Zibro on Marvel, 'Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation among Union Soldiers during the Civil War'

William Marvel. Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation among Union Soldiers during the Civil War. Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War Series. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018. 352 pp. $48.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-6952-0.

Reviewed by Jim Zibro (The Catholic University of America)
Published on H-CivWar (May, 2019)
Commissioned by Madeleine Forrest (Randolph-Macon College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53584

“A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” was a common refrain during the Civil War. An often quoted and indeed clichéd statement, it was used throughout the sectional conflict, especially following the Conscription Act. A recent generation of historians have dismissed it as inaccurate, claiming that Union soldiers were highly ideological and that the poor did not bear the greater military burden. William Marvel disagrees. In Lincoln’s Mercenaries: Economic Motivation among Union Soldiers during the Civil War, Marvel challenges the scholarly consensus and convincingly argues that the majority of men who voluntarily donned blue and fought for Abraham Lincoln did so not out of ideological commitment but out of economic necessity. Using statistical data, Marvel constructs an economic study of Civil War soldiers and asserts that for most volunteers, economic condition was a, if not the, determining factor in enlistment motivation. Marvel’s study is insightful and sophisticated, and it makes an important contribution to the study of Civil War soldiers.

Scholarship on Civil War soldiers has flourished during the past thirty years. The most notable works attribute enlistment motivation to ideology, namely, duty, honor, and patriotism. Most historians only treat economics as a motivating factor when addressing enlistment in the post-1862 years, when large bounties make such incentives hard for scholars to ignore. Marvel has always been skeptical of these conclusions. Many of the studies on Civil War soldiers rely heavily on qualitative sources and note that few soldiers mention finances as a reason for enlistment in their correspondence. Marvel contends this should not be surprising. To do so would have violated Victorian mores and “evoked a decidedly unflattering image” or made soldiers “an object of contempt” (p. 134). Marvel claims this has resulted in an inadequate treatment of the economic status of Union volunteers. According to Marvel, “economic incentive is the most conspicuously overlooked major factor in the search for enlistment motive among Union soldiers” (p. 11).

Marvel constructed his study using mostly statistical evidence. He gathered income data from the 1860 Census—now available on the University of Minnesota’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS)—and established median wealth for every Northern state. Using median wealth separates the poorer half of the population from the wealthier half and, thus, is more statistically significant than relying on average wealth or subjective wealth thresholds. Marvel then randomly selected ninety-four company rosters from the Northern states, traced every soldier through the census, and was able to “link” 69 percent of subjects, yielding a sample size of 5,881 from which he was able to approximate wealth. Though admittedly flawed, this methodology to date, Marvel contends, is the “best ... measure of the relative economic status of Civil War soldiers” (p. 6). To augment the statistics, he uses correspondence, dairies, and newspaper editorials, which add texture and substance. He organizes the data chronologically, by enlistment term and year, using the seven major Union recruitment and conscription drives. While Marvel’s sample is not large, given that nearly 2.7 million men served in the Union army, it is nevertheless enough to be suggestive—and his findings are quite telling.

The Union army’s “fighting regiments were filled primarily from the ranks of the poor,” Marvel asserts (p. 10). Indeed, over the course of the war, 64 percent of all volunteers fell below the median wealth in their state, serving in a disproportionately higher number than their wealthier countrymen. This trend is present in each of the Union’s recruiting periods and higher in most cases, with the poor comprising 67 percent of the three-year 1862 volunteers, 70 percent or above of the three-month 1861, three-year 1861, and three-year 1863-64 enlistees (p. 25). Only among the one-hundred-day 1864 volunteers did the poor not constitute a majority—ironic since these soldiers are often categorized by scholars as unpatriotic mercenaries. Yet Marvel states this is indicative of a larger trend: “Almost invariably, when men from the upper economic strata composed the majority of any regiment, it was one recruited for a short term” (p. 230). According to Marvel, the wealthy intentionally avoided the arduous, deadly service of three-year enlistments. Therefore, it was not the elite, literate, white-collar volunteers who performed the fighting but the destitute, the unemployed, the downtrodden.

Perhaps the most important part of Marvel’s research is his data on the 1861 enlistees. The “patriots” of 1861, those supposedly driven by duty and honor, were as poor if not poorer than any other soldiers who fought for the Union. Not surprisingly, Marvel attributes the outpouring of enlistees during the first year of the war to the poor condition of the Northern economy. The North faced a severe economic downturn in 1857 and, according to Marvel, had not fully recovered by 1861. Secession compounded ongoing unemployment and commercial stagnation by ushering in consumer boycotts, currency disruption, and a cotton embargo, and Northern workers suffered. A soldier’s wage was said to be steady and included supplemental income from state and local governments. “Even at the seemingly paltry pay of eleven dollars a month,” states Marvel, “military service might have appealed to young men who were barely eating that much anyway” (p. 25). Economic condition was a principal factor for enlistment from the outset.

Marvel’s analysis is thorough but not without flaws. As noted above, Marvel’s sample could have been larger. And although Marvel does mention that soldiers might have possessed multiple reasons for enlisting and that patriotism and mercenary service were not incompatible, he often reduces enlistment motivation solely to economics. As a result, Marvel at times ignores or dismisses ideological rhetoric by stating that such soldiers had “hidden motives” or that the “doctrine of liberty and Union betrayed a more pragmatic attention to their own interests” (p. 149). Criticisms aside, Lincoln’s Mercenaries is a very important book. It fills a gaping void in the literature and challenges previously held assumptions about Civil War soldiers. “The war did, indeed, begin as a poor man’s fight,” states Marvel, and “it would remain one to the bitter end” (p. 44).

Citation: Jim Zibro. Review of Marvel, William, Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation among Union Soldiers during the Civil War. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. May, 2019.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53584

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.