Class Tensions

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Class Tensions

During the mid-nineteenth century, distinctions of wealth and status divided American society. The Civil War exacerbated those divisions, as working-class citizens and yeoman farmers pondered the war's consequences. In both the Union and Confederacy, members of the upper classes urged their less privileged neighbors to support the war effort. However, workers, laborers, farmers, and craftsmen often believed that the war affected them more than it did the upper classes, which included merchants, businessmen, and plantation owners. Historians have questioned whether or not the conflict was a "rich man's war, and a poor man's fight." Even though citizens of all classes fought, volunteered, and supported the war, men and women at the lower end of the social spectrum often believed they had more to lose.

Northerners were quick to point out the inequality inherent in the slaveholding South; however, some Southerners also noticed that some citizens of the Confederacy fared better than others. One wartime Northern author summed up the class conflict in the slave states by concluding that the "political economy of the Slave States of the South…is attended with social consequences of the most important kind" (Cairnes 1862, p. 49). This was true at least for the plantation South, where the best land was owned by planters and the work was done primarily by slaves instead of wage earners. The plantation system, this writer observed, resulted in "a numerous horde of people, who, too poor to keep slaves and too proud to work, prefer a vagrant and precarious life … to engaging in occupations which would association them with the slaves whom they despise" (Cairnes 1862, p. 49). Even Confederate officials believed that some men were getting wealthy while others were fighting and dying. John Beauchamp Jones, a clerk in the Confederacy's War Department, complained that some clerks "procure exemptions, discharges, and contracts for the speculators for heavy bribes and invest the money in real estate…so that their own prosperity will be secure" (Jones 1866, p. 332).

Confederate Military Draft

The Confederacy turned to conscription to meet its military needs in 1862, which intensified class tensions. The poor and working class were unable to avoid service whereas wealthy citizens could bribe officials or send substitutes. Planters who owned more than twenty slaves and men who held positions essential to the war effort, including government officials, were exempt from the draft. Some influential men paid as much as $500 to obtain appointments as postmasters, clerks, coroners, or other government positions that exempted them from military service (Williams 2005, p. 77). Confederate soldiers who served in spite of hardships at home resented fighting for the interests of others. The twenty-slave law, as it was known, made slaves even more valuable in the Confederacy, as some citizens attempted to increase their slaveholdings to gain exemption from military service.

Some young men who could not afford to purchase an exemption or a substitute refused to serve. The son of Mrs. E. C. Kent, for example, was arrested and imprisoned by the Confederate Army for avoiding the draft. Mrs. Kent tried desperately to convince the Confederate government to free her son, and wrote President Jefferson Davis on her son's behalf. Davis replied that he could only free her son if the young man agreed to serve in the army. The boy would not agree to go, so Mrs. Kent visited him in prison. She observed that her son was in a room with several Rebel officers and a well-known lawyer, but noted that "men of this class were generally not retained very long" (Kent 1865, p. 22).

During the war desertion and draft resistance in the Confederacy demonstrated that some common people believed that the wealthy and influential were not doing their part in the war, while the poor and less fortunate were expected to bear the brunt of the fighting. Others were simply tired of the war or considered the South's defeat inevitable.

Poverty and the War

The Confederacy's unsuccessful attempt to establish itself as a new nation came at a cost, and many citizens believed most of the burden fell on the common folk. Josepine Clare, a Unionist whose husband fled the Confederacy and joined the Union Army, described the condition of common soldiers in Mississippi. Upon seeing train cars loaded with soldiers, she remarked that "their clothing was all tattered and torn, and their gen-eeral appearance was shabby in the extreme" (Clare 1865, p. 13). Clare lamented the war and suffering "brought on these poor illiterate people by a diabolical class of men who wanted to crush the poor man and sink him beneath the level of the negro" (Clare 1865, p. 13). The suffering of war was not limited to the lower classes of society, but those civilians who had little to begin with faced dire situations as the war continued.

The Union blockade of Confederate ports combined with Southern planters' continued focus on cotton production (instead of planting much-needed corn and wheat) caused a food shortage in the Confederacy. In 1863 women living in cities throughout the South were unable to afford food because merchants were charging outrageous prices for scarce commodities. Faced with watching their children starve, women took to the streets, often breaking into shops and taking what food they needed. The most famous bread riot occurred in the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, in April 1863. When city authorities were unable to disperse the women, Jefferson Davis appeared and offered his own money to the crowd, but also threatened to order the militia to fire on those women who did not return home.

The war intensified the class divisions in the Confederacy and ultimately led many common citizens to criticize the Confederate government and call for an end to the war. Even the presence of the dreaded Yankees seemed better than starvation.

Union Military Draft

As the war went on longer than most Northern citizens had hoped it would, a growing need for troops caused the Union Government to call for conscription. The only men who were exempt from the draft in the North were those who were too ill, too old, or who could claim that service would be an undue hardship. As in the Confederacy, wealthy men could avoid being drafted by hiring a substitute, but the Enrollment Act included an additional provision allowing conscripts to pay a commutation fee of $300 to avoid serving. This loophole angered some working-class men, not just because only the rich could afford the fee, but also because it put a limit on the amount paid to substitutes. Martin Ryerson of Newton, New Jersey, wrote to William H. Seward, then Secretary of State, complaining that "a rich man, who without this might have had to pay $1,000 or $2,000, or more, for a substitute, can now get off for $300, and the poor, and those of middling circumstances, say they ought to have been left to make their own bargains" (Perman 1998, p. 192). Ryerson believed that the exemption clause was well meant but had the unintended consequence of increasing class tensions and was therefore "an unfortunate mistake."

