Systems of conscription operated in the North and South
In the months after the Civil War began, neither the Union nor the Confederate government feared that they possessed too few volunteer soldiers. In the wake of the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861, men on both sides eagerly enlisted to fight for their respective countries. Peer pressure, a desire to escape the monotony of rural farm life, genuine passion for their cause, and anger against their opponents caused men to flock to the army. Communities held parades and barbecues for their newly-minted units, and the area’s women often presented the soldiers with flags and hand-sewn uniforms. During that summer, men hurried to enlist so that they would not miss the one big battle of the conflict, and leaders in both armies worried that they could end up with too many soldiers to supply adequately with uniforms, weapons, and other equipment.
The official calls for troops exemplified this notion of a short, small war. Initially, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 men to serve for three months. Later that summer, Congress approved the enlistment of 500,000 men for three years. Similarly, the Confederate congress authorized 100,000 men in March 1861 and in May provided for another 500,000 soldiers, most of whom enlisted for twelve months. Both presidents underestimated the scope of the war and the tenacity of their opponents. During the four-year conflict, almost two million men served in the Union army, and between 750,000 and one million men entered the Confederate ranks. The July 1861 Bull Run battle disabused leaders of the idea of a short, glorious war and quickly made finding eager volunteers more difficult for both armies. In order to augment their armies, both the Union and the Confederacy would turn to conscription in order to fill their ranks. While their policies differed in regards to timing and to specific details, they faced similar obstacles. War critics who alleged that the conflict had become a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight” would use conscription policy as a key basis of their argument. Additionally, both northerners and southerners would struggle with the contradiction inherent in forcing men to fight for their liberty, especially since the national government had never employed conscription prior to the Civil War.
The Confederacy acted first, partially because the Union’s manpower advantage (a ratio of greater than three to one in military age males) made it more imperative for the South to get every available man into the army. Initially, the Richmond government stressed keeping its soldiers in the ranks rather than adding new ones. By the end of 1861, the Confederate army stood on the verge of disintegration. Most men had enrolled only for a year, so their enlistments were set to expire in May, June, or July 1862. President Davis, the army, and Secretary of War Judah Benjamin struggled to alter this inexpedient policy with Benjamin recommending that Congress entice current troops to re-enlist for the war by granting them bounties and furloughs. In December 1861, Congress enacted this legislation providing each re-enlistee with $50 and a 60-day furlough. Yet, in February 1862, Benjamin estimated that 92,275 troops had enlisted for the war, while 240,475 were twelve-month men.
By the end of March, the Confederacy needed even more men. Facing a desperate military situation - General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac approaching Richmond, a Union army slicing south through Tennessee and into Mississippi, and the Union navy poised at the mouth of the Mississippi River - in addition to the looming expiration of the enlistments of its original volunteers, President Davis suggested a straightforward solution. On March 28, 1862, he proposed the passage of a law declaring that all men between the ages of eighteen and thirty five should be enrolled in Confederate service. Davis contended that a military draft would be the most equitable method of expanding the army, and, he matter-of-factly brushed aside any constitutional objections, asserting that “the right of the State to demand, and the duty of each citizen to render, military service, need only to be stated to be admitted.”
Nineteen days later, the Confederate Congress passed the first national conscription law in United States history. The initial law extended the service of those already in the army from twelve months to three years or the duration of the war, and it also called for a draft of all white men from the ages of eighteen to thirty five, though it allowed for an eligible man to provide a substitute in his stead. On April 21, Congress added a list of essential occupations, including Confederate and state officers, mail carriers, teachers, nurses, printers, apothecaries, ministers, employees in mines, furnaces, and foundries, and men working on the railroads, that would be exempt from conscription. In order to enforce this policy and maintain civilian control over the process, Congress created a Bureau of Conscription in the War Department. And, as a concession to the rights of the states, it specified that conscripts would serve in existing state units.
