By: Dr. Ashley Whitehead Luskey
Brian Luskey is associate professor of history at West Virginia University, where he teaches nineteenth-century American history. He is the author of On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America (New York University Press, 2010), the co-editor of Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America with Wendy A. Woloson (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), and the co-author of “Muster: Inspecting Material Cultures of the Civil War” with Jason Phillips, in Civil War History 63, no. 2 (June 2017). His most recent book, Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, will be published by UNC Press in spring 2020.
CWI: How does your book challenge the idea that the war was just about Union and emancipation?
Luskey: Historians agree that many northerners had come to believe, by late 1862, that the emancipation of enslaved people would help undermine the Confederate economy, society, and war effort. Republicans and even some Democrats believed that emancipation was a “military necessity” that would preserve the Union. My book suggests that we also need to appreciate the ways white northern employers framed the war aims of Union and emancipation in relation to a concept I refer to as “domestic necessity.” White northerners fought the war for Union to seize the fruits of free labor ideology that included employers’ ability to hire workers of their choice. The emancipation of enslaved people provided the northern states and northern employers access to economically vulnerable workers whom they could hire cheaply as soldiers and domestic servants. In Men Is Cheap, I examine the process through which former slaves (and others) were moved by the army and northern benevolent societies to the homes of eager Yankee employers. Northerners believed in free labor, slave emancipation, and accumulating profits because these things reinforced each other. The wartime doctrines of military and domestic necessity were linked in white northerners’ minds and illuminate what they thought the war for Union was over. In the process of winning that war, white northerners were able to assert the prerogatives of employers to amass principal through the labor of their workers as much as they realized the principle of abolition.
CWI: You write about underground economies. What do you mean by that phrase, and what does this tell us about the relationship between the military and the home front?
Luskey: It’s not a phrase I use in the book, but it’s a concept that encompasses a number of economic transactions that Civil War Era Americans (as well as some historians) considered illicit, illegitimate, and marginal to the functioning of the economy as a whole. Actually, these “underground” economies were vital to the mainstream economy, and the project of defining them as “underground” economies was often initiated by economic actors who wanted to obscure their own misdeeds. The employment agencies I discuss were colloquially called “intelligence offices” in reference to the information about the labor market that was available within. Proprietors charged fees to workers and employers for access to that information, and both parties often felt cheated when intelligence office keepers did not find them good jobs or hard-working employees. The intelligence office keeper represented for many Americans the dangers of fraud in the labor market and the economy more generally. And yet, during the war for Union, white northerners depended upon labor brokers to assist in moving soldiers, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and substitutes for drafted men at their direction and for their benefit. The war, and the movements of armies it unleashed, made it possible for labor brokers to do their work. The ways the war forced people to move, coupled with brokers’ nefarious reputation, permitted employers to hire workers of their choice and obscure their own self-interest by casting brokers as the truly shady characters in the labor market. The work of labor brokers was indispensable for winning the war, helped move the workers necessary to add to the respectability and refinement of northern households, and shaped a cultural process through which certain economic practices came to be labeled legitimate and illegitimate.
CWI: You have exposed widespread fraud and coercion with the impressment of Union soldiers. How did this occur and what does this reveal to us about Northern motivations during the war?
Luskey: The title of my book comes from the lamentation of a substitute broker who was not able to clear off enough profit in the wage labor market. Substitute brokerage, as historians have shown, was a business rife with deceptive practices. The Enrollment Act passed in 1863, designed to augment the manpower of Union military forces to crush the rebellion, included a clause allowing drafted men to hire substitutes to serve in their place. Especially in the final months of the war, substitute brokers cornered this new and anonymous labor market by connecting drafted men with strangers for high fees. What made these brokers notorious was that many also skimmed hundreds and thousands of dollars from unsuspecting enlisted men. Northerners condemned the brokers for their fraud. These men had sought to profit personally in their nation’s time of need. They stood opposite the virtuous citizen-soldiery who put their lives on the line to save the Union. Yet the brokers and the bounty jumpers they often employed were not the only people looking to profit from these provisions of the Enrollment Act. Substitutes and their wives hoped to accrue capital from drafted men who were increasingly forced to pay higher and higher prices for their services. These exorbitant wages would help substitutes’ families survive in a competitive economy that limited their access to resources. The fraud of substitute brokers, like the war itself, made wage earners vulnerable to exploitation and demonstrated how the conflict unmade the promise of free labor for working people. Yet drafted men could claim that they were not to blame for the brokers’ fraud, even as they employed other men to do the work of killing and dying for them.