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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life In Camp VII

Updated on September 8, 2018
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I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

For Services Rendered: Soldier Wages

When men volunteered for military service, one of the incentives to do so was the soldier’s wage. As mentioned in The Union’s Path To War, at the time the American Civil War began, the North suffered from widespread unemployment. To join the army was a great way for a man to defend the Union and resume the flow of much needed income for him and his family.

In 1861, a private in the Union Army received a wage of $13 USD per month. This wage was increased to $16 USD per month in mid-1864. Officers and non-commissioned officers received higher pay.

Payment to soldiers was routinely done every two months, which was the maximum amount of time in arrears allowed by Army regulations. Payments were to be made at the ends of February, April, June, August, October, and December. However, due to extenuating circumstances (such as seriously inclement weather, the Army in the midst of battle or otherwise involved in an active and dangerous campaign, not enough funds in the U.S. Treasury, etc), pay was sometimes delayed for much longer periods of time.

Illustration of an Army Payday and the concomitant activities afterward
Illustration of an Army Payday and the concomitant activities afterward

On paydays, temporarily-appointed Paymasters, on-duty only as long as needed to pay the troops, arrived from the Paymaster General’s office. They brought their money chests which, as of September 1861, were loaded with paper currency (as opposed to coin), to the camp sites and set up their pay tables by the designated parade grounds. Company commanders formed each of their Companies for Parade and Inspection, then joined the Paymasters at their tables. Each man in the Company was called in alphabetical order, which began with the officers, then the non-commissioned officers, and finally the enlisted men. The summoned man then approached the pay table and signed a muster sheet. This sheet detailed the months for which payment was tendered, along with any other relevant notes (ie. desertion; if the man ever deserted, he was not entitled to payment for the time he was absent). Payment was then given to the soldier. For any soldiers on-duty during the payment ceremony, or were unable to attend due to sickness or leave, the Company commander accepted the pay and gave it to the absent soldiers at a later time.

J.E. Paine, Paymaster for the US Army
J.E. Paine, Paymaster for the US Army
A Paymaster's Chest
A Paymaster's Chest
Muster Sheet that shows a soldier's absences (excused or not), which affected any pay owed to him
Muster Sheet that shows a soldier's absences (excused or not), which affected any pay owed to him
An illustration of payment tendered to the troops. Note the interesting caption: "US Paymaster Paying Off Phalanx Soldiers"
An illustration of payment tendered to the troops. Note the interesting caption: "US Paymaster Paying Off Phalanx Soldiers"
Payday for army teamsters who drove the mule teams on the supply wagons
Payday for army teamsters who drove the mule teams on the supply wagons
Disbursement of pay to freedmen in Port Royal, SC
Disbursement of pay to freedmen in Port Royal, SC
US paper currency $1 "greenback"
US paper currency $1 "greenback"

Soldiers, with families, often sent large portions of their pay back home. Many simply sent some or all of their paper bills with their outgoing mail. As an alternative to that, there was an allotment method established early in the War that allowed a soldier to send a certain amount of his pay to a designated party. The soldier signed a roll, which was endorsed by his Company commander, and specified the amount of the allotment and to whom would be sent that payment. Two tickets were then issued, one to the soldier and one that accompanied the roll. This roll and ticket was sent to the soldier’s state treasury, which was then forwarded to the man’s town or village. In the meantime, the soldier mailed his ticket to the person he designated to receive the allotment. Upon delivery of the Roll and Tickets, the town or village official then notified the soldier’s designated receiver that payment was awaiting (most likely at the town hall or postmaster’s office). Upon receiving the ticket, the designated party went to the payment site and presented the ticket to the official. If the presented ticket matched the ticket with the roll, payment was tendered.

The office at Adams Express at City Point, VA in 1864 during payday. Appropriately, it is rather busy
The office at Adams Express at City Point, VA in 1864 during payday. Appropriately, it is rather busy

During the war, metals were in high demand for weaponry and other war materiel so, as noted earlier in this article, paper currency was substituted for coin as the medium of payment. The currency started in denominations of $5, $10, and $20, later including the $1 denomination, and it was uniform federal currency, as opposed to the individual states’ currency (issued from state banks). Later, paper currency, including postage stamps, tickets, and bills, was even used for small change, and were appropriately called “paper coins”.

Paper Coin of 25 cents
Paper Coin of 25 cents

A soldier’s wage, being from $156 USD to $192 USD per year, did not stretch very far. Prices of food and other items, just before the American Civil War, varied from region to region and month to month.

Here are some examples of prices just prior to the War:

Land - from $3 USD to $5 USD per acre

Rice – from $0.05 USD to $0.10 USD per pound (0.45 kg)

Flour – from $6 USD to $9 USD per barrel

Sugar – from $0.07 USD to $0.10 USD per pound (0.45 kg)

Eggs – from $0.18 USD to $0.22 USD per dozen

Coffee – from $0.77 USD to $0.85 USD per pound (0.45 kg)

During the War, however, prices tended to increase, sometimes dramatically, some of which was due to unscrupulous business dealings by hoarding farmers or merchants.

The wage of a civilian laborer was less than $1 USD per day. Given that the work week at that time was often six days a week, and averaged 10 or more hours per day, this wage came out to roughly $300 USD per year. Low as that wage may seem, it was nearly double the early-war wage of a private soldier. Furthermore, the soldier not only worked a longer day, with no days off during the week, but the hazards of the job were at least as dangerous as those of a laborer.

Land for sale during the Homestead Act in Iowa and Nebraska
Land for sale during the Homestead Act in Iowa and Nebraska

Afterword

The next article on this topic is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life In Camp VIII; Chores: Off Duty, Part I.

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