Being a member of the US Army is one of the most valiant careers a person can choose. However, the job hasn’t always paid as such. For over a century, the majority of soldiers earned far less than the average civilian. Even today, troops’ salaries in no way match the job they’re doing and the sacrifice they’re making.
Here’s a look at how well (or not) America’s defenders were paid, from the Revolutionary War to present day.
The Revolutionary War saw the US fighting for independence from the British. Over the course of the conflict, the Continental Army consisted of around 150,000 men, with 17,000 serving at any one time.
Soldiers’ pay varied depending on their rank. Upon enlisting, each was promised a one-time bounty of either land or money, along with their monthly salary. Privates received $6.00, while generals earned $8.00. Captains received $20.00 and colonels were paid $50.00 each month. These salaries struggled to keep up with inflation, and the Continental Congress was slow to revisit the Army’s pay structure.
Discussions led to a pay increase for some, with colonels being bumped to $75.00 a month and captains, $40.00. Privates didn’t receive a raise, which hurt their pocketbooks, as they had to pay for their own uniforms, weapons and gear.
War of 1812
Those wishing to serve in the Army during the War of 1812 initially needed to sign a five-year contract, with recruits later given the option to join for the duration of the conflict. Upon enlisting, soldiers were given a one-time bounty of $31.00 and 160 acres of land, a total later increased by Congress to $124.00 and 320 acres. This was notable, as the financial compensation itself was more than what the average unskilled laborer earned a year.
At the start, privates were paid a monthly salary of $5.00, while noncommissioned officers earned between $7.00 and $9.00. The pay for officers varied widely, between $20.00 to $200.00. When it became clear more recruits were needed, Congress raised the pay of privates and NCOs by $4.00.
During the first year of the war, Congress was slow to pay troops their salaries, culminating in an absolute refusal to march and mutinies in October 1812. As the conflict progressed, the problem only became more unmanageable, and by the fall of 1814, soldiers’ pay was between six and 12 months in arrears.
Designated the Regular Army during the Mexican-American War, the US forces consisted of specialized infantry, artillery, cavalry and the engineering corps. It was made up of only 7,365 at the outbreak of the conflict, with its core consisting of eight infantry regiments.
Those wishing to serve enlisted for five years, with troops earning a salary of around $7.00 a month. The low wage meant those with few job opportunities and a poor educated joined, as did foreign nationals. By 1845, 42 percent of those serving were from foreign nations – 50 percent were Irish, while the rest originated from other European countries.
In desperate times, the government could call on volunteers to enlist in state-raised regiments, as allowed under the Militia Act of 1792, and these regiments were compelled to serve wherever the War Department chose. However, state militias could not be made to serve beyond their home state’s boundaries.
American Civil War
Troops’ salaries between the Confederate and Union armies during the American Civil War differed:
- Privates – $11.00 (Confederacy) vs. $13.00 (Union)
- Corporals – Both received $13.00
- Sergeants – Both received $17.00
- First Sergeants – Both received $20.00
- Quartermaster Sergeants and Sergeant Majors – Both earned $21.00
- Second Lieutenant – $80.00 (Confederacy) vs. $105.50 (Union)
- First Lieutenant – $90.00 (Confederacy) vs. $105.50 (Union)
- Captain – $130.00 (Confederacy) vs. $115.50 (Union)
- Major – $150.00 (Confederacy) vs. $169.00 (Union)
- Lieutenant Colonel – $170.00 (Confederacy) vs. $181.00 (Union)
- Colonel – $195.00 (Confederacy) vs. $212.00 (Union)
- Brigadier General – $301.00 (Confederacy) vs. $315.00 (Union)
- Major General – $301.00 (Confederacy) vs. $457.00 (Union)
- Lieutenant General – $301.00 (Confederacy) vs. $748.00 (Union)
- General – $301.00 (Confederacy)
Officer pay for both sides included allowances, which the salaries of Confederate generals didn’t reflect. As well, all Confederate generals received the same base pay, as regulations recognized just one grade above the rank of colonel. However, generals holding different commands were afforded additional allowances, and those commanding in the field received an additional $100.00.
