We do not often associate labor unions with the American Civil War, but the conflict catalyzed ongoing tensions between workers, employers, and the government over the question of work, pay, and equality in the ascendant free labor capitalist economy. Take, for example, the seamstresses in Philadelphia, New York, Cincinnati, and St. Louis who sewed cut out cloth pieces into completed jackets, pants, shirts, and underwear for the United States Army.
The United States Army Quartermaster Department provided millions of uniform parts to soldiers, and it had two ways of producing them. Arsenals, like the one at Philadelphia, employed seamstresses directly. The Quartermaster also contracted with ready-made clothing manufacturers, who in turn coordinated the work of women. And in that arrangement, seamstresses noted a difference in compensation. For example, An arsenal seamstress earned, $1.25 for a complete jacket; a seamstress working for a contractor earned 80¢ for the same product.
From the outset, many women found these conditions unfair. But then in 1863, inflation struck the United States, causing downward wage pressure from contractors that depressed wages. As the cost of living became untenable, women organized in cities around the U.S.
In New York, women formed the Working Women’s Union and the Sewing Women’s Protective and Benevolent Association. Women in Philadelphia started up the Working Women’s Relief Association. These organizations held mass meetings and petitioned the U.S. War Department to alleviate both the pay inequality and what they regarded as the undue profits collected by contractors, and not the seamstresses themselves. They did not hold their opinions back.
Martha Yeager of Philadelphia condemned contractors: “The person who would live off the labor of others, and thus grow rich at their expense, is an aristocrat.” She and her association pledged to “protest against, and vigorously and righteously denounce the infamous contract system, by which we are robbed of more than half our wages, while it puts large profits in the pockets of a few speculators and contractors, and by which we are impoverished.”
At the heart of the seamstress’s appeal lay a demand that working people in the United States—American citizens, anyway—be enabled to earn what we would call a living wage. They regarded corporations and capitalists as hindering that ability and insisted that the Quartermaster Department freeze out contractors and directly employ the women doing the actual work.
Their pleas reached the government in Washington. In 1864 officials at the War Department made a difficult determination. They agreed to raise wages for arsenal employees while at the same time continuing to employ contractors, whose depressed wages reduced the price of a costly war.
Elsewhere in war industries—like the coal fields of Pennsylvania or armories in New York, male workers facing similar pressures organized labor unions and struck. The Federal government, in turn, deployed the military to break the strikes. (Slave state labor managers, of course, also used force on their workers—enslaved people—who did not have recourse as citizens to organize or demand anything.)
At the heart of the Civil War and at the center of the free labor ideology that would eventually prevail, labor, corporations, and government were working out who should have power, who should profit, and who would be able to survive in a nation undergoing a revolution. These tensions only continued into the great labor cataclysms of the Gilded Age as the United States increasingly organized its economy around industrial capitalism.
For more, see Mark R. Wilson, The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865.