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date: 25 June 2022

White Workers and the American Civil Warlocked

White Workers and the American Civil Warlocked

  • David A. ZondermanDavid A. ZondermanHistory Department, NC State University

Summary

From the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 until the Confederacy surrendered in the spring of 1865, workers—North and South—labored long hours under often trying conditions at wages that rarely kept pace with wartime inflation. Though many workers initially voiced skepticism of plans for sundering the nation, once Southern states seceded most workers rallied round their rival flags and pledged to support their respective war efforts. The growing demand for war material opened employment opportunities for women and men, girls and boys, across the Union and Confederacy. Yet workers were not always satisfied with a job and appeals to back the boys in blue and gray without question. They often resisted changes pressed on them in the workplace—new technology, military discipline, unskilled newcomers—as well as wages that always lagged behind rising prices. Protests and strikes began in 1861 and increased in number and intensity from 1863 to the war’s conclusion. Labor unions, in decline since the depression of 1857, sprung back to life, especially in the war’s later years. Employers sometimes countered their employees’ increasing organization and resistance with industry associations that tried to break strikes and blacklist those who walked off their jobs. While worker discontent and resentment of “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” were common across the sectional divide, Northern workers exercised greater coordination of their resistance through citywide trade assemblies, national trade unions, traveling organizers, and labor newspapers. Southern workers tended to fight their labor battles in isolation from shop to shop and town to town, so they rarely built a broader labor movement that could survive the hardships of the postwar era.

Subjects

  • Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Urban History
  • Labor and Working Class History

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