J.P. Morgan Scandal

Tom Huntington, in his article “The Profiteers” in the February 2006 “Living in the Past” department, relates the old canard concerning J.P. Morgan and the Hall carbines, which was blown out of the water and sunk 65 years ago by R. Gordon Wasson in his book The Hall Carbine Affair. Although the author was vice president of J.P. Morgan & Co., Allan Nevins called his book “A capital piece of work [and] a lesson to historical writers upon the dangers of jumping to conclusions on a partial view of the evidence, and still greater dangers inherent in accepting a story on the ‘authority’ of some dubious author….”

Some of those writers who jumped to conclusions were Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos and Carl Sandburg. They wrote before Mr. Wasson published his book and may be excused, to a certain extent. Mr. Huntington needs to be held to a higher standard for resurrecting a falsehood that properly deserves to lie in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

Thomas K. Tate

Orefield, Pa.

THE EDITOR RESPONDS: Mr. Tate is referring to the Hall Carbine scandal in which J.P. Morgan agreed to help finance entrepreneurs who bought rifles from a Federal arsenal in Manhattan for $3.50 each and sold them back to the Federal government for $22 each, altered and brought up to government standard. A congressional committee investigated the affair in 1862 and concluded that “no public functionary of sane mind” would agree to buy arms for $110,000 that it had just sold for $17,500. The War Department refused to pay for the rifles, and the case eventually went to the Supreme Court in 1867, where it was determined that the government was bound to honor the contract. The book that Mr. Tate refers to, The Hall Carbine Affair: A Study in Folklore, attempts to exonerate Morgan by stating that he was not aware that the entrepreneurs were selling the government its own arms and that he withdrew from the deal and turned it over to a former partner when he sensed something was amiss. But evidence continues to come forward suggesting that this was not the case. Jean Strouse in her recent biography Morgan: American Financier states: “R. Gordon Wasson, a Morgan partner who later wrote a book about these events, claimed that Pierpont had not realized Stevens was selling the government its own arms, and that once he found out, he could no longer stomach the deal. Since Morgan made his loan based on the security of the Fremont [the government purchaser] telegrams, and since he accompanied Eastman and Stevens [the entrepreneurs] to buy the guns from the Federal arsenal, he clearly knew the nature of the transaction from the outset. And Morris Ketchum was an old family friend. If Morgan had developed a sudden distaste for the sale, he would not have handed it over to this associate.” The idea that Morgan did not know he was fleecing the government is still open to debate. The ethics of this purchase and sale are another story, and since differing perceptions of value are the basis of free trade, it can be argued that Morgan was simply an investor taking advantage of the wartime market to turn a profit. He wouldn’t be the first or the last to do so.

Open the Telegraph Line

Recently, as I was reading with great interest the February 2006 “In Their Footsteps” department, I was struck by its reference to use of the telegraph. In Jay Wertz’s article “Vicksburg—The 1863 Campaign,” he quotes Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, upon his arrival to reinforce Brig. Gen. John Gregg’s forces at Jackson, Miss., as wiring Richmond, “I am too late.” Since Richmond is a considerable distance from Jackson, I am curious as to how either side, North or South, managed to use the telegraph over such distances when opposing forces were sure to also be located along the lines of wire. Civil War Times should include more articles about the use of the telegraph as well as interception and sabotage methods.

Thomas R. Atkinson Sr.

Honesdale, Pa.


Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here