in this story. But the work goes beyond just describing government policy. By exploring the marketing and cultural meanings of these bonds, Thomson uses the tools of the new histories of capitalism to illustrate a fascinating aspect of these financial instruments. The work also weighs in heavily on the scholarship regarding the American economy’s transnational dimensions during the nineteenth century. By showing how American securities forged lasting markets in continental Europe and beyond, Thomson convincingly demonstrates that the Civil War was also a liminal moment for American financial capitalism abroad.

The work draws from a vast array of sources, including letters, newspaper articles, advertisements, and more in English, French, and German. Especially impressive is the depth of analysis into the details of bond purchases. To prove that diverse Americans purchased securities, Thomson drew from the ledgers of the Bureau of Public Debt—which comprises over five hundred volumes of material—to highlight individual stories of average people investing in the war effort. The bibliography reflects research in archives from coast to coast in the United States, as well as manuscript collections in the British Isles, continental Europe, Turkey, and Australia. The endnotes are extensive and illuminating, reflecting a firm grasp of the relevant scholarship in several fields. This is a meticulously researched and intricately written work.

The text’s greatest strength lies in its complex but comprehensible argument, weaving together seemingly disparate threads into a powerful thesis that convincingly shows how we should understand the importance of Civil War securities. Thomson masterfully moves between the domestic and the international, the political and the cultural, and the economic and the everyday while giving each the attention they deserve. There is little to critique in the argument, though it might help readers if there were a brief appendix listing the major securities issues and their dates after the text. This is a quibble, however, and does not detract from the work’s overall strength.

Bonds of War is a carefully researched, well-written, and deeply persuasive book. Thomson shows that Civil War securities ushered in a new world for American finance both at home and abroad. Everyday investors across the world developed a taste for American debt that never went away, and the resulting economic infrastructure laid lasting foundations for the growth of American finance capitalism long after the Civil War was over. Scholars interested in the Civil War’s economic dimensions will find this work especially helpful, as will those concerned with the development of American finance capitalism during the nineteenth century. By centering securities, Thomson reveals how Civil War debt played a crucial role in shaping the modern financial landscape.

Citation: Aaron L. Chin. Review of Thomson, David K., Bonds of War: How Civil War Financial Agents Sold the World on the Union. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.