Over the next three years, Confederate conscription policy did not remain static. Congress repeatedly altered the laws in an effort to achieve the elusive combination of enough troops in the field, enough men in war-related industries, and enough men at home to provide protection, vital services, and food for the nation’s women and children. In September 1862, Congress expanded the upper limit of the age range from thirty five to forty five. Officials also tinkered with the exemption and substitution policy. The following month, Congress expanded the exemption system to include conscientious objectors (who had to pay $500 to avoid service), physicians, shoemakers, tanners, blacksmiths, millers, wagon-makers (provided that their products would be sold at a price not exceeding 75 percent more than the cost of production). Most significant, facing criticism that the wholesale removal of white males from the countryside left women and children at the mercy of slaves, Congress passed the so-called “Twenty-Negro Law.” This provision exempted one white man for every plantation with twenty or more slaves.
This latter condition, especially when considered in conjunction with substitution and perceived abuses of the exemption system, fueled allegations during the war and since that the conflict had become a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Partially in response to these complaints, Congress and the military continued to tweak conscription during the remainder of the war. On December 28, 1863, Congress, abolished the practice of substitution, and eight days later, it made those who had provided substitutes eligible for military service. On February 17, 1864, Congress lowered the minimum age to seventeen and raised the maximum to fifty (though 17 year olds and men 46 to 50 would serve only in home guards) and again revamped the exemption system. Additionally, the new law stipulated that those who remained on their plantations had to provide food to their soldiers’ families at fixed prices. These efforts, of course, ultimately proved futile, and their piecemeal nature created confusion and anger among white southerners. In March 1864, Brigadier General John Preston, the Superintendent of the Bureau of Conscription, pessimistically asserted that “From one end of the Confederacy to the other every constituted authority, every officer, every man, and woman is engaged in opposing the enrolling officer in the execution of his duties.” Yet, contradicting this negative impression, he concludes his report on an upbeat note, contending “you cannot devise a better system than the one now in operation.” 
Union officials would harbor similar oxymoronic sentiments. They, too, believed that they had created the most evenhanded draft possible, but they also faced a population frequently opposed to their efforts. With a public more divided on the war’s goals (especially emancipation) and with the luxury of a larger manpower pool, the Union turned to conscription more slowly. In 1862, rather than institute a draft, President Lincoln requested 300,000 more men and assigned each state a quota. The states could meet their quota in any manner they saw fit. Most states offered cash incentives, known as bounties, to gain recruits. Depending on where one enlisted, the combination of local, state, and federal bounties could exceed $1,000. This policy had the unfortunate side effect of encouraging bounty jumpers, men who would enlist only long enough to collect their bounty but then desert, find a different unit, and begin the process anew.
The 1862 policy also did not recruit enough troops, so on March 3, 1863, congress passed, “An Act for enrolling and calling out the national Forces, and for other Purposes.” The measure established a draft of men between the ages of twenty and forty-five. The government assigned each congressional district a quota and then subtracted the number of men already enrolled from that district. The districts would have to make up the difference between these two numbers by July or face a draft. In contrast to the Confederacy, the Union exemption policy was much more straightforward. No occupational exemptions existed. Drafted men, however, could either provide a substitute or pay a $300 commutation fee to avoid entering into the army. Additionally, poor physical or mental health or prior felony convictions eliminated one from consideration. Furthermore, various exemptions did exist for men who were the sole means of support for their parents or for their children (i.e. the only son of a widow or infirmed parents or the father of motherless children). Nevertheless, fathers whose wives were alive and living with them, regardless of these women’s health or employment status, were not included in this list of familial exemptions. Finally, up to two men per household who had their father and at least one brother in the army could claim exemption.
