From All-Volunteer Forces to Conscription: The Draft in the Civil War


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am posting another heavily revised section of my Civil War and Gettysburg text, this dealing on the conscription efforts of both sides. It is an inte4resting subject as it brings up many issues that we still face in society, racial and religious prejudice, economic disparity, and social division.  Of course as always I will probably add more to this and revise it again, but you are probably getting used to that. I hope that you enjoy and have a great day.


Padre Steve+

The Changing Character of the Armies and Society

Gettysburg was the last battle where the original armies, composed of volunteers predominated.  As the war progressed the nature of both armies was changed. Initially both sides sought to fight the war with volunteers. However, the increasingly costly battles which consumed vast numbers of men necessitated new measures to fill the ranks, and this need led to the conscription, or draft of soldiers and the creation of draft laws and bureaus in the South and later the North.


Confederate Conscription

The in April 1862 Confederate Congress passed the Conscription Act of 1862 which stated that “all persons residing in the Confederate States, between the ages of 18 and 35 years, and rightfully subject to military duty, shall be held to be in the military service of the Confederate States, and that a plain and simple method be adopted for their prompt enrollment and organization.” [1] The act was highly controversial, often resisted and the Confederate Congress issued a large number of class exemptions. Despite the exemptions “many Southerners resisted the draft or assisted evasion by others” [2] The main purpose of the conscription act was “to stimulate volunteering rather than by its actual use” [3] and while it did help increase the number of soldiers in Confederate service by the end of 1862 it was decidedly unpopular among soldiers, chafing at an exemption for “owners or overseers of twenty or more slaves” [4] who referred to the war as a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” [5]

Some governors who espoused state’s rights viewpoints “utilized their state forces to challenge Richmond’s centralized authority, hindering efficient manpower mobilization.” [6] Some, most notably Georgia’s governor Joseph Brown “denounced the draft as “a most dangerous usurpation by Congress of the rights of the States…at war with all principles for which Georgia entered the revolution.” [7]  Governor Brown and a number of other governors, including Zebulon Vance of North Carolina fought the law in the courts but when overruled resisted it through the many exemption loopholes, especially that which they could grant to civil servants.

In Georgia, Governor Brown “insisted that militia officers were included in this category, and proceeded to appoint hundreds of new officers.” [8] Due to the problems with the Conscription Act of 1862 and the abuses by the governors, Jefferson Davis lobbied Congress to pass the Conscription Act of 1864. This act was designed to correct problems related to exemptions and “severely limited the number of draft exemption categories and expanded military age limits from eighteen to forty-five and seventeen to fifty. The most significant feature of the new act, however, was the vast prerogatives it gave to the President and War Department to control the South’s labor pool.” [9] Despite these problems the Confederacy eventually “mobilized 75 to 80 percent of its available draft age military population.” [10]

recruit poster

The Enrollment Act: The Federal Draft

In the spring of 1863 a manpower crunch began to hit the Union Army as vast numbers of the nine-month militia regiments which were called out by Lincoln in accordance with the Militia Act of May 25th 1792 were to disband. Facing the reality that the all-volunteer system which had sustained the war effort the first two years of the war could no longer meet the need for adequate numbers of soldiers the Congress of the United States passed the “An Act for the enrolling and calling out the National Forces, and for other Purposes,” commonly known as the enrollment act of 1863” on March 3rd 1863. [11] The length of the war and the massive number of causalities were wearing on the population and the Union Army had reached an impasse as in terms of the vast number of men motivated to serve “for patriotic reasons or peer group pressure were already in the army.” Likewise, “War weariness and the grim realities of army life discouraged further volunteering” and “the booming war economy had shrunk the number of unemployed men to the vanishing point.” [12]

The Enrollment Act was controversial. Based on the power of Congress given by the Constitution in Article One, Section Eight, to raise and support armies. It was “the first direct Federal conscription statute in U.S. history, providing the first Federal compulsion upon individuals to enter directly into the military service of the United States, without intermediate employment in the militia systems of the states.” [13] In doing so the act “bypassed the state governments entirely and created a series of federal enrollment boards that would take responsibility for satisfying the federally assigned state quotas.” [14] In effect it was an act the nationalized military service and eventual became the basis for a truly national army which would be supported by state forces embodied in the National Guard as well as a Federal Army Reserve. Though Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney believed that act of be unconstitutional it was never challenged during his lifetime, but “the Court eventually upheld the constitutionality of the similar Selective Service Act of May 18th, 1917 in a unanimous decision.” [15] The act made some exemptions, those who were physically or mentally unfit, certain high federal government officials and governors, only sons of dependent widows and infirm parents, or those convicted of a felony.

