Author Interview--Brian P. Luskey (Men Is Cheap)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Brian P. Luskey to talk about his new book Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, which came out in March 2020 with the University of North Carolina Press.

Brian Luskey is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at West Virginia University. He received his Ph.D. in 2004 from Emory University. He has also published Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America, co-edited with Wendy A. Woloson (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) and On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America (New York University Press, 2010).

Brian, to start, could you tell us about the argument of your book and how you came to study substitute brokers and fraudulent activities during the Civil War era?

BPL: Thanks, Niels, for the opportunity to talk with you about my book, Men Is Cheap.  This project began about ten years ago with research I did about an antebellum institution called the “intelligence office.” Intelligence offices were employment agencies, businesses in which workers and those hoping to hire them gathered to make labor contracts in antebellum cities. Intelligence office keepers claimed special knowledge of urban labor markets, information that they were willing to share for a small fee. Workers and employers in the metropolis often needed intelligence offices to find each other, but they just as often felt cheated when those offices failed to find a job or a worker who suited them. Americans placed intelligence offices at the center of debates about appropriate commercial conduct, the relationships between housewives and domestic servants, and the promise and peril of wage labor.

Despite their concerns, however, northerners continued to rely upon the intelligence office as a model to recruit laborers during the Civil War. In Men Is Cheap, I examine the ways northern labor brokers sought profit and northern employers sought workers during the war. Their work helped move soldiers to army camps and formerly enslaved southerners and Confederate deserters to northern households. I argue that the brokers served the military and domestic needs of the northern state and northern employers. They were thus vital contributors to the war effort. Substitute brokers, who helped drafted men hire others to serve as soldiers in their places, were perhaps the most notorious of these labor brokers. They took advantage of vulnerable people in the labor market, and by hook or crook skimmed hundreds and thousands of dollars in bounties from the unsuspecting. Their nefarious takings allowed northern employers—who themselves reaped the rewards of wage labor’s inequalities—to cast the brokers as the sole culprits for workers’ misfortune in the labor market.

As a quick follow up, why was it called an “intelligence office”? What is the origin of that term and relation to the office?

BPL: I am happy to elaborate on that point. In the colonial period and even in the Early Republic in some western locales, intelligence offices were clearinghouses for all sorts of commercial information, including shipping news, prices current, and impending auction sales. By the antebellum era, intelligence office proprietors had specialized as other businessmen were doing. Their “product” for sale was information about the labor market. Commentators described rows of unemployed workers who would, when a prospective employer arrived, be asked by the office’s proprietor to stand for inspection. The hirer would examine and talk to the workers before making a selection, paying the fee, and bargaining wages with a particular laborer. Some observers made explicit comparisons between these offices and slave auction houses. Yet wage labor was not slavery, as I’m sure we’ll discuss later. Wage labor had its own inequalities and coercions, as I contend in my book, and the intelligence office represented them with a clarity that made a lot of northerners uneasy.

How do you go from employment agent to brokering soldiers for the army? Initially, most soldiers were volunteers, was there a need for a broker? How does the draft change this brokerage system? 

BPL: In my research, I only found one agent from Baltimore, Oliver Wood, who dabbled both in soldier recruiting and more general intelligence office labor brokering. The point I am trying to make is that recruiting labor for armies and for northern homes during the war emerged from an antebellum commercial culture defined by ambitious speculation and debates about fraudulent dealing. That culture is represented in the era’s advertising, and I analyze advertisements in the book in which businessmen tried to sell goods during the panic of the secession crisis and beginning of the war by offering consumers lower “secession” or “war” prices. Many of those advertisements tapped into the furor for enlistment by situating their advertising pitches alongside images of soldiers marching off to war. Those same images were, of course, used on recruiting posters as well. 

I don’t mean to say that soldiers who volunteered and the officers who recruited them were not virtuous, republican, citizen-soldiers. They were motivated to serve by cause, country, and comrades. But the literature has not adequately, in my opinion, grappled with the economic reasons for enlistment and recruitment and how they related to ideological motivation. Recruiting posters always, even in the first year of the war when the federal bounty was a paltry (in comparison to later years) $100, listed bounty payment amounts. Many also promised money for families from the states for which men served. Calculating economic survival was a crucial factor in determining if and when men enlisted to fight. I should also say that soldiers often experienced delays in payment of wages and bounty during the war, and often described those lapses in terms of fraud being perpetrated against them. Additionally, I found a lot of evidence that showed northern soldiers and officers acting like labor brokers because being able to employ or help others employ workers was the clearest way to demonstrate one’s economic independence. For instance, an officer pleaded with Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts to muster in his company because he had spent several hundred dollars in recruiting it and needed the salary that a captain’s commission would pay. Another Massachusetts soldier found that his promotion to second lieutenant allowed him both to hire a formerly enslaved African American servant and to speculate about how he could send other formerly enslaved people northward to labor in his family’s home.

The Enrollment Act that the U. S. Congress passed in March 1863 included a commutation clause that allowed drafted men to pay a $300 fee to absolve them from service under that draft call or to hire a substitute to serve in their places. The purpose behind commutation was to put a brake on the market in substitutes, for it was thought that no one would hire a substitute under these circumstances for more than $300. Opponents of commutation argued that the policy was unfair because not all drafted men had $300. And so, in the Summer of 1864, commutation was repealed and the market in substitutes became very competitive, resulting in high demand and high prices. While substitute brokers operated before the repeal of commutation, they became more sought after as town commissioners tried to fill their local quotas to avoid drafts and as drafted men clamored to find others to march south in their places.