- Warriors into Workers: The Civil War and the Formation of Urban-Industrial Society in a Northern City
Considerations of the Civil War as a catalyst for industrial revolution have persisted for nearly four score after Charles and Mary Beard articulated their notably provocative thesis. In Warriors into Workers, Russell Johnson brings his Thompsonian-brand of Marxian history to bear on the question by suggesting that military service in the Union army served as an agent of proletarianization and thus facilitated the growth of an industrial workforce and an "urban-industrial society." This is an ambitious project; perhaps too much so. But any shortcomings in the work certainly cannot be attributed to a lack of diligence in Johnson's research. He has demonstrated remarkable dexterity in drawing from a mosaic of sources that include census data, newspapers, diaries, regimental histories, and state documents to historically reconstruct the politics and culture of nineteenth-century Dubuque, Iowa.
It is Dubuque that serves as the contextual and evidentiary backdrop for Johnson's study, and it proves a fruitful and intriguing site to examine the social changes wrought by the war. Indeed, it is in Johnson's narrative of Dubuque that one gleans the true gems of the study. First established as a mining town in the 1830s, Dubuque's proximity to the Mississippi encouraged its development as a commercial center during the flush times of the 1840s and 1850s. The boom came to an abrupt end with the Panic of 1857, however, and Johnson establishes the crash, and the city's subsequent transition to an industrial economy, as the fundamental social context for understanding Dubuque's wartime experiences. Johnson's skillful teasing of the sources results in a fascinating depiction of the city as a Democratic island, bolstered by a rapidly increasing population of Irish immigrants, amid the sea of the Republican Midwest. The inherent tensions of Dubuque's dynamic two-party system, both political and personal, are evinced most remarkably in Johnson's discussion in chapter 2 of wartime mobilization through volunteer enlistments and conscription. His informative account here moves beyond the routine ideological, political, and demographic characterizations and reveals the disproportionate influences of the town newspaper editors on local politics and, by extension, the implementation (or not) of national policies.
Problems arise, however, when Johnson tries to insert his theoretically ambitious thesis into his otherwise compelling narrative of Civil War Dubuque. Chapter 4, "The Army as an Industrial Workplace," and to a lesser extent, chapter [End Page 77] 5, "The Army as an Urban Working-Class Environment," stand in stark contrast to the insightful and sophisticated analysis that graced Johnson's discussion of mobilization. Chapter 4 principally is grounded in weak analogies that compare the regimentation of service in the combat arms with the discipline necessary for manufacturing and industrial labors and reflect his falling prey to the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Similar military tactics had been in practice for nearly a century and had not provided sufficient cause for proletarianization. Indeed, a great many Iowans (and a good bit of the Confederate army) served in combat arms units and underwent the same drills, the same regimentation, only to easily return to agrarian lifestyles in the years following the war. Furthermore, four years in the artillery did not necessarily make an individual suitable for factory work, a fact that many factory managers and industrial capitalists no doubt lamented. Johnson's argument here could profit by a discussion of Dubuque's particular experience in implementing the vagrancy laws that inform Amy Dru Stanley's study of contract labor in the postwar years. Instead, the reader is left with a largely prosopographical analysis that demonstrates that veterans did not attain the same level of social mobility as those who did not serve. While this is an interesting point in its own right, it is a stretch to suggest that this fact indicates that military service was a fundamental instrument in creating the "work-discipline" of...