Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Review - "Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation Among Union Soldiers During the Civil War" by William Marvel

[Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation Among Union Soldiers During the Civil War by William Marvel (Louisiana State University Press, 2018). Hardcover, illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xviii,236/347. ISBN:978-0-8071-6952-0. $48]

At this point, the question of why men enlisted in the Union Army has been studied in innumerable books and articles. Among the many motivational factors raised and explored in this large body of scholarship are patriotic fervor, sense of duty, principles of masculine honor, ideology (be it antislavery or just pro-Union), hope for social advancement, religious conviction, or even just sheer boredom and desire for grand adventure. Absent in most of these discussions of early-war volunteerism is the economic incentive, which few soldiers readily admitted to in direct fashion either at the time or in retrospect. However, historian William Marvel believes money to have been a significant inducement at every stage of the conflict, even in its earliest months. In his new book Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation Among Union Soldiers During the Civil War Marvel offers the first comprehensive examination of how a lingering downturn in the northern farm and industrial economies (which began during the Panic of 1857 and didn't have an opportunity to recover before being hit anew with the secession crisis's currency, commerce, and trade disruptions) led legions of northern men in 1861-62 to see the volunteer army as the only way to adequately support themselves and their families. In addressing the 1863-65 period, the study confirms some long-held popular and scholarly views on bounty incentives while also proposing fresh perspectives on late-war volunteerism.

Before now, the absence of useful statistical data regarding the financial situations of recruits and their families has severely limited research. Marvel cites the recent availability of median income data from the 1860 census, made possible by the University of Minnesota's Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), as the research tool most indispensable to his study. Previous historians had only anecdotal primary sources and average wealth numbers to rely upon, the latter obviously too skewed by income extremes to be truly valuable. Access to state by state median income figures allowed the author to divide recruits into equally sized study groups. Lest anyone get too carried away with the "rich man's war, poor man's fight" aspects of Marvel's interpretation, the author firmly reminds the reader that recruits with incomes below the median were not necessarily poor (or part of the lowest social class). With that in mind, however, the median income dividing point does for the first time allow meaningful (albeit imperfect) large-scale analysis based on economic class.

On the face of it, it seems quite reasonable for past historians to have viewed the eager response to Lincoln's post-Sumter call for 75,000 militia to put down the rebellion as the war's most fervent expression of northern patriotism. This is certainly part of the story, but Marvel's research also finds that 71% of northern 90-day militia volunteers were men with below-median incomes and attributes this heavy overrepresentation to the dire economic conditions that existed in early 1861 and the vast available pool of unemployed men of military age. This 71% figure is higher than any of the other major recruitment drives examined in the book [the 3-year volunteers of 1861 (the next closest at 70%), 3-year 1862, 9-month militia 1862, 3-year 1863-64 (also 70%), 100-days 1864, and 1-year 1864-65]. While no one reasonably expects to encounter even distribution by income under any circumstances, an observer could be forgiven for anticipating the economic class disparity among the first 90-day volunteers to rank among the lowest of any group, especially if one believes (as Marvel does) that patriotic feeling was more or less evenly distributed during the initial war fever period. This counterintuitive result suggests a disproportionately compelling economic incentive.

Even though the war economy might have been expected to pick up at a time coinciding with the mustering out of the 90-day regiments, Marvel perceptively notes that the extended prewar economic downturn had created surpluses in enough key industries (an important factor in combination with continued currency shortages, trade embargoes, and crop failures) to still make military service attractive on its own. This delay in the wide-scale emergence of competing employment opportunities in the civilian sphere allowed authorities to maintain comparatively low monetary incentives (monthly army pay plus state and local bounties plus monthly family support payments) for the first wave of 3-year volunteer regiments in summer 1861.

