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Published by EH.NET (February 2004)

Russell L. Johnson, Warriors into Workers: The Civil War and the Formation of Urban-Industrial Society in a Northern City. New York: Fordham University Press, 2003. xii + 388 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8232-2269-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Brandon Dupont, Department of Economics, University of Kansas

In Warriors into Workers, Russell Johnson argues that military service contributed to the creation of industrial society by creating a “workplace” that was similar to that of the emerging urban-industrial world. He acknowledges the role of other explanations for the socializing influences on an emerging industrial society, such as the role of Protestantism’s inner discipline, a background in urban life, and the growing importance of public schools, but his contention is that military organization predated industrial capitalism and established an organizational structure later copied by the industrial workplace. Unfortunately, Johnson provides us with no true sense of the relative importance of military service as a competing explanation against these more traditional views.

The most interesting aspect of the analysis is the role of the military in conditioning soldiers for industrial life, but it is not dealt with until Chapter 4. The first three chapters, however, provide an interesting background on Dubuque, Iowa before the war and its mobilization efforts.

The first chapter is a detailed description of the social and economic climate in Dubuque from its early history in the eighteenth century up to the years just prior to the war. This chapter deals extensively with the Panic of 1857 and its impact on the city. Among the important lessons of 1857 were the shifting of emphasis from commerce to production and the increasingly common view that the basic values of honesty, thrift and hard work were being abandoned for corruption and luxury. Johnson views military service as another option in family strategies and finds that those most likely to enlist were sons living in their parents’ households and with lower social backgrounds.

Chapter 2 is an interesting account of the war mobilization effort that started with volunteerism in 1861, which was driven largely by the excitement surrounding the fall of Fort Sumter. The volunteer spirit was, however, quickly extinguished by a badly fragmented recruitment effort and a scarcity of guns. An element of coercion was added with the Militia Act and later efforts at encouragement were aimed at the working-class and poor. These efforts included persistent draft scares, emphasis on the material benefits of enlistment and claims that the poor had the most to gain by success in the war. Continued economic depression reinforced these efforts and made the army an attractive alternative for many poor, working-class young men.

Using the diaries of soldiers, Johnson presents evidence in Chapter 3 that ideological reasons for military service may not have been as important as some historians believe. He goes further, however, examining the social origins of enlistees and arguing based on an analysis of Census data that those most likely to enlist were also those most likely to have been at the losing end of the transition from a commercial to an industrial economy in the 1860s. The most likely enlistees “were sons living in low-nonmanual and artisan households and independent men among the city’s artisans and unskilled workers” (p. 104). The army provided many of these men with an attractive alternative to the uncertainty and instability in the Dubuque economy, although this appeal seems to have also cut across social lines. The army drew sons from low-nonmanual and artisan families who had not relied on their sons’ labor for survival before the war and who viewed military service as an alternative to the otherwise costly training and experience to be found elsewhere. In an interesting example of responsiveness to varying incentives across social classes, Johnson examines Dubuque’s soldiers by year and length of enlistment to determine who responded to different sets of recruitment stimuli (including the initial rush to volunteer, higher enlistment bounties and threatened drafts). Johnson finds that independent business-class men joined for shorter terms (100-days companies, for example) while the unskilled working class and farmers were over represented among long-term independent volunteers. He concludes that the recruitment efforts from 1862-63 were effective across all classes of society despite their focus on the working class. He also finds that as the war unexpectedly continued into a second year, there was a clear determination on the part of men from a variety of social classes to stop the Southern rebellion and end the war.

The next two chapters describe the army as an industrial workplace and urban environment. The basic argument here is that the Union army and developing industry faced the same fundamental problem of how a group of badly trained and only moderately motivated individuals could be effectively molded into a goal-oriented organization. The military relied on a routinized work environment in infantry service where soldiers were drilled on the series of simple motions required to reload their muskets, the lack of individualism and the routine schedule that organized most of their days. Johnson concludes “all three service branches gave Union soldiers experience with standardized, homogenized, routinized, and, in the artillery, mechanized work” (p.167). The “smoke and noise” of the battlefield may have, as Johnson asserts, been similar to what was found in the late nineteenth century factory but there was significantly greater risk of physical injury or death on the battlefield, as dangerous as the factories may have been. Furthermore, there are certainly cases in which female factory workers and non-veteran males were able to adapt to the routines of factory life, so the question is ultimately how important was military service? Undoubtedly, the routines of military life helped those who returned home to find similar routines in the factories of Dubuque, but would those men have been unable to adjust in the absence of military service? Johnson himself qualifies some of his conclusions in writing that [italics added] “Soldiers returned from their baptism in urban living perhaps better prepared for postwar urban society than nonveterans in the city” (p. 236). While Johnson presents a convincing argument for some relationship between military life and industrial life, the tightness of that relationship remains questionable.

Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the aftermath of the war and the homefront. He draws on census data to present a picture of the transition to industrial work by 1870 along with an interesting discussion of military service and social mobility. Johnson finds interesting evidence that none of the upwardly mobile workers and almost none of the leading entrepreneurs of 1870 had served in the Union Army. Many had in fact used the war to get ahead via government contracts or war-related businesses. Overall, the veterans’ position in Dubuque society was stable — they failed to match the upward mobility and property accumulation of nonsoldiers but they also avoided the downward mobility of those in high non-manual occupations.

The “formation of urban-industrial society” is clearly a complex social and economic development and one of importance for economic historians. While some questions remain, Johnson has succeeded in constructing an interesting case study of the importance of military service in one Northern city’s transition to an industrial economy.

Brandon Dupont is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Economics at the University of Kansas. He is currently conducting research on late nineteenth century Western banking and financial markets.