Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Who was George Brinski?

[caption id="attachment_1722" align="alignleft" width="292" caption="Grover Cleveland - managed to avoid military service during the Civil War by hiring a substitute for $150"][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well, he was no Grover Cleveland, that's for sure. Except....that he sort of was, at least for a few years. George Brinski was a Polish immigrant who had the good fortune of being in the right place when Grover Cleveland needed a substitute to take his spot as a Union soldier in the Civil War. Cleveland paid Brinski $150 for his services and sat the war out safely practicing law in Buffalo, New York.

Hiring a substitute was a common practice during the war - for those that had the means and an aversion to the possibility of getting killed, there were plenty ready and willing to take advantage of others' desire to avoid military service. Of course, there was a stigma attached to this practice, and later in life, Cleveland had to answer to thousands of Union veteran voters who wanted to know why he didn't take his place in the ranks.

But anyway, apart from being listed as Cleveland's substitute, there is not much else out there on Brinski. One little tidbit did materialize through the usual searches - it seems that after the war, when Brinski was convalescing in a soldiers' home, he claimed that Cleveland (then serving his first term as president) had promised him $300, paid him $150 and then reneged on the remaining sum.

Most dismiss this as nonsense...just Brinski trying to cash in on Cleveland's political prominence. As far as we know, Brinski was paid in full for his services. He died shortly after making his claims.

[caption id="attachment_1725" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Coni hearts Grover Cleveland "][/caption]

But on to the fun and games! I promised on Twitter and Facebook that the first person who could answer the question: "who was George Brinski?" correctly would get a shout out on Cosmic America. The winner was none other than my lovely, talented, and ass-kicking wife, Coni Constantine - a real history buff (snicker) who is developing more than a passing interest in Grover Cleveland. Who knew? Check out her Facebook page - fitness is her thing. Have a will find out that she means business.

There were a few who came in a close special thanks to Vienna from California and George from Callander, Scotland for getting close!



  1. If memory serves, James M. McPherson urged his colleagues to study different kinds of soldiers in "For Cause and Comrades." Substitutes ranked high among them, to understand their motivations.

  2. Agreed - I am not aware of any studies focusing specifically on substitutes. It would make a good book...if there is one out there, please let me know :)

  3. Great story. Because of the less ideological/patriotic motives of late joiners of the Union army, they get short shrift. Typically ranked much lower in historians' estimates, although they made up a sizeable percentage of the men who actually won the war.

    Odd, because when we study World War II, we don't usually dismiss the draftees. Not sure why this prejudice continues about Civil War soldiers and not WWII soldiers other than obvious class and ethnic biases of historians.

  4. According to Brinski himself, as quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1887: "I had the war fever a little and also wanted money..." He claimed to have served in the 76th New York Volunteers, but he must have joined under an assumed name (as many did), because I haven't found him on any of the online rosters for that or any other regiment.

  5. [...] words for some of Cleveland’s decisions and policies…particularly his purchase of a substitute during the war and his efforts to return captured Confederate [...]