Salary for top level military leaders during and after the American Civil War

Postage stamp images of Union Generals. From left to right; William T. Sherman, U.S. Grant, and Phillip Sheridan. Courtesy of Adobe Stock.

This may not be ancient finances, but salary paid to the senior level military commanders in the 1860s and 1870s provides a worthwhile point of reference.

William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life by James Lee McDonough is a delightful biography of the general. Gen. Sherman was a prolific letter writer. This book looks at his thoughts and feelings by diving into his personal and official correspondence.

The book also provides multiple comments on his compensation level and financial conditions. For his entire married life he struggled with finances, with his large and growing salary never been able to quite keep up with his wife Ellen’s taste for the good life.

Following posts will mention some comments in the book on cost of nice housing, gifts to public figures, travel times, and logistics.

Compensation levels

While serving in the Army in California, Sherman formed a partnership and funded a retail store. He was making $70 a month. Each of the three men in the partnership chipped in $500 and drew out $2,000, make a profit of $1500 each.

Promotions were very slow in the pre-Civil War army. In 1853, after 13 years of active duty, he was a junior captain. His pay then, even if you were to get a rare promotion to major or colonel, was not enough to meet Ellen’s financial needs. Thus he left the Army and tried his hand in banking out in California.

The price of horses is one indicator of inflation during the gold rush in California. The book says horses which would otherwise have sold in the range of $15 to $20 were going for between $75 and $100. That is inflation of something in the range of fivefold. In 1854 gold was going for $16 an ounce.

He became a Major General in August 1864.

In late 1864 after the march to the sea before turning north, Sherman was a Major General, wearing two stars. He mentioned in a letter his salary was about $550 per month.

In the summer of 1866, Grant was promoted to Gen. of the Army. Sherman was promoted to Lieutenant General, wearing three stars, which was Grant’s previous rank. Page 661 says this “approximately doubled” his salary.

In early 1867, his pay was $1070 a month. At that point he was in charge of all of the Army forces in the West.

In March 1869, Grant was inaugurated as president. He previously was general-in-chief of the Army. At that point Sherman received his fourth star, with rank of full general. Text says his salary was “nearly $19,000”.

He retired in 1883 at full salary plus allowances.

This provides the following data points for a very senior level general:

  • month – year – rank – timeframe
  • $70 – $840 – 1st Lt. – about 1847
  • $550 – $6,600 – Maj. Gen. – 1864
  • $1,070 – $12,840 – Lt. Gen. – 1866 – promotion “about doubled” his pay
  • ~$1,550 – nearly $19,000 – Gen. (4 star) – 1969

The first edition of his memoirs were published in 1875. The second edition was published in 1886. Text indicates the two-volume set had a first run of 25,000 copies. Those were sold at seven dollars per set. Sherman received $25,000 as payment for the second edition. Text is not mentioned that he earned for the first edition.

Update: comparison to modern pay scale added:

Comparison to flag-officer pay today

As a very rough comparison, here is a calculation of current pay for an active duty general. I will use as comparison a one-star general (O-7) and three-star general (O-9). Reason for this comparison is pay for O-9 and O-10 generals is capped at the Level II of the Executive Schedule for civilian employees. Information source:  pay scale, housing allowance, subsistence allowance.

The pay for Sherman as Lt. Gen. was 1.95 times his pay as Maj. Gen. His pay as (full) Gen. was about 2.8 times his pay as Maj. Gen.

Just for fun, I will throw in the current pay for a junior officer, assuming O-3 (captain) at 10 years is a rough comparison to Sherman as O-2 (1 Lt. at 13 years).

Current pay:

O-3 O-7 O-8 O-9 component
   6,271     12,909     14,991     15,800 base pay, maxes out at 34 yeas
    2,862       3,315       3,315       3,315 housing allowance, DC area
       253         253          253          253 subsistence allowance, with dependents
    9,386     16,477     18,559     19,368 monthly pay, with allowances
112,632   197,724   222,708   232,416 annual pay, with allowances
         1.13          1.18 ratio to O-7

During and after the Civil War, there was a dramatic pay raise for Lt. Gen. rank and general-in-chief. That is a sharp contrast to today, when the joint chiefs and command generals are limited to the civil service Executive Schedule. That restriction results in there being only a small pay raise from earning a second star, tiny raise from earning a third star, and no raise from the fourth star.

I will adjust the modern Maj. Gen. pay rate based on the proportions that Sherman experienced. That will give step up the current O-8 pay by 1.95 times for O-9, and 2.8 times for O-10.

My rough calculations of comparison:

Gen. Sherman  2018 pay scale  projected pay scale  multiplier  rank
       840   112,632     112,632 Captain
    6,600   197,724     197,724          1.00 Maj. Gen.
  12,840   222,708     385,562          1.95 Lt. Gen.
  19,000   232,416     553,627          2.80 Gen.


Next: cost of housing and gifts to the General. Then some data points for travel times and logistics.

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