Cornelius Vanderbilt was a hard man. Unsentimental, he earned a national reputation for taking care of himself. When the Civil War began, no one imagined he would turn out to be a selfless patriot.
Born in 1794, he stood 6 feet tall, bristling with a sinewy strength acquired in a youth spent at the mast, on the docks and in fistfights. He even “looked like a conqueror,” wrote Louis Auchincloss. “He had a clear complexion, ruddy cheeks, a large bold head, a strong nose, square jaw, a high, confidence-inspiring brow, and thick, long gray hair which turned magnificently white.”
A conqueror, yes; a benefactor, no. “There is no friendship in trade,” he often said. “He thought every man could stand watching,” remarked his lifelong clerk, Lambert Wardell, “and never placed confidence in anyone.” By 1861, Vanderbilt’s tough-minded brilliance had lifted him to “almost kingly power,” the Chicago Tribune wrote. After decades of business warfare, he now shared a monopoly on shipping between California and the Atlantic coast, owned America’s primary transatlantic line, and dominated Wall Street. The public awarded him the unofficial title of “Commodore,” the U.S. Navy’s highest rank until the Civil War—and fittingly belligerent.
Abraham Lincoln, then, may have been wary on March 17, 1862, when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton escorted the Commodore into the White House. Physically, Stanton provided a contrast with his guest. He was a round-shouldered man of 46, with receding, greased-back hair, small, round glasses, and a moustacheless beard that spouted off his chin in a fountain of gray. As manager of the Union military, however, he proved as cold-eyed as the Commodore.
A national crisis brought the three together. The Confederate ironclad warship Virginia (known to the North as the Merrimack, after the vessel that provided the Virginia’s hull) had attacked the Union blockade squadron in the waters of Hampton Roads. It sank two wooden frigates and drove a third aground, as cannonballs bounced off its armor, seemingly without effect.
The next day, the first Union ironclad, the Monitor, had battled the Virginia to a draw. But the crisis continued. If the Monitor were to suffer a simple mechanical breakdown, the fleet would be helpless. Desperate, Stanton had wired Vanderbilt, “For what sum [will you] contract to destroy the Merrimac [sic] or prevent her from coming out from Norfolk—you to sink or destroy her if she gets out? Answer by telegraph, as there is no time to be lost.” Instead, the Commodore had rushed to Washington.
Lincoln asked Vanderbilt if he could stop the Virginia. Vanderbilt later wrote, “I replied to him that it was my opinion that if the steamship Vanderbilt”—his largest and fastest vessel—“was there properly manned, the Merrimac would not venture to come out; or if she did, that the chances were ten to one that the Vanderbilt could sink and destroy her.” He insisted, “No vessel had been, or could be, made by the rebels that could stand the concussion or stand before the weight of the Vanderbilt.”
We do not know the tone of Lincoln’s response—only that he asked how much Vanderbilt would charge. The Commodore bridled at the implication that he was one of the “vampires” who profited from the war. He said he would donate the Vanderbilt to the Union navy, provided he could control its preparations for battle. Lincoln replied, “I accept her.” Stanton wrote orders granting Vanderbilt, a private citizen, “full discretion and authority” to use the ship “as you may deem fit.”
”]Four days later Vanderbilt stood on the deck of his flagship as it steamed to Hampton Roads. It was impressive. When launched in 1855, The New York Times had called it a “monster.” It stretched 355 feet long, braced by gigantic side paddlewheels and topped with dual smokestacks. Now its bow wore a sharp steel ram.
Despite his authority, Vanderbilt gave the ship to a real commodore, Louis Goldsborough, who commanded the blockade squadron. “He is a trump,” Vanderbilt wrote to Stanton. “My opinion is that the Merrimac will not venture out. … If she does, I am quite certain she never can return.” Indeed, Southern officers respected “the powerful steamer Vanderbilt,” as one wrote. Except for some cautious maneuvering, they never risked their ironclad in battle against it.
