Conscription Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, came at a time when the regular U.S. Army numbered only about 16,000 officers and troops. The immediate response of President Abraham Lincoln to the attack was to call for 75,000 militia volunteers for three months’ service. This call was exceeded, and some volunteers were turned away because the expectation was that a mere show of force would be sufficient to defeat the South. Congress and the president subsequently found it necessary, however, to call for more volunteers.

Before the Civil War, the traditional method of increasing the size of the army was to expand the state militias and to form a volunteer emergency national army recruited through the states. The war introduced military conscription, which provoked widespread opposition in both the North and the South.

The firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, came at a time when the regular U.S. Army numbered only about 16,000 officers and troops. The immediate response of President Abraham Lincoln to the attack was to call for 75,000 militia volunteers for three months’ service. This call was exceeded, and some volunteers were turned away because the expectation was that a mere show of force would be sufficient to defeat the South. Congress and the president subsequently found it necessary, however, to call for more volunteers.

Repeated defeats of the Union army and the resultant loss of men moved Lincoln to call for 300,000 volunteers in the summer of 1862. The difficulty of obtaining volunteers was soon apparent; bounties were increased, and the threat of the draft was invoked. Congress passed the Militia Act of July, 1862, which allowed the states to draft men into the militia and encouraged enlistments. Lincoln called for another 300,000 men to be enrolled into the militia. Although the Militia Act of 1862 gave the federal government power to enroll men in situations where the state machinery was inadequate, the short-term (nine-month maximum) nature of the militia draft and the inequities of the system made it less than satisfactory.

Conscription Begins

Spurred by the loss of 75,000 men, by news of a conscription law passed by the Confederacy, and by the failure of the states to provide men promptly for the various calls, Congress passed its own Conscription Act on March 3, 1863. Henry Wilson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, was responsible for the introduction of a bill that eventually was passed and labeled “An Act for Enrolling and Calling Out the National Forces and for Other Purposes.” This act was the first national draft law in the history of the nation. It called for the creation of the “national forces,” which were to consist of all able-bodied male citizens and alien declarants between twenty and forty-five years of age, including African Americans. White opposition to blacks in federal army uniforms noticeably lessened as a result of the draft. In all, more than 168,000 African American recruits were drafted. Certain high officials, medically unfit persons, and hardship cases were exempted. Exemption could also be obtained by paying three hundred dollars or by securing a substitute.

The system was operated by the War Department under the direction of Colonel James B. Fry, provost-marshal-general. Provost-marshals were appointed in districts similar to the congressional districts and enrollments began. Quotas were established, and credit was given for enlistments. If the quotas were not met, drawings were held to determine who should be drafted. Small cards were placed in sealed envelopes in a large trunk, and the names were drawn in public by a trustworthy citizen wearing a blindfold. The system of paying three hundred dollars for exemption from service subsequently was abolished, but the privilege of hiring a substitute was continued. The names of more than three million men were gathered, but only about 170,000 were drafted, and 120,000 of those produced substitutes. The primary intent for passage of the law was to speed up voluntary enlistment, and more than one million men enlisted. The chief motivation for these enlistments was probably the threat of the draft.

Opposition

The draft brought Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton into conflict with state governors. Those governors who were un-enthusiastic about the conduct of the war openly criticized the president and the draft, while governors who favored a more vigorous prosecution of the war often complained that their states had not been given full credit for previous enlistments. Lincoln and Stanton often temporized with the governors by granting postponements or additional credits as the end of the war drew near.

There was considerable resistance to the draft. Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky had considerable problems with enrollment, and draft offices and officers were attacked in those states. The Irish in New York and New Jersey were particularly incensed by the draft, many viewing the conflicts as a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. With fifty-one categories of diseases qualifying men for medical exemption, the system was fraught with medical resistance problems. Surgeons administering medical qualifying exams were confronted by faked hernias (the most widespread cause of exemption), eye problems caused by applying eye irritants, and pretended deafness. Giving incorrect birth dates, claiming false dependents, and even the enrollment of dead people were other methods of noncompliance. Finally, there were the runaways. Given time to settle their affairs before departing for camp, a considerable number of draftees either relocated or fled to Canada.

With the public generally hostile to the draft, the best way for a community to avoid it was to fill the quota with volunteers. Consequently, bounty taxes were implemented to raise revenues to attract foreigners, new immigrants, and the poverty-stricken to enlist. The paying of bounties corrupted the draft system. It produced bounty jumpers who, attracted by lump-sum payments, were willing to jump off trains or boats to escape conscription.

Riots

Notorious resistance to the draft instigated the draft riots in New York City. Governor Horatio Seymour’s speech of July 4, 1863, attacking the Lincoln administration for violations of individual liberty, did nothing to decrease the hostility of the New York Irish toward African Americans and the abolitionists. Antidraft rioting, which took place between July 13 and 15, destroyed property and physically harmed many African Americans. Some New York militia units that had been engaged at Gettysburg were hastily ordered back to New York to stop the rioting. Estimates of the casualties in the violence range up to more than one thousand. In spite of the violence, the federal government was determined to enforce the draft with even more fervor.

The Confederacy

The Confederacy’s calls for volunteers and its national conscription law antedated those of the Union. Jefferson Davis’s call for 100,000 volunteers came before the firing on Fort Sumter, and the Conscription Act was passed on April 16, 1862, almost a year before similar legislation was passed by the United States. The Confederate act conscripted men from eighteen to thirty-five years of age; later the same year, it was extended to include those between seventeen and fifty years of age. The Confederate law included a substitute system and a controversial list of exempted persons held to be essential at home. The category that caused the most discussion was that which exempted one slave owner or overseer for each twenty slaves. The Confederate draft was also controversial because it was a national levy; it made no concession to the doctrine of states’ rights for which most Southerners claimed to be fighting.

It appears that the Confederacy’s early use of a conscription law enabled General Robert E. Lee’s armies to continue their general success in the Civil War well into 1863. It was only after the North also began drafting men that Lincoln could be confident of victory. The North, with a much larger population, was able to sustain its losses and to continue the war indefinitely; the Confederacy could not. Continuance of the draft underscored Northern determination to continue the war to its conclusion. The result was Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the restoration of the Union.

Categories: History Content