Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Booknotes: Men Is Cheap

New Arrival:
Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America by Brian P. Luskey (UNC Press, 2020).

Though one can surely assume the subject is addressed at some length among the many general studies of the Civil War draft, I've sometimes wondered whether there is enough in the topic of substitutes to warrant a standalone, book-length examination. Such a thing might already exist in the scholarly literature, but I'm not aware of any examples. Anyway, the reason I bring this up now is because it forms a significant part of Brian Luskey's Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, a brand new study that addresses wartime military and domestic labor arrangements in broad fashion.

From the description: "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. 

Debates about this contradiction focused on employment agencies called "intelligence offices," institutions of dubious character that nevertheless served the military and domestic necessities of the Union army and Northern households. Northerners condemned labor agents for pocketing fees above and beyond contracts for wages between employers and employees. Yet the transactions these middlemen brokered with vulnerable Irish immigrants, Union soldiers and veterans, former slaves, and Confederate deserters defined the limits of independence in the wage labor economy and clarified who could prosper in it."

According to Luskey, as unsavory as the reputations held by these brokers may have been, they did play a significant role in the ultimate Union triumph over the Confederacy. "(B)y helping to staff the Union military and Yankee households," labor brokers "did indispensable work that helped the Northern state and Northern employers emerge victorious." At the same time, they "also gave rise to an economic and political system that enriched the managerial class at the expense of laborers."

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