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Conscription Civil War

Conscription Civil War

Military drafts have long been contentious in American society. The Vietnam War was famous for mass protest movements. World War I saw vigilante actions against those who opposed the draft; there was even a Conscription system in the Civil War! How did Americans in the Union and Confederacy react to new policies like the Civil War Conscription Act?

Conscription Civil War Definition

Roughly 2% of the American population perished in the violence of the US Civil War. The Confederacy and the Union needed to take all the soldiers they could get to the battlefield. Throughout the war, many Americans grew weary of the seemingly endless bloodshed of Americans against Americans. This led to mandatory drafts in both the Union and Confederacy.

Conscription

military service required by a government instead of voluntary military service

US History Civil War Conscription in NY StudySmarterFig.1 - Civil War Conscription in NY

Civil War Conscription Act

On March 3, 1863, the Union Congress passed the Civil War Conscription Act. Americans had been instructed to join a local militia before, in 1792. This time was different, however, as stiff penalties awaited those who did not comply with the draft. The last time, there had been no actual enforcement of the proclamation.

The act is also known as the Enrollment Act of 1863

Details of the Civil War Conscription Act

  • All men aged 20 to 45 years old must register for the draft
  • Not just US citizens but immigrants seeking citizenship must also register
  • The deadline to register was April 1, 1863
  • For a fee of $300, one could avoid the draft
  • If one could find a substitute to serve in their stead when called, they could also avoid the draft.

Administration of the Civil War Conscription Act

Administering the act fell upon a man named James Barnet Fry. Fry was appointed to the newly created position of Provost Marshal General. He then, in turn, named State Provost Marshal Generals to each state. Under these state-level representatives, local enrollment boards processed individuals into the conscription system.

New York State had the most extensive draft system with three State Provost Marshal Generals.

Civil War Conscription Substitutes

They were allowing some Americans not to be a part of the conscription lottery for economic reasons. The New York Times may have editorialized that the draft was a necessary precondition to victory over the Confederacy, but many of the people of New York felt quite differently. The social class came into sharp focus for many Americans during the Civil War.

In the years after the Civil War, similar struggles of Americans who felt overlooked by the government gave rise to the Populist movement of the late 19th century.

Jumpers

Jumpers were grifters who took advantage of the substitution system to make fast money. To get a substitute, a family generally had to pay a substantial fee to the individual to take the place of their loved one in the Union army. Some replacements would show up to a unit, take the money, and disappear before seeing combat. Some performed this scam over and over in a cycle.

Battlefield commanders despised the substitution system for two reasons. First, substitutes often became jumpers, leaving their unit short on manpower. The second was that substitutes were viewed as low-quality mercenaries who did not believe in what was being fought for.

Commutation

Commutation was the term for paying the $300 to avoid conscription. Congress attempted to explain the option as allowing the government to raise badly needed funds from those who would not have been helpful in combat. Additionally, the argument was made that the $300 price tag kept the market price for substitutes down, making avoiding service more economical. The price was too high for the working poor who could not afford the fee.

Just a year later, in 1864, the act was amended, and the expensive cost of commutation only was valid for one year. Those who had spent all their funds avoiding the war were increasingly frustrated that the commutation only delayed their draft.

Opposition

Opposition to the draft most famously occurred among the Irish immigrants and White working poor in New York City. They had two main grievances with the draft. The first was that they were the ones who would be sent off to a deadly war, while the wealthy could buy their way the safety. The other issue was their concern that the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans would result in a glut in the labor market, reducing their wages. It was framed that the war amounted to the wealthy telling them to go off and die in a war for the benefit of the people who would soon be taking their jobs and lessening the value of their labor.

US History 1863 New York Draft Riots StudySmarterFig.2 - 1863 New York Draft Riot

Between July 13 and July 16, White working-class Americans launched the deadliest riots in the United States. As many as 1,200 people were killed as rioters targeted government and military buildings, Black areas of the city, abolitionists, and even White-owned businesses that were known to hire Black Americans. Ironically it took 4,000 federal troops to stop people opposed from fighting in the war.

Conscription Civil War Confederate

The Confederate States of America passed a conscription law even earlier than the Union on April 16, 1862. The law allowed substitutes like the one in the north, but certain occupations like ministers were exempt from service. Exemptions were also made for plantation owners who held more than 20 Black Americans in enslavement. Initially, the law covered men aged 18 to 35, requiring three years of military service from those called up. By 1864, this had expanded to unlimited service for men aged 17 to 50.

The racial component of the Civil War was so opaque that the perceived need for a White male to stand between Black men and White women was believed to supersede even the need for military service.

US History Confederate Resistence to Conscription StudySmarterFig.3 - Confederate Resistance to Conscription

The entire confederacy had been founded on the idea that a strong central government had little authority to dictate the affairs of local and state governments. As such, there was swift opposition, with some states even passing laws banning the draft in their state. The class perceptions that came with those who held humans in enslavement being exempt from the draft undermined support for the Southern cause among poor whites. Desertion became widespread by the war's end, with some units losing 10% of their troops to desertion.

Conscription Civil War - Key takeaways

  • Both the Union and Confederacy held draft lotteries
  • In the north, the issue inflamed racial tensions
  • In the south, the issue was seen as a betrayal of the limited government the Confederacy was founded upon
  • In both locations, substitution clauses ignited class divides.

Frequently Asked Questions about Conscription Civil War

Conscription in the Civil War was a lottery where those called were forced to go fight 

Both armies needed soldier and funds 

In the north, anyone who paid a certain fee or found a substitute was excempt. In the south exception was available for paying a feee, specific occupations and holding more than 20 humans in enslavement. 

Conscription in the Civil War was the draft lottery system for military service. All eligible men were required to resigter. Those whose names were drawn were then sent to fight in either the Union or Confederate army, depending on which state they resided in. 

African Americans entered the war late but usually voluntarily. 

Final Conscription Civil War Quiz

Question

What were jumpers?

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Answer

People who repeatedly acted as draft substitutes but deserted 

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Question

What was James Barnet Fry role in Civil War conscription?

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Answer

He administrated the draft 

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Question

What city had deadly riots over conscription in the Civil War?

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Answer

New York 

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Question

What was not a reason a person could get out of the draft in the Confederacy?

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Answer

They were an abolitionist 

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Question

How could someone evade the draft in the Union?

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Answer

Paying a fee or finding a substitute 

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Question

Why did commanders dislike substitutes?

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Answer

They were often low quality soldiers 

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Question

Some Confederates states passed laws making Civil War conscription illegal 

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Answer

True 

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Question

Which army turned to conscription first?

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Answer

Confederacy 

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Question

What resentment was created in both the Union and Confederacy from the draft laws?

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Answer

The wealthy could avoid service 

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Question

What frustrated those who paid the $300 to avoid the draft early?

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Answer

An amendment made the commutation only for one year instead of permanent 

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