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Lincoln’s Mercenaries

Economic Motivation among Union Soldiers during the Civil War

William Marvel

Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2018, 352 pages

Book Review published on: April 5, 2019

William Marvel’s provocatively titled book Lincoln’s Mercenaries is a useful yet problematic corrective to the numerous works on the motivations of Civil War soldiers who prioritized an ideological commitment to the Union. Based on their extensive research in soldiers’ letters and diaries, historians such as James McPherson, in For Cause and Comrades, and Gary Gallagher, in The Union War, have emphasized this ideological motivation in both encouraging enlistment and in sustaining soldiers through the hardships of war. Marvel uses many of these same resources, along with metadata now available from census records, to push the needle back toward the middle in the debate over whether ideological or economic motivations were more important. By arguing that over two-thirds of Civil War soldiers came from the bottom half of their respective states’ median wealth, Marvel places economic incentives alongside preservation of the Union and, for the abolitionists in the ranks, the destruction of slavery as the primary factors inducing soldier enlistment and continued service. He argues that “economic incentive is the most conspicuously overlooked major factor in the search for enlistment motive among Union soldiers.”

The books flows in a loosely chronological path, highlighting the economic conditions of each group of enlistees, from the initial call in 1861, through subsequent levies, to the implementation of the draft to induct new recruits as the wartime economy stimulated economic activity. By 1864, the federal government offered $300 bounties to encourage veteran units to reenlist or pry new soldiers away from their profitable, and often safer peacetime pursuits, and states and localities supplemented the federal bounty with generous offers of their own, in some cases reaching nearly $1,000. But, as was true during the Vietnam War, President Abraham Lincoln’s army was not an army of draftees (although the threat of being drafted, without the benefit of the generous inducements offered by many localities and states, provided a powerful incentive to volunteer). Indeed, Marvel’s accounting of the rising price of substitutes and the astronomical bounties provide some of his strongest evidence, though they could also reflect both wartime inflation as well as a free market where men thought that risking their lives and their family’s livelihood deserved a larger portion of the generous wealth the war generated for many northern industries. Indeed, this is a central question left unanswered by Marvel’s work: How much is a life really worth? What sort of compensation do families deserve for risking the life of the primary provider and breadwinner? Some of the men who survived the crucible of Civil War combat (or avoided it altogether in comfortable, rear-echelon assignments) may have profited from their endeavors, as military service has always been a fairly reliable path for social and economic advancement, and Marvel rightly castigates many of these men as profiteers. But this must be balanced against the costs of those on the losing side of the scale—the men killed or permanently injured and the absence, at the outset of the war, of a robust pension system to care for the men and their families. While a number of soldiers undoubtedly enlisted or solicited commissions to improve their economic conditions, it is more difficult to separate those with purely mercenary instincts from those who simply wanted their families to be taken care of in the event of their death, an all-too-common occurrence in a war that claimed over seven hundred thousand lives.

Marvel’s work runs counter to many popular perceptions of Civil War soldiers, such as Ken Burns’s 1990 miniseries The Civil War, which emphasized the noble, heroic, and almost romantic service of the generation that preserved the Union and destroyed the institution of slavery. Instead, Marvel highlights the large number of “poor” who responded to Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers, the rising cost of bounties, fees for replacements for drafted soldiers, and the large number of wealthy northerners who avoided service altogether, unfortunately lending some credence to the Lost Cause trope of “Lincoln’s Hirelings,” or the idea that all northern soldiers were greedy mercenaries. Still, Marvel notes, “even the most genuine patriots might well enlist for more than one reason, and that in 1861 a great many of them were in financial straits” and “it would have been perfectly natural for such men to emphasize the more noble motives that brought them into uniform than the practical needs or personal desires.” Civil War soldiers, it turns out, were not that different from those who served before and those who serve today. They responded more favorably to appeals during periods of low economic activity and high unemployment and were more difficult to induce into the ranks when they could make more money and enjoy greater safety as civilians, as modern recruiters can attest. But each decision likely came from a combination of motivations.

Marvel’s data is derived primarily from household wealth reported in the 1860 census from volunteers in the first company recruited in each northern state. His statistical evidence is impressive but closer examination reveals several key concerns. The first comes from his conflation of “poor” with anyone below the median wealth in their state. Though he acknowledges that “every man from a family below median wealth was not necessarily poor,” he returns to that definition throughout the book. Surely Union society demonstrated a broader class distinction than this. Second, Marvel relies on household wealth, which includes a number of men at the very beginning of their working years. As the majority of Civil War soldiers were in their early to mid-twenties, we should expect that they had not accumulated the same wealth as older men. Marvel claims to account for “extreme average youth among recruits,” by counting un-emancipated minors as part of their fathers’ households; yet, if a soldier “lived alone or with a family of no apparent relation to him, the wealth he claimed decided that question. If he had started a family of his own.” Marvel counted “only his family’s wealth,” undoubtedly leading to an overrepresentation of men at the very beginning of their working years in his sample. An age-adjusted accounting of wealth would have been more informative. Finally, if financial motivations were the primary encouragement for soldiers, we could expect to see an exodus from the ranks when the economy improved and greater wages became available outside the Army (or, more likely, working for it in some capacity as a contractor). Yet the vast majority of enlistees remained in the ranks. Surely something other than financial gain kept them there, whether a fear of punishment (though the Union army did execute deserters, the number was miniscule compared to the two million soldiers who served, and many deserters escaped punishment altogether) or a sense of duty, honor, or even attachment to their cause or country.

The conclusion, which the burden military service is usually borne by the poorer elements of society, is not particularly new, as Marvel admits. Still, it is an uncomfortable reality, in a supposedly egalitarian society, that military service is not more evenly distributed across classes, as his data on Dartmouth College students demonstrates. The wealthy have always had more avenues, and likely more incentive, to avoid military service, though some elites, including Robert Gould Shaw, served in every conflict. However, as Marvel finds for the Civil War, the likelihood of service for the wealthy is disproportionally smaller, at least outside of home defense service or rear-echelon commands, including the limited-service one hundred-day and nine-month regiments of the Civil War.

So, why have historians “missed” the evidence of financial incentive for service? (Though Bell Wiley included it in his survey of Billy Yank in 1952.) Marvel suggests that one factor could be the prevalence of patriotic sentiment expressed in letters and diaries, while the social shame of admitting dire financial straits, or purely financial motivations, make them less likely to appear in period correspondence. We want to believe that only the best and purest motivations drive human activity, especially among those upon whom we rely for defense and protection. But, as Marvel’s research and book clearly demonstrate, that is often but not always the case.

Book Review written by: Christopher M. Rein, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas