Encyclopedia of Homelessness
In the years immediately after the Civil War and continuing through the serious economic depressions the United States experienced in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1930s, thousands of men (and a few women – the number of female vagrants have always been difficult to estimate because many dressed as men for comfort and for physical safety) traveled from place to place, some in search of work, some in search of crime, and some in search of adventure. The writer Josiah Flynt (1869-1907), who tramped across the United States, estimated in the 1890s that about 60,000 men were on the road.
Beginning with Civil War veterans who rode the rails without paying their fares, vagrants have been associated with the railroads in the public’s mind. The Civil War veterans were followed by tramps and hoboes (many uprooted by war even if they were not veterans) who used the newly laid ribbons of rail to travel faster and further than ever before. Railroad vagrancy was dangerous; estimates were that almost 24,000 trespassers, most of whom were hoboes, were killed and an equal number injured between 1901 and 1905.
Many Civil War veterans couldn’t, or didn’t want to, return home and took jobs with the expanding railroads. Between 1866 and 1873, 35,000 miles of new track was laid across the country, much of it as part of the Transcontinental Railroad. The laborers moved west with the track that they laid.
The Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed led men to climb aboard the freight trains in search of work. Jumping on slow-moving freights, they moved across the country following the different harvest seasons or working in mining or lumber camps. The situation repeated itself with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Thousands of men, in search of work, took to the rails and roads.
A darker vision of the itinerant life was informed by a near endless tide of newspaper articles during the depressions of the 1870s and 1890s, when the numbers of tramps and hoboes grew into the millions. Their headlines, a mixture of fact and fiction, decried the “Tramp Menace” and portrayed tramps and hoboes as violent, lazy, and ready to riot and pillage at any moment. Yale professor Francis Wayland famously called the tramp a “lazy, shiftless, sauntering or swaggering, ill-conditions, irreclaimable, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savage” (Wayland 1877, 113).
Encyclopedia of Homelessness
Time and again, the literature on tramping returns to “the lazy habits of camp-life” acquired by the millions of men who served in the Union army curing the Civil War. “This tramp system is undoubtedly an outgrowth of the war,” stated on Massachusetts police official in 1878. “The bummers of our armies,” he continued, “could not give up their habits of roving and marauding, and settle down to the honest and industrious duties of the citizen.” Another charities official in 1877 explained that the war had taught “to a large number of laboring men, the methods of the bivouac.” Having learned how to travel quickly, find temporary shelter, forage for food, and otherwise “trust to-morrow to take care of to-morrow,” the Civil War veteran, according to this theory, possessed the skills necessary to live without working.
Renowned private detective and Union army spy Allan Pinkerton (left) also had no doubt that “our late war created thousands of tramps.” Having spent part of this youth as a tramping barrel maker in Scotland, Pinkerton had a great fondness for army “camp-life,” but admitted that the only habits it fostered were “to play social guerilla and forage.” Similarly, the first novel about tramping, Lee O. Harris’s The Man Who Tramps: A Story of To-day, explains the rise of tramping with reference to the Civil War. In telling his story about villainous tramps who “stir up strife between capital and labor” Harris digressing to describe how the war lured many of the “manufacturing and producing classes” into the thralls of trampdom. “The reckless, free life of the army had given them a taste to wandering and a distaste for every species of labor,” Harris explains. Once discharged, old soldiers recruited others into the habits of the bivouac, which offered “so many fascinations, so much change and adventure….”
The Civil War did indeed shape the contours of the tramp crisis. The very term “tramp” gained currency during the war to denote the kind of exhausting marches to which virtually all combatants were subjected. More importantly, the war had also spurred railroad construction in the North to facilitate the rapid movement of troops. The first men to clamber aboard a boxcar were not homeless job seekers, but soldiers headed toward or away from battle lines. Scattered accounts also suggest that the trauma of war itself created a population of the walking wounded, those afflicted by an “acute mania” that prevented them from settling down or adjusting to domestic life. Prisons of the late 1860s swelled with demobilized veterans, many of whom had hitched freight rides home after being mustered out of the army. Memories of the terrors and thrills of combat, as well as the camaraderie of camp life, caused more than a few veterans to chafe against what one soldier called the “monotonous quiet of home” and to turn to a life of unfocused wandering.
...The ideal of American for which so many millions of northerners fought was the one where the “producing classes” – laborers and capitalists alike – reaped the wealth they created, rather than see it siphoned off by social “parasites,” such as speculators, bankers, rich planters, or vagabonds “unwilling to work.”
The unemployment crisis of the 1870s undermined the free labor ideal by exposing the fundamental rift between employers and employees. While the depression destroyed many capitalists, it also served to concentrate markets, productions, and therefore wealth into the hands of fewer corporations. For workers, the depression precipitated a desperate struggle merely to maintain wage employment, a struggle that mocked any dreams of independent ownership. While Americans never agreed on what precisely the term meant, the notion of the “producing classes” lent a coherent sense of partnership to capital and labor. Now that partnership seemed torn. Instead of a unified nation of diverse producers working together to create wealth, the United States seemed divided, as the Populists would so memorably put it years later, into “two great classes – tramps and millionaires.” By the end of the depression of the 1870s, violent conflict would unmistakably confirm this sense of growing social cleavage.
Citizen Hobo, Todd Pastino