As in the Confederacy, northerners grumbled about the class bias in the draft. They decried the so-called “$300 men,” such as future presidents Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland as well as business moguls John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, who could simply pay a fine to avoid serve and wondered how this fee helped resolve the problem of not having enough men in the army. Ironically, the Union government had included the $300 commutation option as an attempt to avoid allegations of a class bias in their legislation. In the Confederacy, the price of substitutes had quickly sky-rocketed far beyond the means of ordinary men. Union leaders felt that a commutation fee would prevent this scenario; effectively capping the price of substitutes at $299. According to President Lincoln, “The money provision enlarges the class of exempts from actual service simply by admitting poorer men into it.” In reality, however, the $300 price represented approximately the annual wage of an unskilled laborer, and therefore it did not place exemption within the reach of most men. Recognizing that the commutation fee had exacerbated and not alleviated concern over the issue of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” the government, in 1864, eliminated this practice for all but conscientious objectors.
In the North, for several overlapping reasons, the most vociferous and violent opposition to the draft appeared in urban areas. First, cities tended to vote Democratic and therefore had little reason to endorse - and many reasons to vocally oppose - a controversial Republican war measure. Second, cities possessed the bulk of the nation’s immigrant population. Male immigrants who were not yet American citizens but had declared their intention to become citizens were eligible for the draft. Understandably, many of these men possessed little loyalty to a nation in which they might have only resided in for a few months or a year. Third, the lower class laborers in northern cities had a history of violent opposition to repressive measures and had the least chance of being able to afford the commutation fee. Finally, by 1863, the Union had added emancipation to its Civil War goals, and immigrant, working-class Democrats who feared former slaves might take their jobs could be counted among the strongest opponents of that measure. Consequently, they resented being drafted to fight a war, which, in their view, was being lengthened to free slaves, especially considering the fact that African Americans were not subject to the draft.
The July 1863 New York City draft riots highlighted this urban, Democratic immigrant anger toward the draft. On July 13, rioters targeted the office of the Provost Marshal in charge of the draft. In the next several days, rioters, mainly Irish immigrants, took out their wrath on all aspects of the war that angered them. The mob signaled out Horace Greeley’s pro-draft, pro-emancipation New York Tribune newspaper office for attack, and they assaulted any man who appeared wealthy enough to have paid the $300 commutation fee and dared to cross their path. Nevertheless, most of their venom was aimed at African Americans. They burned the city’s Colored Orphan asylum and killed eleven African Americans, six of whom they lynched. By July 15, Union soldiers, who had recently fought at Gettysburg, arrived in the city. Their presence effectively ended the riot, but only after approximately three hundred people were injured and at least 105 killed. The exact number of casualties will never be known, but undoubtedly rioters encompassed most of the dead.
While the New York City draft riots represent the best known opposition to the draft, they certainly do not represent the only example. Cities throughout the North, including Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, experienced smaller-scale disturbances often targeting the drafting apparatus and “$300 men.” Resisters assassinated provost marshals in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois. In some places, this violence was clearly premeditated. For instance, a provost martial in New Hampshire complained that draft resisters “have procured a large number of guns and revolvers and meet frequent to drill. They . . . threaten to burn the buildings of the Union men.” Northerners, who chose not to violently oppose the draft, could head to Canada (perhaps as many as 30,000 men took this route) or to the western territories, which did not participate in the draft. Elsewhere, to avoid violence, localities agreed to pay the commutation fees of all drafted men, who did not wish to enter the army. In fact, New York took this approach after the draft riots. And, when governments did not act, men could combine their resources to provide “draft insurance” to pay for the commutation of anyone in their draft pool whose name was selected.
In the South, draft resistance took two forms, individual and collective. With the Confederacy possessing myriad occupational exemptions, new school teachers and ministers, without pupils or congregations respectively, appeared overnight. Some minor elective positions saw numerous candidates more desirous of an exemption than an office. Men pleaded for post office positions or tried to quickly convert their family blacksmith or tanning tools into a commercial operation. Unlike in the North, collective opposition to conscription in the South was more of a rural than an urban phenomenon. The mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina housed many recusant conscripts as did the swamps and bayous of Louisiana and the piney woods of Mississippi and Alabama. Not coincidentally, these areas often possessed a low percentage of slaves and a reputation for Unionism. Opposition to conscription, however, did not automatically equate to Unionism. In Louisiana, jayhawker bands fought against both armies as did the draft resisters of the famous “Free State of Jones” - Jones County, Mississippi. While historians have debunked the legend that Jones County seceded from the Confederacy, many of its residents did resist both the Confederate and Union armies. These type of guerrilla bands stymied conscription in two ways: they both attracted draft dodgers and they also made other men leery of leaving their families at the mercy of the outlaws.
