Author Interview--Brian P. Luskey (Men Is Cheap) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature the second part of our interview with Brian 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.

Part 1

It seems war breeds all kinds of profiteering. You also devote a good bit of attention to African-Americans, how did freed slaves respond to these brokers and their activities? Reading through those chapters, it felt a little like freedmen exchanged slavery for a new form of dependence and exploitation?

BPL: African Americans in the South experienced the transition from slavery to wage labor at different moments and in different ways during the war. Formerly enslaved people sought autonomy and independence even as they encountered wage labor’s coercions. I focus a lot of my attention in the book on occupied areas of the Virginia coast around Fort Monroe, Norfolk, and Portsmouth. When Benjamin Butler resumed command there late in 1863, slavery was technically still legal by virtue of the Emancipation Proclamation’s exemption for many occupied territories of the Confederacy. Yet Butler considered slaveholders in his department uniformly disloyal, and he moved quickly to institute a policy that shaped the ways wage labor would operate in this district. Reflecting the Lincoln administration’s desire to enlist African American men into Union armies and his own need for more soldiers, Butler’s General Order 46 determined that black men in his department could not make more in wages than an African American soldier--$10 per month. Butler framed his order in the context of free labor ideology and its promise for all workers, but he met immediate opposition from other employers who had been paying African American craftsmen higher wages. Overcoming this opposition, Butler succeeded in funneling black men into regiments being organized in his department. Many black soldiers enlisting in USCT regiments in the Tidewater did so eagerly, although in my book I also discuss at length the violent tactics of impressment that some of Butler’s subordinates employed (illegally) to add men to their muster rolls. In the proceedings of one court-martial that I discuss in the book, black men testified both to their desire to serve “their country” (even though they would have liked to enlist on their own terms) and despair that their induction into the military had infringed upon their newly won autonomy in the wage labor economy.

Yet Butler’s efforts to structure wage labor for his (and as he would say, the nation’s) purposes occurred in the context of northern states’ efforts to recruit formerly enslaved men to meet their states’ draft quotas. In 1864, northern recruiters scrambled to induct black southern men to fill their states’ draft quotas that otherwise would have been filled by white northerners. As I have said, African American southerners often enlisted in the military of their own free will, but many hundreds were also dragooned and duped into doing so. A few military commanders sought to curtail the nefarious deeds of bounty brokers and recruiters, ordering that bounties should be paid directly to enlisted men. But the powers that be—the Provost Marshal General James Fry and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton among them—insisted that such orders be countermanded. It was too bad that some soldiers would be defrauded, they said, but without the work of brokers there would be a shortfall in recruiting. Like intelligence office keepers before the war, these recruiting agents were distrusted and considered absolutely necessary for the successful prosecution of the war.

It sounds like recruitment agents were another group of war profiteers. With so many people trying to cash in on the recruitment of soldiers, it seems labor was quite expansive to locate since you had to pay people in the process. To play a little on your book title, how cheap was labor and the search for workers? How free was the laborers’ decision to pick employment? How much are intelligence offices and recruitment agents the epitome of the free labor ideology?

BPL: Abraham Lincoln and other Republican leaders suggested that free labor created opportunities for wage workers to rise to a level of independence on the one hand and opportunities for employers to hire workers of their choice. Eric Foner, in Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men, demonstrates that these freedoms for workers and employers were in tension with each other and did not constitute, as Republicans claimed, a “harmony of interests.” In my book, I aim to show the ways a variety of white northerners believed that they couldn’t be truly independent until they had the capital necessary to hire others to work for them. Even wage-earning soldiers, dependent on their nation for the economic wherewithal to support themselves and their families, envisioned ways the war and emancipation could benefit their households’ economies. Many Union soldiers and northern civilians thought and acted like labor agents because they hoped they could profit from the war. That doesn’t mean they did not have civic virtue, but rather that they also believed in the ambition for advancement at the heart of free labor ideology. For instance, a soldier from New York state named Henry Walker, who believed he was fighting a cabal of slaveholding capitalists who had dissolved the Union, easily incorporated emancipation into the cause for which he was fighting. Yet in the summer of 1863, guarding the farm of a former enslaver who had recently taken a loyalty oath to the United States, Walker told his wife that he dreamed of the chance of sending one of the “black and shiney” women working in that field home to New York to alleviate the burdens of his family’s economy. When formerly enslaved people arrived in the North they, like other workers, resisted employers’ demands for obedience and sought autonomy in their new surroundings.  