Like the Confederate legislation, this act was also tremendously unpopular and was ridden with exemptions which were frequently abused. All congressional districts were issued a quota for volunteers. Those districts that were able to fulfill their quotas were not subject to conscription, thus the districts that “could provide sufficient volunteers, or bounties high enough to lure volunteers, would not need to draft anyone, and in the end only seven Northern States would be subject to all four of the draft calls issued under the Enrollment Act.” [16]

The Federal draft was conducted by lottery in each congressional district with each district being assigned a quota to meet by the War Department. Under one third of the men drafted actually were inducted into the army, “more than one-fifth (161,000 of 776,000) “failed to report” and about 300,000 “were exempted for physical or mental disability or because they convinced the inducting officer that they were the sole means of support for a widow, an orphan sibling, a motherless child, or an indigent parent.” [17]

To ensure that the enrollment boards had teeth Congress “authorized a Provost Marshall Bureau in the War Department to enforce conscription.” [18] It was the task of the Provost Marshalls to enroll every male citizen, as well as immigrants who had applied for citizenship between the ages of twenty to forty-five.

There was also a provision in the Federal draft law that allowed well off men to purchase a substitute who they would pay other men to take their place. Some 26,000 men paid for this privilege, including future President Grover Cleveland. Another “50,000 Northerners escaped service by another provision in the Enrollment Act known as “commutation,” which allowed draftees to bay $300 as an exemption fee to escape the draft.” [19] Many people found the notion that the rich could buy their way out of war found the provision repulsive to the point that violence ensued in a number of large cities.  Congress had good intentions in setting the price at $300 because they did not want the price to soar beyond the reach of many draftees, however, this was far more than most of the working poor could afford. Of course well off and influential people could pay for a substitute, but “the working poor, for whom three hundred dollars was a half a year’s wages, were especially outraged, and many saw the exemption as another indicator that the war no longer focused on their interests….” [20] Many were afraid that newly emancipated African Americans would be new competition for their already low paying jobs and that the notion of equality would upset their society and their lives. The financial wall was insurmountable for many, and the fact that many found it repulsive that “in a democracy someone could hire a substitute to take his place, was calculated to provoke the bloodiest sort of response among the poor.” [21]

Fraud was rampant and the boards often had little means to check the documentation of those who filed for exemptions. “Surgeons could be bribed, false affidavits claiming dependent support could be filed, and other kinds of under-the-table influence could be exerted. Some draftees feigned insanity or disease. Others practiced self-mutilation. Some naturalized citizens claimed to be aliens.” [22] All of this seemed to indicate to the poor, and to recent immigrants that the system was unfair. Some soldiers such as Irish-American soldier John England were not against the draft itself, but the inequity of the system. The law, English wrote, “was framed for the benefit of the rich and the disadvantage of the poor. For instance – a rich conscript can commute for$300! Now, it is a fact well known to all that there are some rich animals in the northern cities that can afford to lose $300, as much as some poor people can afford to lose one cent.” [23]

To make matters worse for the Army, many of the substitutes themselves were worthless to the Army, veteran soldiers distrusted them, often with good reason. “Of 186 such men assigned to a Massachusetts regiment, 115 deserted, 6 were discharged for disability, 26 were transferred to the navy, and 1 was killed in action.” Additionally the medically unfit, including men in the final stages of incurable disease were present in large numbers, of “57 recruits for the 6th New York Heavy Artillery, seventeen could not muster. In March of 1864, one-third of the replacements sent to a cavalry divisions were already on the sick list.” [24]

The Union draft law provoked great resentment, not because people were unwilling to serve, but from the way that it was administered, for it “brought the naked power of military government into play on the home front and went much against the national grain.[25] The resentment of the act grew, especially in large cities such as New York was fed by false rumors and lack of understanding as much as fact. The ensuing draft riots “were based upon ignorance, misery, fear, and the inability of one class of men to understand another class; upon the fact that there were “classes of men” in a classless American society.” [26]


The Draft Riots

Barely a week after the Battle of Gettysburg, clashes and violence erupted in several cities. The riots became so violent that local police forces were incapable of controlling them. As a result President Lincoln was forced to use Union Soldiers, recently victorious at Gettysburg to end the rioting and violence. New York where protestors involved in a three day riot, many of whom were Irish immigrants urged on by Democratic Tammany Hall politicians, “soon degenerated into violence for its own sake” [27] wrecking the draft office, then seizing the Second Avenue armory while attacking police and soldiers on the streets. Soon “the mob had undisputed control of the city.” [28]

These rioters also took out their anger on blacks, and during their rampage the rioters “had lynched black people and burned the Colored Orphan Asylum.” [29] A witness described the scene:

“The furious, bareheaded & coatless men assembled under our windows & shouted for Jeff Davis!… Towards evening the mob, furious as demons, went yelling over to the Colored-Orphan Asylum in 5th Avenue… & rolling a barrel of kerosene in it, the whole structure was soon ablaze, & is now a smoking ruin. What has become of the 300 innocent orphans I could not learn…. Before this fire was extinguished, or rather burnt out, for the wicked wretches who caused it would not permit the engines to be used, the northern sky was brilliantly illuminated, probably by the burning of the Aged Colored-Women’s Home in 65th Street…. A friend…had seen a poor negro hung an hour or two before. The man in a frenzy, had shot an Irish fireman and they immediately strung up the unhappy African…. A person who called at our house this afternoon saw three of them hanging together.” [30]