As other historians have pointed out, communal generosity in the form of military family stipends dried up relatively quickly in the face of an extended war and promises of support were widely reneged upon. By the time Secretary of War Edwin Stanton unwisely suspended recruitment all across the country in April 1862, the revitalized war economy was already attracting workers in large numbers. Thus when the call for new troops resumed that summer the response was tepid, requiring much larger bounties to convince men already accustomed to reading frightening casualty lists in the newspaper, and who now had more and better employment options than they did in 1861, to volunteer. Confusion over the threat of conscription also had some effect in spurring enlistment. With much higher monetary rewards attached to enlistment for this period, many 1861 volunteers understandably seethed at the lavish (as they saw it) generosity bestowed upon the later volunteers, and their anger was redoubled when they learned it would be taxes on their own property that would help pay for the bounties. As it was in 1861, sizable majorities (typically percentages in the low 60s) of the volunteers that filled the ranks of 1862's three-year regiments came from the poorer side of their state's median income. A notable exception was Iowa, which had very nearly equal representation.

Concurrent with the new three-year regiment recruitment drive of mid-1862 were the 9-month militia regiments, which unlike the former did carry the conscription threat if left unfilled. According to Marvel's research, the militia regiments did not have the same financial inducements but had other obvious benefits of their own. In most states, enlistee rates for those above the median income were decidedly higher in the short-term militia regiments than the three-year formations.

The late-war "bounty men" are those most commonly disparaged then and now, but Marvel finds that even the 1862 volunteers were widely jeered in the army for being latecomers with pockets filled more with money than heads with patriotism. When the first implementation of conscription arrived in March 1863, after liberal draft exemptions and substitute-commutation payments no state exceeded 5% enrollment (and most far less). Even less than that actually entered the ranks in the field. In Marvel's view this is more clear evidence that financial incentives, combined with the draft threat, were required to get any serious number of men into the ranks by the mid-war period.

The recruitment pattern of the 1864 100-day regiments further confirms Marvel's thesis that the higher-than-median income recruits were concentrated in the short-term regiments. Indeed, for some states the roughly two-thirds representation of less-than-median income recruits in their long-term regiments almost exactly matched the representation of higher-than-median recruits in their short-term regiments.

Marvel well recognizes the fact that multiple sources of motivation existed in most individuals and it would be utterly impossible for anyone today to establish a clear-cut hierarchy of motivations with any degree of certitude. Really, most of the men themselves probably could not have honestly done it at the time. It is a common refrain among Civil War researchers that so much primary source material exists that one can anecdotally support a whole range of conclusions associated with almost any issue. That said, Marvel's extensive manuscript research nevertheless powers the creation of an intellectually compelling assembly of individual vignettes supported by personal writings that together lend credence to his thesis. Thickly and evenly spread throughout the chapter-length discussions of the public response to each national appeal for volunteers, the collective thrust of these individual testimonials and vignettes (in combination with the supporting quantitative data presented) suggests a widespread impact of economic incentives. Even though the vast majority of new volunteers understandably avoided any kind of direct admission of money being the primary or sole inducement for joining the army or navy, financial matters and concerns very often dominated their early letters home.

Marvel readily admits that many readers will object to his chosen title of "Lincoln's Mercenaries" as overly burdened with negative connotations, but defends his use of the term "mercenary" as being a selective yet technically appropriate usage of the dictionary definition. Even so, it still seems rather needlessly provocative in the sense that some otherwise reasonable readers might dismiss the book on the title alone or begin reading this important study with a mind less open than it might have been with a different title. Marvel makes clear repeatedly throughout the book that he does not want to create the impression that he's impugning the patriotism of northern soldiers, but this doesn't help.

In persuasively challenging the traditional interpretation of enlistment motives among the 1861-62 recruiting classes as being primarily ideological in nature, Marvel's book is force to be reckoned with in future studies. The author does not seek to elevate money as the top reason that men went into the ranks of the Union Army, only that the strength of economic incentives has been misunderstood and vastly underappreciated by nearly all historians that have studied early Civil War volunteerism. His arguments in this regard are very powerful.


  1. This looks worthwhile. I also appreciate your pointing out the use of "mercenaries" and its presumably provocative intent. Marvel generally likes to push the envelope with something of an "edge" and use of this term seems to fit that.

    1. Yes, it's classic Marvel! It doesn't bother me, but I saw some negative comments about the use of the "mercenary" term online long before the book was published and figured I should say something about it.

      I think it's very worthwhile.


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