In both the North and the South, many complaints from draft resisters and others stemmed from a perceived class bias in conscription, especially the practice of substitution - the ability of prospective draftees to provide an ineligible man in his place. In most cases, when drafted, principals - the term for men who hired substitutes - had to accompany his substitute to the camp of instruction where a surgeon would have to judge the substitute medically fit for duty. The inclusion of a substitute clause did not inspire lengthy debates either in either the Union or the Confederacy, for it simply adhered to custom. Following European tradition, Americans had supplied substitutes to take their places in conflicts since the American Revolution and even for peacetime militia service. Yet, the Confederate secretary of war excoriated the measure as doing “more than any single measure to excite discontent” and considered substitutes “wholly unreliable.” A Union provost marshal concurred; lambasting substitutes as “a very unreliable and worthless class.” In the South, anger at the “Twenty-Negro Law” dovetailed with hostility toward substitution. In 1863, the Shreveport News articulated this sentiment, asserting that this exemption created a “broad and degrading line of distinction between the rich slave owner and the poor white man.” Both the Union and Confederacy preached the equality of all white men, and these measures, which allowed the rich to evade service, presented a stark contrast to this picture.
Nevertheless, despite complaints, substitution did not necessarily represent an unpatriotic alternative to army service. In comparison to choices such as fleeing to enemy lines, faking an illness, forging a birth record, finding a “bombproof” job, or hiding from conscript officers, principals both followed the law, and they offered a man to serve in their place. In communities where principals provided vital services such as blacksmithing or milling at affordable rates, soldiers’ families did not resent their presence at home. In fact, turning the traditional view of principals on its head, evidence indicates that providing a substitute itself could be considered patriotic. Some men, most famously President Lincoln himself, provided substitutes despite the fact that the law did not require them to do so. In other words, men ineligible for service sent in substitutes and thereby added an additional body to the Union or Confederate war effort.
Others critics saw no need to single out provisions of the draft for criticism; they considered the draft itself anathema to the ideals for which they fought. In a land of republican liberty, white men proudly asserted their rights. And, the draft clearly infringed on these rights. In Palmyra, Ohio, draft resisters warned the enrolling officer to leave town rather than enforce this action which had “a tendency to suvert [sic] the constitution and destroy our liberties.” Elsewhere, northerners decried the draft as “bondage” and “an attempt to enslave the white man.” In July 1862, twenty-eight year old Alabama Private Joshua Callaway echoed this view of conscription as tyrannical and akin to slavery. He complained to his wife that, “We are all nothing more than the subjects of a military despotism.” Earlier, he had grumbled that, it grinds me to think I am compelled to stay here. I’ve got a dozen masters who order me about like a negro.”
Proponents of the draft were not oblivious to this connection to slavery. In fact, they hoped that conscription’s association with slavery would make men volunteer before they could be drafted. In Texas, Gideon Lincecum claimed everyone in his neighborhood had volunteered since “they hate the idea of being drafted.” Elsewhere, North Carolina Colonel Zebulon Vance - soon to be elected the state’s governor - believed that “Men liable to draft . . . had better come along at once and fill up their companies like white men, and not wait for the sheriff to bring them to me.” Like Vance, many other southerners, and northerners as well, endorsed compulsory service without any misgivings regarded conscripts’ liberty. A Union soldier contended that when in danger, the government “has the right to the services of every able bodied man for its defense.” In January 1862, James M. Holloway, serving in Virginia, wished that all the “indifferent” men who remained at home could be branded, so their shame would be broadcast to their children.