US Colored Troops were paid a meager salary of $10.00 a month for the majority of the war, of which $3.00 was deducted for clothing allowances. While soldiers on both sides were meant to be paid every two months, this rarely happened, due to the great distances the military paymaster had to travel.
The Spanish-American War saw the end of Spanish colonial rule in America and allowed the US to acquire territories in Latin America and the western Pacific. During the conflict, Army privates were paid a monthly salary of $13.00, the same as during the Civil War. However, unlike in previous years, its value was higher, due to deflation.
According to a newspaper article published in the Rome-News Tribune on February 17, 1980, one private’s pay was eventually increased to a “whopping” $30.00 a month, a massive increase for those used to being paid just a third of that amount.
World War I
World War I was a brutal conflict, featuring trench warfare, bloody battles and the introduction of poison gas. Troops serving in Europe received varied salaries based on the number of years they’d been enlisted. For example, a private in their first year of service earned $30.00 a month, while corporals received a salary of $36.00.
A full list of pay for each section of the Army, as well as the salary increases for each year of service, can be found here.
On top of their monthly salaries, troops were also provided life insurance through the War Risk Insurance Program. This was due to commercial insurance companies either charging higher premiums for soldiers or excluding protection against the hazards of war.
World War II
Prior to World War II, serving in the military wasn’t everyone’s first choice in career. In 1939, the Army featured a roster of 189,839 servicemen. That changed following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and by 1945 there were 8,267,958 enlisted.
Salaries vary depending on the source. According to Moneywise, privates were paid $21.00 prior to the US entering the war, a total that increased to $50 in September 1942. The National WWII Museum, on the other hand, lists the average base pay for enlisted servicemen at $71.33, with officers earning a salary of $203.50.
WWII also saw the introduction of Badge Pay for combat infantry members, due to the hazardous conditions they fought in. The initiative awarded $10.00 a month to holders of the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, earned through combat service, while those with the Expert Infantryman’s Badge, earned through proficiency training, were given $5.00.
The Korean War began with 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army crossing the 38th parallel, which split it from the Republic of Korea. Three years of intense fighting followed.
As with previous wars, the monthly salary troops received depended on their rank and the length of time served. For example, in 1952, an E-1 with less than four months of service was paid $78.00, while an E-7 earned a monthly salary of $206.39. There were other variables that affected this total, including Aviation Pay, Submarine Duty Pay, and Sea and Foreign Duty Pay.
In 1952, Combat Pay for deployed servicemen became the first modern form of direct combat compensation, awarding $45.00 a month to those who’d served at least six days in designated “combat units,” as well as those who’d been wounded, killed or injured by enemy fire.
E-1 wages remained the same between 1952 and ’58, meaning troops among the Army’s lower ranks made the same salary in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. However, when inflation was factored in, those serving in Vietnam were actually earning less.
As the conflict progressed, new troops were given a salary of $78.00, while those who’d served over four months earned $83.20.
In 1963, Combat Pay was renamed Hostile Fire Pay (HFP) and remained relatively the same. The only difference was that the Department of Defense was granted near-complete discretion over how it was administered, leading to multiple changes. This included the rescinding of the six-day criterion and the introduction of “zonal eligibility.”
In August 1990, Suddam Hussein ordered his forces to invade Kuwait. Other Middle Eastern countries called for the US and the United Nations to intervene, and the UN’s Security Council set a deadline for him to withdraw forces by the middle of January 1991. When he failed to do this, the US launched Operation Desert Storm.
According to Business Insider, those serving in Iraq with over four months of experience were making $753.90 a month, while those with less than that earned around $697.20. They were also eligible for Hostile Fire Pay/Imminent Danger Pay.
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
The US began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively. With the War in Iraq, deployed troops were making just a few hundred dollars more than those who’d served in the Gulf War. Veterans earned a monthly salary of $1,150.80 and those with less than four months under their belt took home just $1,064.70.
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America officially withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, which drew criticism from military officials, politicians and society as a whole, due to the Taliban taking control of Kabul, the country’s capital.