1861-1865 POOR, RICH & OTHERS


It is interesting that a Civil War historian of James McPherson’s reputation would broker the following argument in a brief atlas crafted for lay readers. Naturally, writing a short summary for such an atlas would be breezily general and short on proof. Yet, the argumentative claims registered here distort at a level that can only misinform a reader about the complexity of his judgments, all of which are offered without sufficient qualifiers to make his assertions plausible. My response follows his argument.

“Draft riots in the North and bread riots in the South exposed alarming class fissures that were widened by the strains of total war. Although inflation was much less serious in the North than in the South (about 80% over four years compared with 9000%) wages in the North lagged behind price increases. Labor unions sprang up in several industries and went on strike for higher wages. In some areas, such as the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania – labor organizations – dominated by Irish Americans – combined in opposition to the draft and to emancipation with violent strikes against industries owned by Protestant Republicans. Troops sent into such areas to enforce the draft sometimes suppressed strikes as well. These crosscurrents of class, ethnic and racial hostilities produced a dangerous mixture in several Northern communities.

But the perception that is was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight was greater than the reality in both North and South. The principal forms of taxation, to sustain the war, were property, excise and income taxes, most of which bore down proportionately more heavily on the wealthy than the poor. In the South, property of the rich – including plantations and slaves – suffered greater damage and confiscation than did property of non-slaveholders. The war liberated four million slaves, the poorest class in America. Both the Union and Confederate armies contained men from all strata of society in proportion to their percentage of the population. The overwhelming majority of Civil War soldiers were volunteers, among those who volunteered in 1861 – 1862 the planter class was over-represented in the Confederate Army, [end page 97] and the Northern middle class in the Union army, for these groups believed they had more at stake in the war and joined up in larger numbers during the early months of enthusiasm. It was these volunteers – especially the officers, most of whom came from the middle and upper classes – who suffered the highest casualty rates.

Even conscription did not fall more heavily on the poor than on the rich. Those who escaped the draft by decamping in the woods, the territories or Canada, came mainly from the poor. The Confederacy abolished substitution in December, 1863, and made men who had previously sent substitutes liable to the draft. In the North several city councils, political machines, and businesses contributed funds to pay the commutation fees of drafted men who could not pay out of their own pocket. In the end, it was neither a rich man’s war nor a poor man’s fight, it was an American war.” [end of page 98]

From: James M. McPherson, editor, ATLAS OF THE CIVIL WAR [Philadelphia, PA: The Running Press, 2005]: 97 – 98.

From 1861 to 1865, it is my view that the belief by the majority of people, in the North and South, that class bias was determinative of how the war was fought is based substantially more on fact than fiction. Examining these issues through the distorting prism of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” over focuses the issue, as Mr. McPherson did above, on a consideration of who fought. Even if you accept the restriction of considering whether it was a rich man’s war, the middle class in both sections agreed, overwhelmingly, with poor people. How could they be as wrong as Mr. McPherson infers?

Second, the heart of the assertion that the Civil War was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” rests on the belief that, overwhelmingly, rich men possessed the power to make the decision to go to war and stop it at their leisure, without significant influence by others on these jugular decisions.
A large flaw in Mr. McPherson’s view is that it fails to consider who made the decision to go to war, determined how it was fought and decided when to quit fighting, an important consideration, for analyzing the sustainability of class primacy and dominance, especially in the South after Gettysburg in July, 1863. In fact, Mr. McPherson ignores the application of the control exercised over decision making to his argument, in both the Confederacy and the Union.[To be continued]

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