The Civil War: "A rich man's battle but a poor man's war"

During the Civil War, patriotism could be bought for hard, cold cash and this led to the New York Draft Riots of 1863. Photo: Pullman car for the rich

VIENNA, Va.  March 26, 2012 — It was often said of the Civil War that it was a “rich man’s battle” but a “poor man’s war.” This saying applied to both sides equally, but as usual, the devil was in the details.

When the War first broke out, patriotism and patriotic fervor was high in both camps. Songs like “Jine [sic] the Cavalry” rang out among the men and esprit d’corps was evident. Prior to the Conscription Act of 1863, and after the first blush of getting a gun and shooting the Rebels or the Yankees, had ebbed, it was an easy matter to decline military service.

It quickly became a sticking point in the North, where the district one lived and registered in basically determined who would be drafted and who would not. The men who were “condemned to serve,” as it was called, considered it an unfair system. They had become part of what was seen as forced servitude. 

The shouts of “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” was the rallying cry which saw thousands of eligible men take to the streets in riotous protests. Anyone who doubts the significance of this uprising can read about the 1863 New York Draft Riots for a firsthand account, when over 2,000 protesters were killed, and around 8,000 injured, according to one source

Soldier Substitutes Worth $300 A Piece

New York Draft Riots, 1863

With the bulk of the country’s wealth situated in the North, a man could purchase a substitute to take his place for as little as $300, sometimes less.   In the South, a man could gain an exemption from service if he had at least 20 slaves on his plantation or farm, or he could also pay for a substitute soldier to take his place.  Men on both sides were literally buying others to take their places, to lay their lives on the line and face death, if need be, for someone else.

But sometimes — and this is one of them — things work out better than you hope—at least for the very wealthy.

Take the case of Andrew Carnegie, the rail and steel magnate, whose wealth was measured in billions. He paid a poor Irish immigrant the sum of $850 to fight in his place. He was but one of a number of rich men of his generation who would ultimately be referred to as “robber barons,” since in addition to physically not serving, they would make money by providing the Union armies with everything that was needed, from uniforms and shoes to rifles. 

Only the Best for J. P. Morgan

Then there was J. Pierpont Morgan, who came by his wealth honestly, having been born into it. When your father has made a name for himself in banking, you can be counted upon to get the finest business education in the country.

So when the Civil War came, he shelled out the $300 to buy a substitute to serve in his stead. While Morgan stayed home, evading military service and the draft, he made enormous profits by providing war materiel. The erstwhile benefactor bought 5,000 rifles for $3.50 each from an arsenal, and then turned around to provide them to a field general for $22.00 each. The cheap price he paid for them was due to a defective mechanism, since any unwitting soldier who attempted to fire one, lost his thumb.

J. P. Morgan

A Congressional committee carefully scrutinized the charges. However, it was shown that this injurious propensity was covered in the fine print of a very obscure report, which the presiding judge upheld as fair notice and thus a valid legal contract. Apparently Morgan had no problem with his own thumbs.

Some ten years later, in 1873 he cornered the country’s financial markets, and emerged unscathed, having become inarguably the crown prince of American finance.

A Future President Buys His Way Out

Grover Cleveland was only twenty-six in 1863, and certainly capable of serving his country. However, he paid George Beniski, a Polish immigrant six years his senior to go and serve for him in the Seventy-Sixth New York Infantry.  Apparently it did not hurt his future presidential bid in the slightest. After all, this was not the National Guard.

Industrialist James Mellon also found a way to escape both service and possible injury. It was his father who penned the never-to-be-forgotten words that, “a man may be a patriot without risking his own life or sacrificing his health. There are plenty of lives less valuable.”

And so the end-run around the draft continued with the majority of the rich disposed to evading service, whence the term “draft dodging” originated. The roster of draft dodgers reads like a litany of the Silver Spoon boys, including John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Philip Armour (of the giant Armour Meatpacking firm), and Jay Gould, a leading American railroad developer, who also had an alliance with Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, to name but a few.

George Pullman Also Made the List

The list goes on and on and includes industrial and commercial magnates such as George Pullman, Jay Cooke, Jim Fisk, and also Collis P. Huntington, founder of the Pacific Southern Railroad as well as the city of Newport News, Virginia.

Pullman was the developer of the eponymous plush sleeping cars on trains, since regular rail cars were uncomfortable for overnight trips. After paying a substitute to serve in his place, Pullman became a wealthy man and after the War’s end, he began hiring blacks for waiter and porter positions on his trains. This was a mixed blessing as he was known to work them harder and longer than non-black workers and, of course, paid them what was described as “a fraction of what he paid whites.”

He also kept them segregated in other menial type jobs. The positive side was that this enabled poor Southern black men to escape from their usual future as sharecroppers, and allowed them to be able to travel everywhere the trains went. As many immigrants do today, they sent home their wages and tips to support their families.

The Late, Great, Jim Fisk: Mercenary At Heart

Jim Fisk was another interesting baron. Born in Vermont he became rich during the war by smuggling Southern cotton through Union blockades and selling Confederate bonds to Europeans. He used both sides of the War when it was most beneficial to him.

Jim Fisk’s Grave

These acts sound at the best avaricious to the core, and at its worst thinly veiled acts of treason. Apparently wealth can buy darn near anything. It seems only just desserts that he was shot to death on the main staircase of the Broadway Central Hotel in New York City in January 1872.

The man who did the deed, one Ned Stokes, had vied with Fisk for the affections of a young actress (i.e. showgirl), Josie Mansfield, described as having “little talent.” Fisk’s funeral was held in a lavish manner with a 200-piece band and his very own state militia unit in attendance.

You did not have to qualify as a wealthy robber baron to milk the government for your own benefit.  At one time it was learned that the War Department was paying $117 apiece for horses, when the normal market price was $60; there was also the matter of a lot of 250 animals bought up in Lancaster County, Pa., where all but 27 horses were either diseased or maimed. The good folks of the county enjoyed considerable pleasure laughing when they were able to sell the same horse two and three times to the gullible government.

And so these already wealthy Northern entrepreneurs who had avoided military service in the Civil War became even wealthier after the War’s conclusion. The industrialized North had added to its role of wealthy magnates in a variety of businesses, while the devastated South was left to fend for herself, and pick up the pieces as best she could.

The “robber barons” had certainly lived up to their nom de guerre, and their business dealings with the U. S. government had been highly fortuitous for both of them.

Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s MBoltz2846@aol.com Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."

 

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