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.
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.
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.