In the South particularly, states’ rights represented another ideological challenge to conscription. Southerners, who seceded to protect their states from the infringement of the federal government, did not readily endorse a Confederate policy which threatened states’ rights more than any United States policy ever had. Georgia’s Governor Joseph Brown led this states’ rights assault on conscription. Six days after the Confederate Congress passed the conscription bill, Brown informed President Davis that he did not intend to aid the executive in a policy which enabled the president “at his pleasure to cripple or destroy the civil government of each State.” Later, Brown added that Georgians “refuse to yield their sovereignty to usurpation.” Other southern leaders mimicked these states’ rights complaints. For instance, Louisiana’s Governor Moore, in his criticism of conscription, reminded Davis that it was “because we claimed that the States were sovreign [sic] . . . that our confederacy was formed.” Nevertheless, despite these constitutional objections, southern judges repeatedly affirmed the legality of conscription, and state governors who challenged conscription in their rhetoric rarely challenged it their actions. In the Confederate Senate, Texan Lewis Wigfall chastised the draft’s opponents. In arguing for conscription, he sternly reminded constitutional hair splitters that the ends justify the means. “It will not do to talk about the justice of our cause, the favour of Providence, or the aid of foreign nations,” Wigfall preached, “We must have heavy battalions.”
Ironically, while many critics focused on the inequities of conscription, others cheered conscription for the exact opposite reason - the fact that it fairly put the burden of service on all adult men. Both President Davis and President Lincoln made this argument. In his March 28, 1862, call for conscription, Davis contended that a military draft would ensure “that the burdens should not fall exclusively on the most ardent and patriotic” men who had volunteered. In an undelivered speech, Lincoln concurred, stating “I do not say that all who would avoid serving in the war are unpatriotic; but I do think every patriot should willingly take his chance under a law . . . to secure entire fairness.” In agreement, Confederate General Richard Taylor justified seizing conscripts on the basis that it provided “justice to those who are faithfully serving their country in the field.”
Thus, conscription, depending on one’s point of view, could be considered patently unfair or completely just, and opinions could quickly change depending on how the draft impacted a person, their friends, or their family. The diary of Louisianan William H. King exemplifies the conflicting emotions that conscription created. In April 1862, King, a twelve-month volunteer, acquiesced to conscription despite his belief that it was not “a legitimate fruit of Republicanism.” A month later he praised the measure because it was just what stay-at-homes deserved. A week after that he declared conscription “a blotch on the character of the Confederacy.” Additionally, in September 1862, he again decried conscription as not harmonious with Republicanism, but praised it for coming “something near making the burthens of all equal.” Finally, in his October 6 diary entry, he both condemned substitution in general and expressed his desire that his friend J.R. Cavett be allowed to provide one. This series of varied and contradictory reactions toward conscription within a single soldier’s diary demonstrates how people on both sides struggled with a policy that challenged their ideals yet may have been needed in order to win the war.
In both the North and the South, conscientious objectors presented another problem for the authors of the draft legislation. Religious sects including Quakers, Mennonites, Dunkers, and Shakers, refused to fight. A frustrated General Stonewall Jackson acknowledged that while members of these denominations “can be made to fire . . . they can very easily take bad aim.” Virginia Private Christ Good, a Mennonite, even declined to fire inaccurately. When asked by his captain why he had not discharged his gun during a battle; this Mennonite succinctly confessed, “We don’t shoot people.” In both regions, the army initially treated conscientious objectors like any other potential conscripts informing them they had the right to hire a substitute or (in the North) pay the commutation fee. If unable to escape the draft, they often could serve in a non-combatant role. Some objectors could not afford the first option while others considered providing a substitute or serving in a non-combatant role to be as much a violation of their religious scruples as carrying a rifle. Both sides heeded these pleas from conscientious objectors. While never allowing them complete freedom to ignore conscription, the Confederacy gave them a chance to pay a $500 fine rather than serve (the only southerners allowed to pay this type of commutation fee.) Similarly, the North, when it ended its general commutation policy in 1864, retained it for conscientious objectors.
