Union Enacts the First National Draft Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Federal efforts to implement the first conscription act in U.S. history met considerable resistance throughout the North, but the Union’s ability to draw on vast manpower resources would prove to be a decisive factor in the outcome of the Civil War.

Summary of Event

The Confederate assault on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, came at a time when the regular Union army numbered only about sixteen thousand officers and troops. Up to that time, the traditional method of increasing the size of the U.S. Army was to expand the state militias and to form a volunteer Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union volunteers emergency national army recruited through the states. Thus, President Abraham Lincoln’s first response to the attack on Fort Sumter Fort Sumter Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Fort Sumter South Carolina;Fort Sumter was to call for seventy-five thousand militia volunteers for three months’ service. The response to this call was actually exceeded, and many willing volunteers were turned away because the federal government expected that a strong show of force would be sufficient to defeat the South. Conscription;U.S. Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);conscription begins Conscription Act of 1863 Conscription Act of 1863 Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and conscription[conscription] Army, U.S.;conscription Army, U.S.;Civil War [kw]Union Enacts the First National Draft Law (Mar. 3, 1863) [kw]Enacts the First National Draft Law, Union (Mar. 3, 1863) [kw]First National Draft Law, Union Enacts the (Mar. 3, 1863) [kw]National Draft Law, Union Enacts the First (Mar. 3, 1863) [kw]Draft Law, Union Enacts the First National (Mar. 3, 1863) [kw]Law, Union Enacts the First National Draft (Mar. 3, 1863) Conscription;U.S. Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);conscription begins Conscription Act of 1863 Conscription Act of 1863 Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and conscription[conscription] Army, U.S.;conscription Army, U.S.;Civil War [g]United States;Mar. 3, 1863: Union Enacts the First National Draft Law[3650] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 3, 1863: Union Enacts the First National Draft Law[3650] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 3, 1863: Union Enacts the First National Draft Law[3650] Stanton, Edwin M. [p]Stanton, Edwin M.;and conscription[conscription] Fry, James B. Seymour, Horatio Wilson, Henry

Federal troops firing on draft rioters in New York City.

(Gay Brothers & Company)

Later, however, the Congress and the president found it necessary to call for more volunteers. Repeated defeats Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);casualties of the Union army and the resultant loss of men caused President Lincoln to call for 300,000 volunteers Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union volunteers in the summer of 1862. The difficulty of obtaining that many volunteers was soon apparent, so the bounties paid to volunteers were increased, and the threat of involuntary conscription was invoked. In July, 1862, Congress passed the Militia Act Militia Act of 1862 , which allowed the states to draft men into their own militias and encouraged enlistments. President Lincoln then called for another 300,000 men to be enrolled into the militias. Although the Militia Act of 1862 gave the federal government power to enroll men in situations in which state machinery was inadequate, the nine-month limits on militia drafts and other inequities of the system made it less than satisfactory.

In early 1863, Congress was encouraged to take more aggressive action by the North’s deteriorating military situation. The Army had lost 75,000 men, the Confederacy Confederate States of America;conscription Conscription;Confederate was starting to conscript men, and the states were failing to provide men promptly when they were called. Congress therefore passed its own Conscription Act on March 3, 1863.

Henry Wilson Wilson, Henry , 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 United States. It called for the creation of “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 African Americans;in Civil War[Civil War] Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);African Americans . White opposition to seeing African Americans in federal army uniforms noticeably lessened as a result of the draft. In all, more than 168,000 African American recruits were eventually drafted. Only certain high government officials, medically unfit persons, and hardship cases were legally exempted. Individual draftees could also obtain exemptions by paying three hundred dollars or by securing substitutes to serve in their place.

The conscription system was operated by the War Department under the direction of Colonel James B. Fry Fry, James B. , the provost-marshal-general. Provost-marshals were appointed throughout the Union in districts similar to the congressional districts and enrollments began. Quotas were established for each district, and credit was given for enlistments. When quotas were not met, drawings were held to determine who should be drafted. Small cards were placed in sealed envelopes in large trunks, and the names were drawn in public by trustworthy citizens wearing blindfolds.

The system of paying three hundred dollars for exemption from service was later abolished, but the privilege of hiring substitutes was continued. Eventually, the names of more than three million draft-eligible men were gathered, but only about 170,000 men were ever drafted, and 120,000 of them produced substitutes. The primary intent for passage of the law was to speed up voluntary enlistments, and more than one million men enlisted. The chief motivation for these enlistments was probably the threat of the draft.

