Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Booknotes: Lincoln's Mercenaries

New Arrival:
Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation Among Union Soldiers During the Civil War
  by William Marvel (LSU Press, 2018).

Ever since Bell Wiley pioneered serious study of the common soldiers of the Civil War, enlistment motivation has been explored in innumerable books, parts of books, and articles. By now, all possible reasons for joining the Union and Confederate armies have been abundantly documented and analyzed somewhere in print; however, volunteering for monetary gain has never really been seen by scholars as the primary (or co-equal) motivating factor for a large proportion of soldiers. 

Even for the standards of low-wage jobs of the period, the Civil War private's pay was pretty paltry, but one can imagine that it was nevertheless seen by some as justifying the risk of maiming or death. William Marvel's new book Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation Among Union Soldiers During the Civil War "considers whether poor northern men bore the highest burden of military service during the American Civil War. Examining data on median family wealth from the 1860 United States Census, Marvel reveals the economic conditions of the earliest volunteers from each northern state during the seven major recruitment and conscription periods of the war. The results consistently support the conclusion that the majority of these soldiers came from the poorer half of their respective states’ population, especially during the first year of fighting." Depending on what level of disproportion we're talking about here, that kind of conclusion regarding enlistment patterns doesn't seem too shocking.

Again, depending on the scale he proposes, where Marvel takes his argument next is even more interesting and possibly more contentious. At least when it comes to more general Civil War studies, I would agree with the author that the toll the secession crisis had on the national economy (and how it specifically affected recruitment) remains a neglected topic. More from the description: "Marvel further suggests that the largely forgotten economic depression of 1860 and 1861 contributed in part to the disproportionate participation in the war of men from chronically impoverished occupations. During this fiscal downturn, thousands lost their jobs, leaving them susceptible to the modest emoluments of military pay and community support for soldiers’ families. From newspaper accounts and individual contemporary testimony, he concludes that these early recruits―whom historians have generally regarded as the most patriotic of Lincoln’s soldiers―were motivated just as much by money as those who enlisted later for exorbitant bounties, and that those generous bounties were made necessary partly because war production and labor shortages improved economic conditions on the home front."

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