Efforts by the federal government at various periods in American history to conscript immigrants who had not yet been granted citizenship were met with mixed reaction among ethnic communities; while some groups resisted the draft in principle or protested against its being unfairly administered, many others welcomed the opportunity to serve and took advantage of provisions in the various draft laws that allowed them to become citizens more quickly.
Authorities reasoned that those who wished to enjoy the benefits of
Although protests were organized in several cities–the first one in Buffalo, New York, and later riots in
Thousands of immigrants volunteered to join the Union’s Irish Brigade that was formed in New York, but many other Irish feared that if the North won the war, slaves freed from plantations in the South would migrate north and compete for jobs then being done by Irishmen. That concern, coupled with the perception that the Irish and other immigrant groups would be overrepresented among draftees, sparked a violent outburst against city and state officials. Over a five-day period, mobs roamed the streets of New York City, looting business establishments and burning buildings, including the mayor’s home and several police stations. Damage to property was later estimated at one million dollars. The protesters’ anger quickly focused on
A retrospective look at the practice of conscription during the Civil War reveals two great ironies. First, records indicate that the percentage of resident aliens who were drafted during the conflict was no greater than that of citizens. Second, many of the substitutes hired by draftees were immigrants, who evidently found the payments a way to put aside some savings that would help secure their futures, should they make it through the war.
The first federal government draft was allowed to expire at the end of hostilities in 1865 and was not reinstated until 1917, when the United States entered
Nevertheless, as had occurred during the Civil War, pockets of resistance sprang up in various ethnic communities. Some activists attempted to convince immigrant groups, particularly Italians and Jews, to resist conscription because the war was being waged merely to further international or national business interests at the expense of the working poor. The
A ploy used to turn European immigrants against conscription was the claim that the draft displayed a dangerous tendency toward “Prussianization”–a reference to the militaristic German regime that many Americans blamed for having started the war. In general, however, immigrants drafted during World War I reported for duty without demur. Moreover, many did not wait to be called but instead chose to enlist. They often did this in units organized locally along ethnic lines, allowing young men to serve alongside others with whom they shared a common heritage. At the same time, however, draftees were typically assigned to units in which men of various ethnic and socioeconomic classes served side by side; this practice actually proved beneficial to many immigrants, because it provided them experiences that allowed them to assimilate more quickly into the general population.
Xenophobic feelings that had caused some German Americans to suffer discrimination during World War I were virtually absent. Although many Japanese Americans were interned throughout the war–ostensibly to prevent espionage–thousands of their young served honorably in the U.S. armed forces, including many who were drafted. As had happened twenty-five years earlier, the experience of serving with a variety of individuals of different backgrounds from other parts of the country allowed immigrants who had been drafted to assimilate more rapidly into the mainstream of American society. One immigrant group that benefited notably from this opportunity for assimilation was Mexican Americans.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the newest wave of immigrants from Europe, many from Germany and Eastern European countries, found themselves subject to the draft. Some chose to enlist in the National Guard or military reserves to guarantee they would be able to fulfill the bulk of their six-year military obligation near family members who may have come to America with them. Resident aliens were also subject to conscription during the Vietnam War. Most served willingly, and those who protested their induction usually did so because they had scruples about the war itself, not because they felt they were being discriminated against because they were not yet citizens.
After World War I, aliens who served in the military, including those drafted during peacetime, were granted waivers of several years on the time required for residence in the United States before being eligible to apply for citizenship. This practice was continued even after the United States did away with the draft during the 1970’s. In fact, after 2001, several proposals were put forward in Congress to provide a mechanism for granting citizenship to immigrants–including those who entered the country illegally–who chose to enlist in the armed forces.
Anbinder, Tyler. “Which Poor Man’s Fight? Immigrants and the Federal Conscription of 1863.” Civil War History 52, no. 4 (December, 2006): 344-372. Carefully researched essay demonstrating that, despite concerns that they would be singled out for conscription, immigrants were not selected in disproportionate numbers for military service during the Civil War. Anderson, Martin, ed. The Military Draft: Selected Readings on Conscription. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1982. Comprehensive analysis of the history of American drafts. Includes essays on conscription law and on the political theory justifying conscription of resident aliens. Bergquist, James M. Daily Life in Immigrant America 1820-1870. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2008. Describes living conditions for immigrants, many of whose lives were disrupted by the Civil War. Comments briefly on the 1863 draft by the Union and the rioting that followed. 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. Describes social and political conditions that prompted segments of the urban poor to mount violent protests against the 1863 draft law. Flynn, George Q. The Draft, 1940-1973. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993. Examines the impact of the draft on the armed forces and American society from the establishment of a draft prior to World War II through the Vietnam War. Hay, Jeff, ed. Military Draft. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Greenhaven Press, 2008. Collection of essays describing the history of the draft and the government’s operations to enforce conscription laws during several periods of armed conflict and in peacetime. Jacobs, James B., and Leslie Anne Hayes. “Aliens in the U.S. Armed Forces: A Historico-Legal Analysis.” Armed Forces and Society 7, no. 2 (Winter, 1981): 187-208. Detailed examination of the federal government’s recruitment and conscription of noncitizens from the time of the Civil War to the establishment of modern all-volunteer army. Moore, Albert B. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy. New York: Hillary House, 1963. Examines the impact of conscription in the Confederate States of America and outlines options open to immigrants who had not yet become citizens. Sterba, Christopher. Good Americans: Italian and Jewish Immigrants During the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Assesses the responses of two ethnic communities to American involvement in the war, including their willingness to serve in the armed forces.
Civil War, U.S.
New York City
Prisoners of war in the United States
World War I
World War II