The draft brought President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton Stanton, Edwin M. [p]Stanton, Edwin M.;and military conscription[Military conscription] into conflict with state governors. Governors who were unenthusiastic 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 sufficient credits for their earlier enlistments. Lincoln and Stanton often temporized with the governors by granting postponements or additional credits as the end of the war drew near.

The draft met considerable resistance throughout the North. Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky were especially resistant to it, and draft offices and officers were attacked in those states. The Irish in New York and New Jersey New Jersey;in Civil War[Civil War] were particularly incensed by the draft, as many of them regarded the Civil War as a rich person’s war and a poor person’s fight.

With fifty-one categories of diseases qualifying men for medical exemptions, the draft system was fraught with medical resistance problems. Surgeons administering medical qualifying exams were presented with pretended hernias—the most widespread cause of exemption—eye problems artificially 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. Runaways were also a problem. Many draftees took the time they were given to settle their affairs before departing for camp to flee to another state or to Canada Canada;and American draft dodgers[American draft dodgers] .

With the public generally hostile to the draft, the best way for communities to avoid dealing with it was to fill their enlistment quotas with volunteers. Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union volunteers Consequently, bounty taxes were implemented to raise revenues to attract immigrants and the poverty-stricken to enlist. However, paying bounties had its own effect on corrupting the draft system. It produced bounty jumpers who collected their lump-sum payments and then jumped off the trains or boats taking them to their camps.

Extreme resistance to the draft instigated draft riots Draft riots New York City;draft riots in New York City. When New York governor Horatio Seymour Seymour, Horatio delivered a speech attacking the Lincoln administration for violations of individual liberty on July 4, 1863, his words added to the hostility of the New York Irish toward African Americans and the abolitionists. Antidraft rioting erupted in New York City in mid-July, destroying property and physically harming many African Americans. Some New York militia units that had been engaged at the Battle of Gettysburg only ten days earlier were hastily ordered back to New York to stop the rioting. Estimates of the casualties Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);casualties in the violence range up to more than one thousand people. Despite the violence, however, the federal government was determined to enforce the draft with even more fervor.

The Confederacy’s own calls for volunteers Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Confederate volunteers and its national conscription law antedated those of the Union. Jefferson Davis’s call for 100,000 volunteers came even before Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. The Confederate congress passed its Conscription Act April 16, 1862, almost a year before similar legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress. The Confederate act initially conscripted men from eighteen to thirty-five years of age; later the same year, it was extended to include men between seventeen and fifty years of age. The Confederate law, like that of the Union, included a substitute system and a controversial list of exempted persons held to be essential at home. The law’s most controversial exemption category excused one slave owner or overseer for each twenty slaves for which they were responsible. The Confederate draft was also controversial because it was a true 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 Confederate States of America;military conscription 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 President Lincoln could be confident of victory. With its much larger population, the North was able to sustain its battlefield losses and continue the war indefinitely; the Confederacy could not. Continuance of the draft underscored Northern determination to continue the war to its conclusion. The eventual result was the exhaustion of the Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, and the restoration of the Union.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Iver Charles. The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Detailed and highly readable study of the Civil War’s worst draft riot, analyzed within the broader sociopolitical context of Civil War society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, William J., Jr. Jefferson Davis: American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Excellent biography of the Confederacy’s only president, whose entire administration was dominated by the prosecution of war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geary, James W. We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991. Extensively documented study of the Union draft law’s origins, operation, and effects, containing much demographic data from archival sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gienapp, William E. Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Revealing study of Abraham Lincoln’s private and public lives during his presidency, which—like that of Jefferson Davis—was dominated by the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ingram, E. Renée. In View of the Great Want of Labor: A Legislative History of African American Conscription in the Confederacy. Westminster, Md.: Willowbend Books, 2002. Detailed and revealing history of the full text of the Confederacy’s forced conscription of slaves—both as laborers and as soldiers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohn, Stephen M. Jailed for Peace: The History of American Draft Law Violation, 1658-1985. New York: Praeger, 1987. Thorough study of resistance to compulsory conscription from colonial to recent times, containing an excellent analysis of the first draft law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murdock, Eugene C. One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971. Scholarly study of how the draft system worked, its shortcomings, the abuses and dodges within the system, and its successes. Detailed, yet readable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schecter, Barnet. The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America. New York: Walker, 2005. Compelling history of the Northern response to military conscription that exposes the contradictory social forces that produced the draft riots.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shannon, Fred A. The Organization and Administration of the Union Army, 1861-1865. 1928. Reprint. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965. Landmark study of the Union army that pays considerable attention to inequalities within the conscription system and methods employed to avoid being sent to fight.

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U.S. Civil War

First Battle of Bull Run

Battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga

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