Monday, March 5, 2018

Book News: Lincoln's Mercenaries

When it comes to being contrarian, William Marvel is one of our most compelling assets. I wish we had more like him. Even if you don't agree with his conclusions, he can always be relied upon to do the research and formulate respectable evidence-based arguments. Because it began life as an entirely different type of project altogether, Marvel's 2006 book Mr. Lincoln Goes to War had many intriguing and provocative parts but struggled to maintain a coherent whole. A particularly novel section involved Marvel's contention that troubling economic factors were at least as important as patriotism in inducing the masses of the North to enlist in the army following the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call to war. According to Marvel, the lingering effects of the Panic of 1857 combined with the commercial downturn, rising unemployment, and general economic uncertainty sparked by the secession crisis led a great many to see army service as their best hope for financially supporting themselves and their families.

Now comes news that Marvel is fully fleshing out his case in a book wholly dedicated to the subject. Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation among Union Soldiers during the Civil War (LSU, 2018) is scheduled for release in November. It "considers the question of whether the burden of military service in the Union army was borne mainly by the poor during the American Civil War. From a survey of the entire 1860 United States Census, renowned Civil War historian William Marvel constructs a clearer picture of economic conditions for the war's earliest recruits."

More from the description: "Marvel finds disproportionate participation by men from chronically impoverished occupations, and documents the largely forgotten recession of 1860 and 1861. That fiscal downturn put hundreds of thousands of men out of work or blighted their businesses, leaving them susceptible to the modest emoluments of military pay and community support for soldiers’ families. Individual contemporary testimony, including direct or indirect personal admissions and personal observations, shows that the fervent recruiting of 1861 and 1862 was heavily driven not by patriotism, but rather economic distress, and confirms that the Union armies were composed mostly of poor men."

"Notably, Marvel reveals that those who enlisted during those two years―generally regarded as the most patriotic of Lincoln’s soldiers―appear to have been motivated by money as least as much as those who enlisted in 1863 and 1864 for exorbitant bounties. A fascinating study of the intersection of war and economic conditions, Lincoln’s Mercenaries shows how economic pressures played a role during the Civil War and continued to play one even after the conclusion of the war when relative poverty among Union recruits helped fuel the demand for veterans’ pensions."

Some people seem to get overly caught up in the wording of titles, and I hope the potentially vexing nature of this one doesn't serve as a major turn off to prospective readers. I certainly plan to put it on next season's review checklist.


  1. Drew: Regarding his conclusion about the motivation of (presumably) a majority/significant percentage who enlisted in 1861-62, it will be interesting to gauge the breadth and depth of his data base. I find assertions such as that risky unless they are backed by a sample size and by content, both of which are reliable.

    1. Right. I never want people to stop trying, but I have a healthy skepticism of studies that try to identify and rank Civil War era motivations of any kind. The available journal and letter source material is so vast and you can extract huge sample sizes from it, but that doesn't mean that what you've selected is representative. Before learning about Marvel's book, the upcoming '18 study that seems most applicable to this type of concern is Teters's "Practical Liberators."

    2. Skepticism isn't really the word I was looking for, more like 'caution' toward them.

    3. I agree with your points. I hate to trot out social studies metrics like chi square analysis, but I would need assurance that some methodology was used beyond grabbing a large chunk of correspondence/diaries/journals and locating references to pay/bonuses/etc - which could co-exist with mentions of pro-union sentiment, abolitionist views, and an urge to get away from home/see other parts of the country. This is the concern:

      "Individual contemporary testimony, including direct or indirect personal admissions and personal observations"

      I realize that's just publisher spin but it suggests a problem. I found Marvel's four volumes on Lincoln at war well-researched and -argued but i also had a sense that there was a dose of revisionism for revisionism's sake. This book seems to have that potential.

    4. Just after I wrote this post I was reading the Benton surgeon letters and he baldly states that he joined the Union army entirely for the money and was not at all motivated by patriotism. LOL.

    5. He was from New York, after all. LOL Probably fits the good old "10% rule" - I can find 10% of any population to fit any theory I want. That's the beauty of my ancestor Isaac's diaries - there is literally nothing in his entries which remotely suggests why he enlisted in October, 1861 at age 19. This jibes with the family assumption that his father (who had a, um, "penurious" streak) wanted the Government responsible for Isaac's room and board. Arguably that fits Marvel's theory, I guess (not sure how Moses felt about it after Lincoln got an income tax enacted ....)

    6. I seriously doubt Marvel will try this tack, but another thing you don't want to see is an author privileging money matters re: motivation and justifying its absence from letters by the specious argument that few would admit financial gain as an enlistment priority when they can just lie and say it was patriotism.

  2. Agree - hopefully he avoids that but if one is pursuing "advocacy" it's tempting to suggest that there is a large "hidden" number enlisting for gain because of the desire to appear patriotic.

  3. It's certainly true that large numbers of men enlisted for pecuniary reasons, and that it was a major impulse from the war's beginning. What trips up some writers IMO is the assumption that this impulse can be entirely separated from patriotism or other factors, or claiming that a majority had a particular motivation. McPherson's studies, for all his exhaustive research, fall into these traps too.


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