Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Civil War: Did The North Use Slave Labor?


Since I've now been forced to be blunt about the point of this article, I can tell you now that it is about child slave labor in the North during the Civil War. Because of discussions where people are trying to turn this article into something that it is not, allow me to also say that this piece is about the hypocrisy of those in the North who were against slavery in the South but were not bothered by the child slave labor going on around them.

So now, let's talk about the slave labor that took place in extremely large numbers in the North during the Civil War. We've all heard of the "Industrial Might" of the Northern states during the Civil War compared to the South's agricultural base. So now let's talk about the child slave labor behind that "industrial Might" in the North. Yes, let's talk about a subject that no one seems to talk about. Let's talk about the North's use of slave labor in the form of forced child labor. Let's talk about the forced child labor that accounted for 45% to 55% of all of the labor used in the North during the Civil War.

No one talks about who worked in the factories in the North. No one talks about the huge percentage of child labor that took place in those factories. No one talks about how the North used child slave labor before, during, and after the Civil War. No one talks about how the emancipation of children did not come about until decades after black slaves in the South experienced emancipation.

Let's point to the fact that young children routinely worked in the United States legally for many years before and after we became a nation. Some have indicated that black slave labor in the South does not compare to child slave labor in the North because the children were not property as the blacks were. Though that was the reality of black slaves, when looking at the way children in the factories and in mines were treated, one has to ask if the children were treated the same or worse than property?

Children were enslaved, they were separated from their families, they were certainly exposed to serious hazards and health risks, and they were left to fend for themselves. Child labor abuses were plentiful during the Industrial Revolution from 1820 to 1870. But it did not end in 1870. It continued for another 60 years.

Industrialization attracted workers and their families. Many relocated from farms and rural areas to cities to do factory work. In factories and mines, children were actually preferred by businesses because owners saw children as more manageable, a lot cheaper, and unwilling to strike.

Our children worked in mines, manufacturing plants, factories of all sorts, textiles plants, agriculture in a number of ways including harvests, and canneries all over the North. And yes, they were newsboys, peddlers, messengers, and bootblacks. The lucky ones swept the trash and filth from city streets, stood for hours on street corners pushing newspapers, and delivered messages for pennies. Others worked in the mines and coughed up coal dust all through a 10 to 12 hour shift in the heat of the dark. Others sweat to the point of passing out while tending factory furnaces. 

On the overall child laborers were the sons and daughters of poor parents, and of course recent immigrants who depended on their children’s measly wages to survive. They were the children of industry and large cities in the North during the Civil War. What blacks slaves were to the South, they were to the North. 

Fact is forms of child labor, including indentured servitude and child slavery, have existed throughout our history. It actually predates our independence. Some were lucky and were treated easier than others. Others were treated as property.

Fact is, we can trace child slave labor back to before the United States was founded in 1776. It's true, there was child slave labor in the 18th century. From farms to factories, young children were used as laborers. 

As British colonies, long before our independence, English laws allowed for children to work in everything from farms to manufacturing. By 1833, when the British outlawed black slaves, child slavery in the form of indentured servants and forced child labor was common place in England. 

Of course, American colonial laws modeled their laws after British laws. And yes, those laws forced many children into workhouses, factories, and into mines. In fact, those laws allowed for orphan boys to be placed into apprenticeships in trades. Orphan girls were sent into homes to do domestic work, work in laundries, and of course work in sweatshops. 

After we broke away from England, American industry kept up the practice and sought out children to use in facilities through out the former colonies. Child labor served Alexander Hamilton's vision of America. He saw child labor as providing increased labor to support industry. In accordance with this vision, when Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury, he actually stated in a 1791 report on manufacturing, "children who would otherwise be idle could become a source of cheap labor." Around the same time, a national newsweekly printed their opinion stating that "factory work was not for able-bodied men, but rather better done by little girls from six to twelve years old."

Besides advertisements seeking children from the ages of 8 to 12 to work in a cotton mills in the North, it's said that by 1820 children made up more than 40 percent of the mill employees in at least three New England states. So while it is said that the manufacturing industry that grew following the Civil War required children as young as 8 years old, we should recognize that forced child labor in factories, in retail stores, on the streets, on farms, in mines, and elsewhere, took place long before the Civil War.

In fact, this was so much the case, that in 1842, there were a few Northern states that begin to limit a child’s work day. Massachusetts lowered a child’s work day from 14 hours to 10 hours, but most of laws were not enforced. And Massachusetts was not the only state to use forced child labor, child slavery, in the industrial North during the Civil War.


It is a fact that women and children dominated pre-Civil War manufacturing in the North. It is a fact that the number of children used in the North actually increased during the Civil War because of the need for everything from uniforms, to shoes and belts, hats and hardware. Yes, the beans, bullets, and bandages that keep an Army functioning.