In an overall assessment of the draft, the numbers tell part, but not all, of the story. According to government records, the Union drafted 776,829 men. Of these, 161,244 (20.8 %) failed to report. Another 315,509 were exempted for family or medical reasons. Thus, only 206,678 (26.6 % of the total) were held to service. And, 86,724 of these men paid the commutation fee and 73,607 provided substitutes. Consequently, only 46,347 of the 776,829 names drawn (6.0 %) actually donned a Union uniform. To put it in different terms, historians estimate that draftees comprised only 4% of the Union army with substitutes providing another 9%. Overall Confederate figures are incomplete and less reliable than Union figures. For instance, estimates of the number of substitutes range from 50,000 to 150,000. Despite this lack of precision, scholars can agree that Confederate conscription had a greater relative impact. They estimate that conscripts made up 10% of its army, and substitutes comprised another 11% of its soldiers.
Recounting the numbers of conscripts and substitutes does not fully assess conscription’s success or failure. Both the Confederacy and the Union used their drafts as a stick. They hoped that men, wanting to avoid being drafted, would volunteer instead, and the governments offered carrots such as the choice of units and even bounties to those who enlisted before they could be drafted. Of course, trying to ascertain how many volunteered to avoid the conscript label is impossible. In judging the effectiveness of each side’s draft, however, the number undoubtedly should be added to the number of men drafted, thus adding to the draft’s effects on each army. With over one million men joining the Union army during the time that draft was in place, its defenders could label it a success. In a similar manner, Confederate conscription directly and indirectly (by inspiring volunteering) added 300,000 men east of the Mississippi River. And, the Confederacy’s overall mobilization of 75% to 85% of its white, military-age population certainly paints a picture of a government that succeeded in putting troops in the field. Additionally, when assessing conscription, focusing on the complaints fails to acknowledge that the policy evolved in response to these critiques. While conscription engendered animosity, both the Union and Confederate governments addressed these complaints with the Confederacy ending substitution in January 1864 and the Union ending commutation later that year. In sum, conscription, in the Union and the Confederacy, while never pleasing everyone, managed to add soldiers to the armies.
Geary, James W., We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991.; Moore, Albert Burton, Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy. New York: Macmillan, 1924.
Bernstein, Iver, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Mitchell, Memory F., Legal Aspects of Conscription and Exemption in North Carolina, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
Murdock,Eugene C., Patriotism Limited 1862-1865: The Civil War Draft and the Bounty System., Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1967.
Murdock,Eugene C., One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971.
Carlson, David, “’The ‘Loanly Runagee’: Draft Evaders in South Georgia,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 84 (winter 2000), 589-615.
Cashin, Joan E., “Deserters, Civilians, and Draft Resistance in the North,” in Joan E. Cashin, ed., The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War (Princeton, 2002), 262-285.
Levine, Peter, “Draft Evasion in the North during the Civil War, 1863-1865,” Journal of American History 67 (March 1981), 816-34.
Sacher, John M., “‘A Very Disagreeable Business’: Confederate Conscription in Louisiana,” Civil War History 53 (June 2007), 141-169.
Sacher, John M., “The Loyal Draft Dodger? A Reexamination of Confederate Substitution,” Civil War History 57 (June 2011), 153-178.
Shaw, William L., “The Confederate Conscription and Exemption Acts,” The American Journal of Legal History 6 (1962), 368-405.
Shelden, Rachel A., “Measures for a ‘Speedy Conclusion’: A Reexamination of Conscription and Civil War Federalism,” 55 Civil War History (December 2009), 469-498.
Van Zant, Jennifer, “Confederate Conscription and the North Carolina Supreme Court,” The North Carolina Historical Review 72 (1995), 54-75.
No organizations listed.
No web resources listed.
No other sources listed.