The War and the American Worker

For urban workers the war proved to be a curse, then a modest blessing that turned increasingly toward hardship. The economic downturn of 1861 left many workers without any source of income. Male workers could and did enlist in the volunteer regiments, although female workers and families often suffered. More than one newspaper complained of the economic disruption that accompanied the outbreak of war. Once the nation settled in for the long war, and it became clear that the war on the battlefield would not be won by an overwhelming display of force, urban workers, especially in the major cities of the Union, enjoyed a period of prosperity, thanks to full employment rather than an increase in wages. Many workers enjoyed a rise in wages as employers competed for their services as the labor supply diminished, predominantly because of the drain of men taken by the military but also to a lesser extent to a reduction in new immigrant labor. As the war progressed however, inflation eroded much of the economic prosperity gained by full employment for many workers. Military demand for the necessities of life meant workers competed with the government for goods, food, and clothing in particular, and prices rose to the point at which working men and women had trouble sustaining themselves on wages that did not keep pace.

Few American workers enjoyed the protection of organized labor and most of that organization had been at the local level. Only highly specialized trades, such as the iron molders, printers, and machinists, had any form of national organization. The economic downturn at the beginning of the war forced many workers to seek employment as volunteer soldiers,

Postcard featuring home workers for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. This card and similar ones were sold to raise money for sick and wounded Union soldiers. (Miller, Francis Trevelyan and Robert Sampson Lanier, The Photographic History of the Civil War, vol. 7, 1911)

and those who remained home were most grateful to be employed. As the nation attended to the business of providing for its armies on the battlefields, laborers found their services in demand on the Northern home front. For a brief period, full employment meant a reasonable wage and an opportunity to accumulate some cash reserves. No sooner had many of the workers recovered from the downturn of 1861 than wartime inflation took over as the government competed with its citizens for the necessities of life. For example, when Jane Hasler complained to President Lincoln in 1864 that seamstresses at the government clothing manufactory in Cincinnati had gone without an increase in the price of their piece-work since the beginning of the war, the president ordered an investigation. In response, the local quartermaster in charge referred to the problems associated with getting funds from the federal government to run the local depot rather than address the fundamental unfairness of stagnant wages in an inflationary economy. The seamstresses did receive modest increases in some piece-work compensation in the fall of 1864, but the problem remained unresolved by the war's end.

Besides writing letters to the president, workers organized and held strikes in attempts to win higher wages, with varying degrees of success. Unions petitioned employers and organized strikes against those who refused to negotiate higher wages. Employers often ignored union requests and bound themselves together to resist the organized workers. In Philadelphia, when iron molders struck in late fall 1862, employers agreed secretly to hold out as one until the strike had been broken. In the end, neither side won. The union struggled on without any real power and the manufacturers lost their dominance of the stove-making industry.

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