So please make no mistake about it, while the South had black slavery that they considered property, the North had child slavery that they considered property. Fact is, in the North, children replaced the need for adults as many Northern men were pressed into service in the Union Army.

And while the North was afraid of the influx of freed slaves fleeing the South, Northerners in fact re-enslaved many freed slave children just as they did the children of immigrants during the Civil War. It's true as the children of freed slaves in the North were treated the same as other children in that they worked 10, 12, or 14 hours a day and six days a week. And while those children were in essence re-enslaved through forced labor and apprenticeship agreements, they were bound to companies no differently than they were to their slave masters in the South.

In 1870, the first U.S. census report on child labor numbers accounted for 750,000 workers under the age of 13. These figures came mostly from Northern states. These numbers did not include children who worked for their families or on farms.

For many years, not much changed in the North pertaining to using forced child labor. But after the Civil War, forced child labor abuses became routine nation wide as more cities adopted the practice. And yes, the scams to get more children increased. For example, in New York City in the 1870s, there was a scam going around that had to do with Italians who secured employment for Italian immigrants. The scam was child slavery under the guise of apprenticeship.

The people responsible for that scam deceived Italian parents residing in Italy into willingly sending their children to America to begin an apprentice program. Once agreements were signed, then the children were shipped to America. At the docks, they met and immediately forced to work in horrible conditions. And as it was the case throughout the North for many years, if the children failed to comply then they were beaten and starved.

This was happening so much so that in 1873, just eight years after the Civil War, the New York Times stated, "The world has given up on stealing men from the African coast, only to kidnap children from Italy."

While forced child labor was pretty much restricted to the Union states during the Civil War, after the war it had became more and more common place throughout the nation. Southerners followed the example set by Northerners and filled the openings left by freed black slaves with that of women and children. And yes, forced child labor and apprenticeship agreements extended to businesses in the South after the war. 

It is said that freed slaves willingly exchanged the labor of their children for "training" provided by their former slave owners. Yes, after the Civil War, black freed slave parents forced their children into re-enslavement. Imagine that.

Slavery comes in a number of different forms, there is Forced Marriage, Domestic Servitude, Indentured Servants, Forces Labor, Bonded Labor, Child Labor, and Sex Trafficking. As for "chattel slavery"? Chattel slavery is the "owning" of human beings as property. They are bought, sold, given, and inherited. Since slaves in this context have no personal freedom or recognized rights to decide the direction of their own lives, isn't that comparable to what they did to children until the 1930s? 

The child slave market was filled by hiring others to find them and detain them. In some cases it was from orphanages, other times it was from a family that was destitute, they were lied to and held prisoner and even kidnapped. They were sold into bondage and stolen. They had no personal freedom or recognized rights, were beaten and starved, had bounties put on their heads if they escaped from where they were housed or worked, and were in some case shackled to machinery and given a coffee can to urinate in. To me, that's slavery. That is certainly not the life of a free person.

As for child labor laws, in 1904, Federal child labor reform laws began to take shape. But that didn't stop employers from putting children to work. In fact, by 1911, it is said that more than Two Million American children under the age of 14 were working 12 to 14 hour day for six days a week. 

And yes, well into the 1900s, children worked in unhealthful and hazardous conditions, and always for what was known as slave wages. As for unhealthful and hazardous conditions, even into the 1900s, young girls continued to work in mills and garment factories. They faced the danger of losing fingers or even a foot while standing on top of machines to change bobbins. They risked being scalped alive if their hair got caught in the machinery.

As for the children younger than 10 who were forced to work in the coal mines, they were known as breaker boys. In many instances they were smothered and crushed by piles of coal, or simply fell down a shaft. Breaker boys faced the threat of cave-ins, gas leaks, explosions, and other hazards that adult miners did. But let's be honest and talk about their slave wages as they made 10 times less than the adults who they worked beside. 

While black emancipation came about in 1863, it wasn't until 1938 that Federal regulations of child labor was achieved in the Fair Labor Standards Act. And while it did not emancipate children completely, at least it limited the minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children through Federal law.

The point of my article has gone completely over the heads of some folks. I've never condoned or tried to downplay the suffering of black slaves in the South. I have never ever tried to defend slavery of any sort, nor would I ever. I certainly would not defend slavery in South. This article in not about the slaves in the South. 

The point is regarding child slave labor during the Civil War in the North. It is about the hypocrisy of those in the North who were against slavery in the South, but were OK with what was taking place in the factories and the mines in the North.

Their hypocrisy is in regards to what offended them. It was selective at best. While they were rightfully offended by blacks in chains, they were hypocrites in that they should not have turned a blind eye to the child slave labor practices that were in fact taking place around them in the North at the same time.

Those labor practices, while no longer applied to blacks after emancipation, were certainly applied to children until it stopped in the late 1930s. And the only reason it stopped is that adults needed jobs. Adults saw children as taking jobs away from adults during the Great Depression, and that's when it stopped.

Tom Correa



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