Historical Look at Military Pay
How Things Have—Or Have Not—Changed Over Time
July 29, 2014 by Mark Dye
Military pay has always been a hot button issue in America, causing everything from speeches on the floor of Congress to marches on the nation’s capitol to outright riots. And while it hasn’t always matched what someone could make in the private sector, a military paycheck has often offered those who serve a chance at financial stability (not to mention the opportunity to learn valuable skills).
But how much did, say, someone in the Civil War make compared to someone serving today? Did a World War I sergeant make enough to provide for his family? We did some digging and found some numbers that might surprise you.
All amounts in parenthesis are in 2012 dollars and are approximate. For reference, pay for 2015 (not including specialty or bonus pays) for an E1 with less than two years of service is $1,547 per month, while an E6 with more than four years of service earns $2,876 a month.
Pay for the Continental Army was … sporadic, to say the least. Rations were covered (including a pint of beer a day, plus rum for those working in the camp or on guard duty) but many were offered cash or land bounties instead of a consistent payment. It also didn’t help that the new government was short on assets. So figuring out how much the average troop got paid would be difficult—except that, after the war, the Continental Army was disbanded without pay.
This led to a march by veterans on the new government in Philadelphia, which included surrounding the building in which Congress was meeting. While no one was hurt, it did cause the federal government to move, first to Trenton, N.J., and eventually to Washington, D.C.
And it wouldn’t be the last time veterans demanded payments they were owed from the government.
Things were better pay-wise during the Civil War, at least in the north. As the war went on, the South saw massive devaluation of their currency along with inflation, making it more difficult to pay soldiers consistently. But when they did get paid, it wasn’t all bad given the time period.
- Private from the North: $13/month ($2,100)
- Private from the South: $11/month ($1,900)
- 1st Sergeant from both: $20/month ($3,500)
World War I
From the Civil War until the early 20th century, military pay did not kept up with the rising pay of industrialization, or even inflation. Efforts to increase military pay along with inflation started toward the end of WWI, when Congress passed legislation in 1917 for a 100-percent pay raise for privates based on what was the minimum standard of living at the time. (Figures are taken from the Field Service Pocket Book, United States Army, 1917.)
- Private first class: $30/month ($1,030)
- First sergeant: $60/month, depending on specialty ($2,060)
The “World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924” awarded bonuses to WWI veterans in the form of certificates they could not redeem until 1945. But then the Great Depression hit. Frustrated with not being able to find work, more than 43,000 veterans and their families (called the “Bonus Army”) descended on Washington D.C. in 1932 to demand payment. They camped for several months before a violent clash led to their ouster.
A year later a smaller group did the same thing, leading Franklin D. Roosevelt to offer them jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Virginia to help diffuse the situation. (Many accepted, and those that didn’t were provided transportation to their home towns.) It wasn’t until 1936 that Congress overrode a vetoed bill by FDR and paid the veterans their bonuses nearly 10 years early.
The Great Depression had led to cuts in military pay, but a new war led to some increases and adjustments. They still weren’t living lavishly, but were able to take advantage of programs created toward the end of, and right after, the war—programs that would fundamentally transform our nation.
- Private first class: $50/month ($1,300)
- First sergeant: $114/month ($3,000)
WWII until now
President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill into law in 1944, which essentially helped to create an entire middle class. By 1956, the bill had produced some 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than a million other college-trained men and women. Also: 11 million of the 13 million houses built in the 1950s were financed with G.I. Bill loans.
While revamped a few times since then, the GI Bill is still a major perk of military service and helps thousands of former military members attend college.