New York Draft Riots

Class tensions surrounding conscription resulted in violence during the New York draft riots of July 1863. Workers in the city, mostly Irish laborers, reacted angrily to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 and the Enrollment Act of March 1863. These white workers resented the idea of being forced to fight to free slaves. Many feared former slaves would move to the North to compete with white workers for jobs. The rioters attacked draft officials, African Americans, and any men who looked wealthy enough to pay the commutation fee. Ellen Leonard was visiting relatives in the city and witnessed the first night of the riot. On the following morning, Leonard wrote, she saw "rough-looking men" and "hordes of ragged children" roaming the streets and concluded that "the 'dangerous classes' were evidently wide awake" (Leonard 1867?, p. 5). A member of a family wealthy enough to visit New York on a shopping trip, Leonard did not understand the class tensions that caused the destruction and violence. This lack of understanding is also evident in a report on the New York Police Department's role in suppressing the violence. This account suggested that although "the riot which commenced on the first day of the draft, was ostensibly in opposition to it…[it] early took the character of an outbreak for the purpose of pillage, and also of outrage upon the colored population" (Barnes 1863, p. 5).

Such perceptions of the riot were colored by common stereotypes of the poor and working class, especially immigrants, who were viewed as being less intelligent, less moral, and prone to violence. The rioters, however, were not merely committing random acts of violence and looting: They were lashing out at the people they perceived to be benefiting most from the war—African Americans and the wealthy. Union troops eventually had to be called in, after which peace was restored. The draft lottery in New York City, however, was suspended.

Class Divisions in the Union

The North had distinct social divisions that fostered different opinions of the war's purpose and meaning. Even patriotic workingmen were concerned about volunteering for the army and leaving their families to fend for themselves. As a result, state and local governments offered bounties to men who were willing to enlist. Within some communities, citizens took up collections to help the family members of soldiers, particularly widows and orphans. There were, however, always individuals who took advantage of these arrangements, which caused some citizens to criticize volunteers who sought bounties rather than enlisting from pure patriotism.

In addition, there was a type of fraud known as bounty jumping, which consisted of enlisting, collecting the bounty, and then deserting the army—often to travel to another city and enlist again for another bounty payment. Frank Wilkeson, the son of a journalist, ran away from home before he was sixteen and enlisted in the Union Army by lying about his age. Wilkeson was scandalized by the number of bounty jumpers he encountered. From his privileged point of view the recruits who accepted bounties were "blackguards, thieves and ruffians." Wilkeson remarked that "if there was a man in all that shameless crew who had enlisted from patriotic motives, I did not see him" (quoted in Commager 2000, p. 96). Wilkeson eventually earned an officer's commission, which allowed him to rise above the ranks of the enlisted men, whom he believed mostly "belonged to the criminal classes" (Commager 2000, p. 96).

Class and Politics

The Democratic and Republican parties both exploited class tensions in an attempt to get the support of the working class. The Republicans appealed to the ideals of free labor, which valued the work of independent men who could rise up and progress by their own efforts. Free labor stood in opposition to slave labor, which privileged the wealthy slave owner. During the war Republicans and their spokesmen in the media continued to assert that a war to end slavery benefited common laborers. The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, for example, ran an article that summarized the war as a conflict between Northern free labor and Southern slave labor, and asserted that "no classes are so vitally interested in the great conflict now waging…as the working classes" (April 29, 1863). Some farmers and laborers in the Union agreed with this sentiment, believing that ending slavery would provide opportunities for all workingmen.

By contrast, the Democratic Party used fear and racism to urge white workers to oppose emancipation and the Republican Party. Many white laborers, particularly in areas bordering slave states, were afraid of losing their jobs to emancipated slaves who could be expected to move northward after the war. In Indiana, the New Albany Daily Ledger fueled tensions by condemning the proposed Emancipation Proclamation and encouraging Unionists not "to spill their blood or squander their hard earnings for the purpose of giving freedom to four millions of Negroes, who would soon overrun them by hundreds of thousands" (October 27, 1862). Republican newspapers attempted to counter such assertions, although their efforts were not always very enlightened. The Cincinnati Gazette, for example, claimed that after the war former slaves would return to their former homes, because "with freedom in the South the natural drift of the blacks is towards the tropics" (September 25, 1862).

While emancipation's future impact was a contentious issue, many in the working class had more immediate reason to be concerned about the war's economic repercussions. Everyday items increased in price, including staples such as milk and butter, which by 1864 had increased in cost by almost 600 percent (Williams 2005, p. 115). Most lower-class families, regardless of their political leanings, were eager for the war to end so that they could resume daily lives less marked by deprivation and suffering.


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Stephen Rockenbach

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Class Tensions

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