Brian P. Luskey: The Civil War’s Free Labor Crisis

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.”

Even as he depended on these ideas to establish some sense of control over his economic circumstances, he and his family were nevertheless dependent on the army and a landlord for their survival. And so he dreamed of the independence that free labor ideology offered employers. In July 1863, after spending a day “garding” the property of a Yorktown, Virginia plantation owner who had recently sworn allegiance to the United States, he contemplated the value of the African American women he called “wenches” who toiled in the planter’s berry garden and cabbage patch. “I am a going to . . . bring home one to do the work for you,” he told Persis. “[T]hey are so black and shiney that you would like to have one to work for you.”

Walker never did send any African American laborers north, but as I discuss in Men Is Cheap, his countrymen did. His musings about the meanings of former slaves’ labor are similar to those of many white northern employers during the conflict. Walker hated this Virginia slaveholder for helping to inaugurate the war and then hypocritically claiming the fruits of loyalty to the United States. He supported slave emancipation. Yet as he knew, competing and succeeding in the wage labor economy meant taking advantage of people when he could. Workers who could perform arduous tasks like the women in the supposedly repentant slaveowner’s field enticed Northern soldiers like Walker. How could he make emancipation work for his family? The women’s “black and shiney” appearance represented their desirability as workers who would make the Walkers’ home respectable and supplement Henry and Persis’s efforts to obtain a comfortable living. The way the war rocked the Walker household made the ideal of domesticity difficult to attain. The capacity of black women to do labor that produced sweat and caused their skin to glisten in the hot sun was, according to the logic of free labor ideology, the very thing that would underwrite the Walkers’ ambitious vision of household independence.


Photo by Olivia Miller.

Brian P. Luskey is associate professor of history at West Virginia University and author of On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America. Follow him on Twitter.