Many of the rioters, but certainly not all of them were Irish, especially Catholics, who were also angry at the religious prejudice that the experienced at the hand of many Protestants. Rioters “targeted African-Americans, Republicans, abolitionists, and anyone associated with them…. Policemen and soldiers trying to suppress the riots also became targets, even if these men were Irish-Americans and Catholics.” [31] Many high profile Irish Catholics including Archbishop John Hughes refused to condemn the rioters or even call them by the term, earning the condemnation of the editors of the New York Times who wrote, “If the mob had burned the Catholic Orphan Asylum next door to the Bishop’s Cathedral… somebody besides “the papers” probably would have called them rioters.” [32]

The riots showed that the concept of racial or religious equality was difficult for many Americans, and not just those in the South. Prejudice, against African Americans, immigrants including the Irish, and Roman Catholics still burned in the hearts of many who had just a few years before had supported the Know Nothing Party and movement. Bruce Catton wrote, the “rioters had malignant prejudice, and those rioted against had another prejudice, equally malignant; if the lynchings and the burnings and the pitched battles in city streets meant anything they meant that this notion of equality was going to be hard to live with.” [33]

The violence did not abate until newly arrived veteran Union troops who had just fought at Gettysburg quickly and violently put down the insurrection. These soldiers, fresh from the battlefield and having experienced the loss of so many of their comrades “poured volleys into the ranks of protestors with the same deadly effect they had produced against the rebels at Gettysburg two weeks earlier.” [34] Republican newspapers which supported abolition and emancipation were quick to point out the moral of the riots; “that black men who fought for the Union deserved more respect than white men who fought against it.” [35]

In the end, the Enrollment Act contributed little to the Union war effort. Though it was called conscription it was not really conscription, it was “but a clumsy carrot and stick device to stimulate volunteering. The threat was being drafted and the carrot a bounty for volunteering.” [36] The organization of its machinery was so inefficient and the Act’s intentions so diluted “that the effort netted only 35,883 men – albeit along with $15,686,400 in commutation fees.” [37]

While an additional 74,000 men served as substitutes, the number pales in comparison to the nearly 800,000 who volunteered or reenlisted to serve while the act was in force. Only some six percent of the 2.7 million men who served in the Union Army were directly conscripted. Congress repealed the commutation provision in July 1864 and tightened requirements for exemptions.

The Federal government got into the bounty business as well with a $300 bounty for new enlistment and reenlistment, all paid for by the commutation fees collected by through the enrollment Act. To meet the demand “Bounty brokers” went into business to enlist men into the service, getting the best deal possible while themselves taking part of the profit. Some enterprising recruits “could pyramid local, regional, and national bounties into grants of $1000 or more,” [38] and some even took the chance to change their names, move to another and enlist again to collect more bounty money and many deserted before they ever saw combat. “They were so unreliable that any regiment that had them in large numbers was bound to be decidedly weaker than it would have been without them.” [39]


The men who had been fighting since 1861 and 1862 who had served without bounties and had reenlisted anyway; the veterans of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Antietam, Gettysburg and so many other hard fought battles in the West and the East, despised the substitutes and bounty men of 1864, and the poor qualities of such men made the good soldiers look even better. These men were proud of their service, their regiments, and what they had achieved. One soldier from Illinois wrote to his sister: “It is hard for a person to imagine how much a man sacrifices in the way of pleasure and enjoyment by going into the ‘Army,’ but I never think I shall regret being in the ‘Army’ if I get out alive & well.” He did.” [40]


[1] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.152

[2] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.152

[3] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p. 432

[4] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.154

[5] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.431

[6] Millet, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States The Free Press a Division of Macmillan Inc. New York, 1984 p.166

[7] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.433

[8] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.431

[9] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.261

[10] Ibid. Gallagher The Confederate War p.28

[11] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.233

[12] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.600

[13] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War pp.233-234

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.459

[15] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.234

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.459

[17] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.601

[18] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.600

[19] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.460

[20] Bruce, Susannah Ural The Harp and the Flag: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865 New York University Press, New York and London 2006 p.173

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.460

[22] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.601

[23] Ibid. Bruce The Harp and the Flag p.173

[24] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.38

[25] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.635

[26] Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat, Pocket Books a division of Simon and Schuster, New York 1965 p.205

[27] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.636

[28] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.637

[29] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.687

[30] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.461

[31] Ibid. Bruce The Harp and the Flag p.180

[32] Ibid. Bruce The Harp and the Flag p.180

[33] Ibid. Catton Never Call Retreat p.205

[34] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.610

[35] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.687

[36] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.605

[37] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.236

[38] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.606

[39] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.40

[40] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.40


Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s