Category Archives: 1900s

Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight

A Vietnam War protest (Source: Haverford Blog)

A Vietnam War protest (Source: Haverford Blog)

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, I often heard the expression “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” in the context of the Vietnam War but gave little thought to the expression’s origins. The sentiment was given voice in numerous protest songs, perhaps most poignantly by Credence Clearwater Revival in Fortunate Son.

Those on the battlefront largely come from the less fortunate among us. It was true in the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Vietnam War. It is true today.

In the 1840s, recruiting officers filled the ranks of the American army by going into German and Irish ghettos of America’s cities. The foreign born accounted for more than 40% of the army’s enlisted men. [John S.D. Eisenhower, So Far From God, U.S. War with Mexico 1846-1848, p. 35, Anchor Books (1990)] Recruiting strategy has changed very little since that time.

Volunteers filled the ranks of both armies early during the Civil War, but with one-year enlistments about to expire, the Confederates extended the enlistments and implemented America’s first draft in April, 1862. The conscription law provided exemptions for various professions, including civil servants.

Four months later, the Confederate Congress passed a more controversial exemption, one for owners of twenty or more slaves. Thus, those who had been the principal driving force for war, wealthy planters, now became exempt (although a number of course would serve in the Confederate ranks). At the eve of the war, the fair market value of twenty slaves was between $20,000 and $30,000, which is equivalent to between $400,000 and $600,000 in today’s currency.

Burning of an African-American orphan asylum (Source: New York City Draft Riots Blog)

Burning of an African American orphan asylum (Source: New York City Draft Riots Blog)

The Union followed with its own draft law in March, 1863, whereby a lottery was conducted in each Congressional district to meet that district’s quota. The law allowed a man to escape the draft if he paid a commutation fee of $300 (good until the next lottery drawing). He could escape the draft altogether by hiring a substitute. Both J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie escaped the battlefront by hiring substitutes.

The law met protests in the North. The worst degenerated into the New York City draft riots in July, 1863, culminating in the lynching of African Americans and the widespread destruction of property. [Iver Bernstein, New York City Draft Riots, Oxford University Press (1990)] Many Northern white workers resented being sent to the front lines to end slavery every bit as much as poor white Southerners resented having to fight so their wealthy neighbors could expand slavery beyond their borders.

The New York City draft riots (Source: New York City Draft Riots Blog)

An African American man is hanged and buildings are burned during the NYC Draft Riots (Source: New York City Draft Riots Blog)

Citizens north and south understood that while the rich and powerful had concluded only war could settle their differences, the poor among them would do most of the killing and dying that decided the contest.  And even today – over 150 years later – we see that these roles have not changed much in times of war.


Filed under 1800s, 1900s, American history, Civil War, history, riots, Vietnam War

JFK’s Assassination: A Personal Look Back

This week the media will look back fifty years to remind its audience of the assassination of President John Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Kennedy was 46 years old. My parents were in their mid-forties at the time, only a few years younger than the President.

Life Magazine cover (Source:

Life magazine cover (Source:

I was eleven years old, a seventh grader in a Newport News, Virginia public elementary school. I learned the news at the end of the school day. Two miles away, my future wife attended a Catholic school, where her school principal wept openly over the public address system as she told students and teachers about the President’s shooting in Dallas.

In hindsight, one can review the accomplishments and failures of the Kennedy administration with 20/20 clarity. What that type of analysis fails to convey, however, is the mood of the country during the Kennedy years.

My father was an automobile mechanic struggling to build a business several years after suffering broken legs, broken ribs, a pierced lung, and back injuries in a coal mining accident. Our neighbors were army and navy engineers and military officers, many of them in their thirties and early forties. All of them were optimistic about the country’s future, even as the country struggled with civil rights and a Cold War that sometimes became uncomfortably warm.

JFK Jr.'s (also know as John John) famous salute as his father's casket passed by (

JFK Jr.’s (also know as John-John) famous salute as his father’s casket passed by (

The Kennedys generated a sense of optimism. This was a relatively youthful administration when compared to those preceding it (Eisenhower, Truman, FDR). Americans could flip through Life and Look magazines and witness the Kennedy children at play in the White House. They could turn to one of the three networks on black-and-white televisions sets and watch astronauts soar into space in the early stages of America’s race to put a man on the moon.