At first glance, the gift of the Vanderbilt seems glaringly uncharacteristic. Costing nearly $1 million, it represented a substantial percentage of the Commodore’s assets. Yet patriotism was his passion. He had been trying, unsuccessfully, to donate the Vanderbilt since the outbreak of the war; only the panic over the Virginia induced the government to accept his gift.
The Virginia was scuttled, so Vanderbilt re-equipped his ship to hunt for Confederate commerce raiders. In revenge, Capt. Raphael Semmes of the C.S.S. Alabama targeted Vanderbilt’s California line. But Semmes narrowly missed a steamer full of gold, and the Commodore organized naval convoys that prevented a second attempt.
Vanderbilt also volunteered to outfit an expedition to New Orleans under Gen. Nathaniel Banks. A scandal erupted when one of the ships he chartered proved unseaworthy and an agent was found skimming money, but Vanderbilt himself was blameless. “I believe religiously that he has saved the government 50 percent in fitting out these vessels,” Commodore George J. Van Brunt told Congress. “He was acting, as I thought, with great patriotism, in serving the government for nothing.”
In 1864, at Lincoln’s request, Congress recognized the Commodore’s gift of the Vanderbilt with a gold medal, then the nation’s highest civilian honor. In the end, though, it would be his attempt to heal the war’s scars that would be most profound.
As early as 1867, Cornelius Vanderbilt began to reach out to the South, bailing Jefferson Davis out of prison. Then he met the woman who would focus his efforts. On Aug. 21, 1869, Vanderbilt married the oddly named Frank Armstrong Crawford. He was 75; she was 32, and his second wife. She was also from Mobile, Ala., and an unrepentant Confederate. Soon after the wedding, she wrote to her mother that “Com.”—as she called him—“is proud of my being a rebel. Takes pains to tell it.” Although their wedding was a getaway affair, they had a few witnesses, including Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg and his brother Thomas, the former Confederate attorney general. Few Confederates, let alone Yankees, could get along with Gen. Bragg, but Vanderbilt liked him, and considered hiring him.
Frank made introductions that turned these Southern sympathies into charity. For example, she attended the Church of the Strangers, a congregation for Southerners in New York established by the Rev. Charles F. Deems. Vanderbilt had little faith himself, but he liked Deems and his mission, and bought him a church building for $50,000.
In the early 1870s the husband of Frank’s cousin visited Vanderbilt’s brownstone townhouse in Manhattan. His name was Bishop Holland N. McTyeire. He told Vanderbilt that the Southern Methodists had received a charter for the Central University in Tennessee; wisely, he did not ask for money. But McTyeire impressed Vanderbilt, as did his planned university. In March 1873 the Commodore surprised the bishop by announcing he would endow it with $500,000—later increased to nearly a million, a significant number in Vanderbilt’s calculations. “He said he had this in mind during the Rebellion,” Rev. Deems later testified. “He spent a million of money in sending a vessel against the Southerners to show his views then, and he wanted to give the money after the war was over to show them that the men of the North were ready to extend the olive branch.”
Vanderbilt, it should be noted, did not help freed slaves, now hungry for education, land and work. He saw the South through the summer visitors he mingled with at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.—the white elite. Still, his beneficence was sincere, and would grow far beyond his vision.
Did he see a contradiction between his business self-interest and patriotic generosity? Clearly not. “Unfettered trade and unrestrained competition” had made him rich and the country great, he wrote in 1855. “Repress it if you dare, and before many centuries shall have passed away, your greatness and your glory, and your commerce will have gone still further west.” This spirit defined the nation he fought to preserve, and tried to reunite.
The Commodore never visited the university, soon renamed in his honor. When the Panic of 1873 struck, he plunged into a struggle to preserve the railroad empire he had been building since 1863, which largely occupied him until his death on Jan. 4, 1877. Unlike his corporations, though, the university endures. His dynasty faded, his wealth dissipated, but his love of country carries on.
T.J. Stiles is the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He launched the 2010–11 Chancellor’s Lecture Series at Vanderbilt last fall with a presentation, “The Commodore’s Patriotism: Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Path to the Founding of Vanderbilt University.”