Brian Luskey is Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University. This interview is based on his new book, Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Men is Cheap?
BL: My book illuminates three interests of mine–the importance of middlemen in the nineteenth-century American economy, the cultural conversation about bad businessmen in this era, and the economic history of ordinary people in the Civil War–and constitutes my attempt to show that these themes intersect with each other.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Men is Cheap?
BL: Fought to uphold the ideal of “free labor,” the war for Union encouraged Northern entrepreneurs, employers, and soldiers to envision their impending success through the accumulation of capital, and Yankees often sought the independence that capital purchased by employing laborers whom the war had made vulnerable. The war seemed to offer some Northerners opportunities to get rich because it clarified that other Americans were poor.
JF: Why do we need to read Men is Cheap?
BL: My book shows how the Civil War and the wage labor economy shaped each other. It is about labor brokers–failed businessmen, recruiters, officers, soldiers, and bounty men–who facilitated the movement of workers–Irish immigrants, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and Union soldiers and veterans–to work in the army and in northern households during the Civil War. The economic activities of these brokers and the cultural conflict about them reveal the nature and limits of free labor ideology as northern employers sought to benefit from the destruction of slavery and slavery’s capital during the war.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BL: I’ve been interested in American History since a family trip to the Gettysburg battlefield when I was eight years old. My parents bought me Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War and I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I was a student at Davidson College when mentors such as Vivien Dietz, John Wertheimer, and Sally McMillen taught me not only how to be a good historian but also that being an academic historian was a career option. I fell in love with historical research and writing under their tutelage, and the rest is history.
JF: What is your next project?
BL: Honestly, I don’t know what my next book will be about, but I’m preparing to write an article about the relationships Abraham and Mary Lincoln forged with laboring people and the ways the Lincolns served as labor brokers in the Civil War Era.
JF: Thanks, Brian!