Matthew E. Stanley. Grand Army of Labor: Workers, Veterans, and the Meaning of the Civil War

In: Journal of Labor and Society
Chad PearsonDepartment of History, University of North Texas, 1155 Union Circle #310650, Denton, TX 75074, USA

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Matthew E. Stanley. Grand Army of Labor: Workers, Veterans, and the Meaning of the Civil War (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2021).

Matthew E. Stanley has written a wonderful book about how American Civil War memory shaped movements from below. In seven well-crafted chapters, Stanley, exploring the years from the Reconstruction period to the 1930s, highlights the various ways it inspired members of the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, an assortment of farmers’ organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World, and Socialists. Drawing on letters, left-leaning publications, poems, and songs, he demonstrates how these people found emancipatory lessons from the nation’s most far-reaching military and labor conflict. Finding inspiration from the actions of wartime policymakers, heroic soldiers, and rebellious slaves, many saw themselves as part of a larger movement for liberation.

This book has many virtues. First, Stanley takes race seriously, demonstrating the ideas and struggles of both white and black workers in the Civil War’s aftermath. Additionally, Stanley draws sharp distinctions between his book and other memory studies. Rather than present a redemptive, feel-good story about how opposing sides ultimately came together for the good of the nation following the war, Stanley spotlights continuous conflicts in both workplaces and in politics. He does a fantastic job of differentiating his study from those who, as he puts it, “present veterans who are insufficiently political, and often overlook subaltern forms of remembering regarding proletarian culture” (Stanley, 2021: 14).

Stanley introduces us to thoughtful cases of “subaltern forms of remembering,” illustrating how wartime memories ignited additional forms of resistance (Stanley, 2021: 14). He underscores the many new battles waged by war veterans and former slaves after they left the battlefields and plantations. Former slaves in the Reconstruction period, according to Stanley, “expected reimbursement in return for centuries of labor theft on a tremendous scale” (Stanley, 2021: 26). In northern cities, the mostly white Union veterans found themselves laboring in pitiful conditions while rediscovering the virtues of comradeship. Decades after challenging Lee and Forrest, many showed a determination to fight Carnegie and Morgan.

Stanley reminds us that the same Republican Party that had championed emancipation and promoted the expansion of free labor in the era of the Civil War had become a defender of the nation’s most exploitative robber barons in the 1870s. Its evolution from engine of liberation to defender of inequality caused alarm in labor and left-leaning quarters. Wage earners were, after all, routinely victimized by employer abuses backed by Republican politicians. Elected Republican leaders, including governors and presidents, unleashed troops to break strikes and protect scabs during disputes, triggering profound feelings of bitterness. “The army of emancipation,” Stanley writes, “became the army of capital” (Stanley, 2021: 93). Some expressed feelings of nostalgia. Populists in particular, Stanley demonstrates, yearned for the days when Lincoln headed the party, bemoaning, as an essay in the Kansas Agitator put it, the shift from “the doctrine of Lincoln to the doctrine of Carnegie” (Stanley, 2021: 145).

Postwar workers sought relief from the drama of picket-line repression as well as from workplace exploitation. Indeed, laborers were generally subjected to worksites—led by ruthless bosses determined to exploit laborers to the fullest—that bred boredom, exhaustion, frustration, and general misery. In response to disagreeable conditions, Stanley shows that many industrial workers and their supporters regularly employed the word “slavery” to describe their own postwar conditions. A diversity of labor, farmer, and leftist activists repeatedly denounced what they called “wage slavery,” declaring that, as Stanley puts it, “the Civil War remained unfinished” (Stanley, 2021: 74). Stanley’s exploration of the phrase “wage slavery” is hardly original, but he provides perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of it available. Such language, we learn, helped organizers build their unions, and sizable numbers rushed to join what growing numbers of late nineteenth century activists called the “new antislavery movement” (Stanley, 2021: 61).

Stanley carefully describes this so-called “new antislavery movement,” noting that it attracted a diversity of participants—and not all used it in the same ways. For example, some middle-class reformers, seeking to draw attention to what they considered the horrors of prostitution, used the words “white slavery” to describe the plight of sex workers. In the process, Stanley claims, they “downplayed the realities of antebellum chattel slavery” (Stanley, 2021: 74). Such individuals were more concerned with what they considered expressions of immorality than with the cruel, mind-numbing, and often dangerous realities of life on southern plantations or in nation’s shop floors and coal mines.

Stanley is mostly interested in the views and actions of industrial wage earners, labor activists, and socialists, and in addition to using the language of slavery, these people found value in invoking the memories of prominent anti-slavery figures, including clear-eyed abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Brown as well as Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. The great socialist Eugene Debs, for example, believed, as Stanley puts it, that anti-slavery activists and policymakers “had been anti-capitalist progenitors” (Stanley, 2021: 198). This earlier cohort, Debs hoped, would offer inspiration to militant unions like the Western Federation of Miners, which staged high-profile strikes against employers during the misnamed “Progressive Era.”

Importantly, memory about the Civil War, Lincoln, and the ideology of free labor also shaped the views of labor’s chief adversaries, including those in the frontlines of the union-busting “open shop” movement. Stanley tells us that leaders of the Citizens’ Industrial Association of America and the National Association of Manufacturers, including David M. Parry and C. W. Post, routinely compared organized laborers to “rebels and slaveholders” (Stanley, 2021: 159). Such figures opposed unions, Stanley maintains, because of “their militancy in the service of so-called time theft and interference with private property” (Stanley, 2021: 159).

Stanley is likely correct about the real reasons why leaders of employers’ associations disdained labor unions, but that is hardly how they presented their positions. Open-shop movement leaders, some of whom pioneered savvy propaganda techniques, presented themselves as the living agents of Lincolnian political actions as they demanded that unionists allow “free laborers” to work without holding union membership. The open-shop movement was hailed in many corners for offering scabs protection. While early Republican Party spokesmen called for “Free Labor, Free Soil, Free Men,” open-shop movement propagandists promoted, as Civil War veteran and open-shop movement leader William Pfahler put it in 1903, “Free Shops for Free Men” (Pfahler, 1903: 183–189). Parry’s followers even referred to Parry as “The Abraham Lincoln of the Twentieth Century” (Simons, 1904: 205). And Post once claimed that the Citizens’ Industrial Association of America’s widely repeated motto, “for the Protection of the Common People,” was modeled on a statement he had heard from Lincoln as a boy while living in Springfield, Illinois (Montreal Gazette, 1905). For Pfahler, Parry, Post, and their allies, protecting the “common people” meant safeguarding the rights of business owners and scabs. Here Stanley missed an opportunity to tie organized employers’ application of the “free labor” slogan to Progressive Era labor relations.

But this is a very minor issue, especially since Stanley’s primary focus is on how working-class activists made sense of the war. This well-written and thoughtful book will undoubtedly appeal to readers of this journal. I am confident that historians and labor activists will find much value in it.


  • Pfahler, W.Free Shops for Free Men.Publications of the American Economic Association 4 (1) (1903), 183189.

  • Simons, M.W.Employers’ Associations.The International Socialist Review 5 (4) (1904) 193202.

  • Montreal Gazette.Champions Open Shop.Montreal Gazette (18 September 1905).

  • Stanley, M.E. Grand Army of Labor: Workers, Veterans, and the Meaning of the Civil War. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2021).

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