What the labor agents—recruiters, intelligence office men, and brokers—did was to help northerners envision a national market in wage labor. The scope of that market was made possible in part because the army and then the Freedmen’s Bureau (until 1868) paid the transportation costs of formerly enslaved men, women, and children (and Confederate deserters who could not immediately return home) to move to northern cities for distribution to households around the country. It’s not that southern workers were paid any less than northern counterparts once they arrived—my research suggests they were paid more or less the same wages. It’s that the war promoted employers’ freedoms within free labor ideology over those of working people made vulnerable by the war.

That is a very interesting view that speaks to the capitalist system in the United States. How much did people realize that free labor benefited more the employer and not the worker? I am especially wondering here, Karl Marx criticized the slaveholder aristocracy, yet the northern states appear to not have been that different from other industrial societies at the time, which Marx vehemently attacked. Why did not we see more labor strife if there was so much exploitation?

BPL: One answer to your last question is that there was considerable labor strife in the antebellum and Civil War eras, from the strikes of urban craft unions to the day-to-day resistance of a variety of other workers. And yet, a lot of working people continued to believe that the promise of free labor ideology would be theirs with hard work and perseverance. My book shows that the experience of workers on the move during the war shook some of that optimism because free labor’s promise of advancement did not reflect reality for the vast majority of laborers. The war years, I contend, have been neglected in the literature as we seek to understand how, as David Montgomery asserted in Beyond Equality, the postbellum United States became a “nation of employees” in which only a few could achieve upward mobility. My work also reveals how frustrated employers were with free labor ideology after the war. They were not able, through intelligence offices, to hire workers who were as efficient and obedient as they desired. I think that frustration can help us understand white northerners’ retreat from Reconstruction in the South and their increasing unwillingness to protect African Americans from southern whites’ racist violence. These northern employers also mobilized the power of the state to enact violence against workers on strike in their own region in the 1870s.

How do you see your book add to and alter the narrative of the Civil War?

BPL: Many Civil War Americans, North and South, as well as recent historians, have debated the extent to which the war was a “rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.” My book revises that formulation, for my subjects believed the war and its consequences constituted a means of getting rich because other people were vulnerable. The ambitious, competitive northern entrepreneurs who are at the center of my narrative recognized in the destruction of slavery and slavery’s capital opportunities for personal profit. Their actions during the war had detrimental consequences for laborers locked in a struggle for survival during the conflict. I hope that this book will contribute to scholarship by other scholars who are tracing the connections between capitalism and the Civil War.

To close, what are your future plans?

BPL: First, Niels, thanks for the opportunity to talk with you about my book. I suppose you are referring to research plans, although my short-term goal is to spend the summer taking care of my kids and trying to stay healthy. I wish you and H-Net readers good health and happiness in quarantine. My next book is about Monroe Edwards, who smuggled enslaved Africans from Cuba to Texas in the 1830s, just as the Lone Star Republic gained its independence and outlawed the transatlantic slave trade. Edwards forged contracts to defraud his slave-trading partners and engaged in a series of swindles that aimed to defraud antislavery activists, U. S., British, and Texas diplomats, and American banks. His career illuminates the challenges that the illegal slave trade posed to republics’ and empires’ claims of sovereignty during and after a period of financial panic, regional disputes about slavery in the U. S., and diplomatic negotiations in the Atlantic World. For American authors such as Herman Melville, Edwards emerged as the quintessential confidence man who revealed the true nature of economic dealing in the long Civil War Era.