- Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class by Mark A. Lause
As the Civil War came to a close in spring of 1865, the fate of slavery seemed assured. Slaves and their allies had destroyed chattel bondage in a bloody melee that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. What would emerge in the aftermath, however, was only coming into view. So it was with no small irony that the New Orleans Tribune could declare in April 1865 that “Slavery is dead, but ‘free labor’ still lives and has yet to be killed” (New Orleans Tribune, April 9, 1865). The many complexities of this simple declaration wend through Mark A. Lause’s valuable synthesis of what the Civil War meant to working people and class formation in the nineteenth-century United States. That meaning is announced plainly in the book’s opening sentence: “The Civil War proved central to the making of an American working class” (p. ix).
Lause’s case for the war’s centrality in U.S. labor history weaves together many stories that are often told separately. Perhaps most important, the book unites the destruction of slavery with the history of organized labor during the war years. Lause argues effectively that the war destroyed the antebellum labor movement, often literally by killing off both its leadership and its rank and file. At the same time, a new labor movement emerged that focused on government action and politics to achieve its relatively limited ends. Lause sees the mass mobilization of slaves during the war as a path not taken by white workers, as mass protest was constructed in racialized ways by ruling elites. In large part this outcome occurred because of the ways the war redirected economic development and massively increased the scope and power of the central state.
The book has much more to say about work, class, race, gender, and the modern state than can be captured in a short review, and it also provides an [End Page 690] excellent synthesis of the daily struggles of working people during the war. For instance, it looks carefully at strike waves in key cities such as New York and Boston and investigates industrial development and labor action in important Confederate centers such as Richmond, Nashville, and New Orleans. Along the way, and in a separate chapter, it carefully examines the divergent experiences of working women.
For all the book’s many strengths, it does seem like there are some missed opportunities. The main narrative ends in 1865 and then skips to an epilogue that centers on the epochal strike of 1877. Such a choice necessarily short circuits the important developments of Reconstruction, especially for freedpeople. In a book concerned with free labor and government power, it seems that some analysis of the Freedmen’s Bureau is warranted. Moreover, Reconstruction marked a time when laboring people in the South perhaps gained more political power than at any other time in U.S. history, especially at the local level. That those laborers were African American makes that noteworthy achievement all the more worth bringing into “labor” history.
The history of laboring people often begins after the Civil War, with the antebellum period as brief prologue. Lause’s work restores the war years to their rightful place in the story. It shows that those tumultuous times were a struggle not only for the Union but for unions as well.