Sometimes the country just needs a cheerleader, someone who inspires us to accomplish more than we think is possible, someone who inspires us to look beyond ourselves for the greater good of our community (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”). For Democrats, it may be Kennedy. For Republicans, it may be Reagan. In both cases, the men made Americans feel better about themselves, more hopeful for their country. Perhaps we look at some leaders with rose-colored glasses, but occasionally we need their inspiration to give us the determination to face the challenges of another day.

Caroline and John-John playing in the Oval Office (Source: The Tuscon Citizen)

In brighter times, Caroline and John-John play in the Oval Office (Source: The Tuscon Citizen)

John-John hiding under his father's desk in the Oval Office (Source: USA Today)

John-John hiding under his father’s desk in the Oval Office (Source: USA Today)

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Filed under 1900s, American history, history, John F. Kennedy


Source: New-York Historical Society

Source: New-York Historical Society

Most of us shrug off pandemics as the stuff of movies (Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman) or events that occurred long ago and are unlikely to occur in our lifetimes despite what seem like annual panic reports emanating from the media.  One of the most recent events, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, killed 20 million people in a worldwide population of 1.8 billion, including the character Lavinia in Downton Abbey and 575,000 Americans in a population of 106 million.Let’s look at one pandemic, the Second Cholera Epidemic of 1830-1851, focusing on the California Gold Rush years.

First, what is cholera? The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) defines the disease as “an acute, diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholera and is transmitted by contaminated food or water. The infection is often mild or without symptoms, but sometimes it can be severe.” The incubation period is one to five days and the proper treatment is intravenous rehydration.

Source: Wikipedia

Drawing of death wiping out a large crowd with cholera Le Petit Journal. Source: Wikipedia

Before medical professionals understood the science – largely the need for clean water supplies – the infection was rarely “mild.” One could appear perfectly healthy at dawn and be dead by sundown. Cholera, yellow fever, and malaria were the principal reasons fortune hunters from the eastern United States chose to sail around Cape Horn (i.e., the entire continent of South America) or to travel across the continent (before the advent of railroads) rather than take a “short cut” 47 miles across the isthmus of Panama (before the completion of the Panama Company Railroad in 1855).Travelers made the trip in mosquito-infested territory partly by canoe and partly by mules. If all went well, which it seldom did, due to the overwhelming number of travelers, one could make the trip across the isthmus in four to eight days and then pray that a steamship bound for San Francisco was on time and not overbooked. Delays meant increasing chances of infection by mosquitoes or unsanitary food or water. As H.W. Brands (The Age of Gold) and David Lavender (The Great Persuader) graphically illustrate, many fortune hunters who chose the short cut ended their quest in a Panamanian grave. Perhaps being stuck on that tarmac for two hours was not so terrible after all.

But making it to California did not guarantee the good health of the Forty-Niners. Lavender describes an outbreak in Sacramento as follows:

“Cholera, a periodic scourge in the East and Midwest, reached California by ship during the fall of 1850. Sacramento’s first case was a man who dropped writhing on the new levee on October 20. Soon sixty cases were cropping up each day. In a single week 188 of the victims died. By November 9 the toll was said to have reached 600, including seventeen doctors – an estimate, since no one was keeping accurate records. In any event, it was bad enough that four fifths of the city’s terrified populace fled from the town.” (Note: Sacramento’s population in 1850 was approximately 6,800)

The Great Persuader, p. 38

How would we deal with such a pandemic today? We would like to think cholera has been eradicated, but the CDC reports that worldwide there are an estimated three to five million cases of cholera and roughly one hundred thousand deaths from the disease every year. We can only hope that advances in science and more plentiful resources will make cholera a disease of the past.


  • H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold. New York, New York. Anchor Books, 2002.
  • David Lavender, The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York. Doubleday & Co., 1970.
  • CDC, Cholera – Vibrio cholera infection.

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Filed under 1900s, American history, CDC, disease, Flu, history