This Day (Rich Man’s War Edition)

Published:October 11, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the second conscription act (the first having been passed April 16), which raised the top age of those white men eligible for the draft from 35 to 45. It also added a special exemption for the owners of twenty or more slaves. This provision came to be known as the Twenty-Slave Law and it was controversial in much of the South, where it served to exacerbate certain social rifts and led to claims by drafted soldiers that they were fighting a “rich man’s war.”

Was this actually true, though? Was it a rich man’s war?

According to Joe Glatthaar, author of our entry on the Army of Northern Virginia, slightly more than one in eight soldiers owned slaves, but more than 37 percent either owned slaves themselves or they lived with their families, and their families owned slaves. In other words, these soldiers had an investment in slavery that influenced their decision to fight. A soldier recalled a joke made by an Irish-born private in the 12th Georgia Infantry: “A short time ago he bought a negro, he says, to have something to fight for.”

This insight is corroborated by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, author of our entry on Virginia soldiers who fought for the Confederacy:

… the Civil War in Virginia was a rich man’s fight. Several recent studies have used quantitative evidence to demonstrate that wealthy men were overrepresented in the armed forces. Contrary to the notion that poor men did all the fighting, both aggregate data and individual sampling reveal that wealthy counties sent more men than poor counties did and that wealthy individuals were found at all levels of the service in greater proportion than within the population.

Certainly not what I learned in school, but then, I was raised by commie pinkos …

IMAGE: Confederate prisoners after the Battle of Gettysburg (1863)


4 Comments on “This Day (Rich Man’s War Edition)”

  1. Virginia S. Wood

    I think what you learned in school still holds.

    Using the above statistics, you can see that 63% did NOT own slaves or have family members who did–nearly 2/3 of the Confederate armed forces. And as rich people typically make up only a very small percentage of the total population, they can still be over-represented at all levels of a military organization and remain a small minority.

    Finally, in the rural South, the number of wealthy counties would also have been a small minority, so my bet is that in the aggregate, more men came from poor counties than rich ones.

    Wealthy men were able to pay substitutes to fight for them; the very existence of this little loophole makes the Civil War a rich man’s war if only in the sense that the little guy was literally fighting for the rich man.

  2. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Virginia. While you are right that most men who fought in the Army of Northern Virginia were not rich, I think the point of the statistics was to suggest that the wealthy, at least in 1861 and 1862, were enlisting at something like (or even above) their proportions in their counties and states. This suggests that what I was taught — that rich men started the war but didn’t necessarily want to fight it — was not entirely true.

  3. Andy Hall

    Virginia S. Wood wrote:

    “And as rich people typically make up only a very small percentage of the total population, they can still be over-represented at all levels of a military organization and remain a small minority.”

    True enough, but it’s a mistake to think that slaveholding in the antebellum South was confined to the rich, or very wealthy. In my own very rural, agrarian state, Texas, about a fourth of free households owned slaves. In Mississippi, it was upwards of one-half. Slaveholding, at least on a small scale, was not a feature confined to those with great wealth. In fact, it was extremely common among whites who had attained any significant level of financial success.

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