Today we welcome a guest post from Brian P. Luskey, author of Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, out now from UNC Press.
When a Civil War substitute broker told business associates that “Men is cheep here to Day,” he exposed an unsettling contradiction at the heart of the Union’s war effort. Despite Northerners’ devotion to the principles of free labor, the war produced rampant speculation and coercive labor arrangements that many Americans labeled fraudulent. Men Is Cheap shows that in the process of winning the war, Northerners were forced to grapple with the frauds of free labor. Labor brokers, by helping to staff the Union military and Yankee households, did indispensable work that helped the Northern state and Northern employers emerge victorious. They also gave rise to an economic and political system that enriched the managerial class at the expense of laborers—a reality that resonates to this day.a reality that resonates to this day.
Men is Cheap is now available in print and ebook editions.
The Civil War’s Free Labor Crisis
For Henry Walker, a private in the 117th New York Infantry, the Civil War was an economic crisis. Walker’s household was imperiled by the demands the war placed upon it. While Henry and his only son Albert served in the army, his wife Persis and their six daughters struggled to pay the rent because neighbors reneged on promises to help them while the male breadwinners who risked their lives for the nation were absent. Persis requested assistance and demanded fair treatment from creditors and storekeepers, but she remained anxious about how long she and the girls could survive in his absence. Henry—far from home, earning low wages as an enlisted man, and despairing of obtaining the state bounty payment owed to him—found it difficult to help his family make ends meet.
Faced with the challenge of alleviating his family’s economic struggles on a soldier’s wage, Walker resolved to bet everything on the promise of free labor ideology for workers. He would work harder, dispense advice to his family, and envision a future in which he and his loved ones would be in control of their economic destiny. He bought shoemaker’s tools and earned additional money mending the soles of his comrades’ boots. He sent those funds home, accompanied by letters in which he instructed his wife and daughters to save their money. He echoed the spirit of “go-ahead” that was so prevalent in the nation during this era. Hard work and self-discipline were obligatory: “I wish you to prosper,” he told his family, “rem[em]ber your life is just what you make it.” Perseverance was also a must: “our coarse in life depends on our own energy. persevere their is nothing like try try agan.”