Why They Kept Fighting

New York City Draft Riots, July 1863

Both sides in the American Civil War employed the threat of conscription or “the draft” to pressure eligible men into military service.  For the Union, this system of veiled coercion culminated in the Enrollment Act of 1863, one of the final acts of the 37th Congress.  Students in History 288 should be able to explain why James McPherson calls this legislation “not conscription at all, but a clumsy carrot and stick device to stimulate volunteering.”  Students should be able to identify terms such as commutation or substitution.  Those interested in a short but fascinating article about how to research such cases in the National Archives, should consult this piece by Michael T. Meier.  In class, we will also compare the Union draft to the Confederate version and ask why internal critics accused each side of fostering conditions that led to a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”  We will discuss the example of one poor man fighting for the Confederacy named William Elisha Stoker, a young Texas farmer whose story –drawn from letters at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg– is featured here.  And in preparation for the lecture on Wednesday afternoon by Adam Mendelsohn on “Jews and the Civil War,” we will discuss Gen. Grant’s controversial order banning Jews from his military department in December 1862.

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3 Responses to Why They Kept Fighting

  1. florence helbing says:

    Civil War era conscription was not the conscription we think of when we consider later wars the US has fought. It was not particularly organized or well-executed as a national policy. McPherson calls it a “clumsy carrot and stick device” because that is really what it was. Conscription was a last resort of sorts, one which ran counter to American traditions and contemporary thought, so the effect it had was to stimulate volunteering (and draft-dodging, and violent unrest). However, this basically created an environment in which men were enticed to volunteer before they could be drafted by promises of bonuses, extra time off, etc, which in some ways defeated the purpose of the whole endeavor.

    It also created an opportunity to make money, and so many people would enlist several times under different names in different counties for the bonus money. There were even immigrants to the US during this time who came for that exact purpose. So it was not an efficient or foolproof operation. The system of bonuses and enticements meant to encourage people to volunteer also backfired because it was so easy to exploit.

    Commutation and substitution were also part of the conscription process in that they offered a legal way out. Substitution meant that a man could send someone to take his place for service in the military. Commutation was the $300 price cap, established by the Union government, on this substitute, designed to the price of substitutes from rising out of control. (The South did not put a price cap on substitutes, and prices did rise out of control, climbing into the thousands of dollars.) Substitution was a complicated thing, though, in that many substitutes would enlist, desert, and then enlist again as another man’s substitute. So a market grew around substitution which did nothing for conscription, though it made people money.

    Substitution in the South and substitution/commutation also gave rise to class tensions, as it gave the appearance of a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” as McPherson says. The reality of this is less stark– it seems as though if anything, at least in the North, the working class was underrepresented in comparison to the middle and upper classes. Nonetheless, the perception was one of unfairness to the poor–in both North and South–and a lot of problems arose because of this: riots both in New York and in Richmond, for example.

  2. John T. says:

    By the summer of 1863, war fatigue had set in on both sides of the Mason Dixon necessitating conscription. The Confederacy established the first draft in the United States in March of 1862 and the Union followed a year later in March of 1863. On both sides exemptions could be made if individuals hired substitutes or paid a commutation fee. Additionally, drafted men in the South with over twenty slaves were exempted. These systems were perceived as favoring the wealthy and targeting members of the lower class. This perception boiled over into several civil disturbances including the New York City Draft Riots in July of 1863. This perception during both the period and later interpretation does not quite follow the historical reality. McPherson illustrates that certain localities, political machines, and insurance ventures allowed even lower class men ways out of being drafted. The practice of commutation and the $200 standard stabilized the price of hiring substitutes and kept them more affordable. Of the 207, 000 men drafted as a result of the Enrollment Act only 46,000 actually served. The act was most effective as a means of raising funds, troop strength gained through substitution and spurring voluntary enlistment as a result of fear of being drafted into unknown units without bounties. North and South the limited success and variable equity of conscription was nonetheless key in spurring anti-war sentiment and solidifying class antagonisms, turning the lower classes against both the war and their upper class counterparts.

  3. Tim says:

    The Civil War was the first instance of conscription in the US. In many ways however it can more accurately be compared to coercion rather than a true draft. In the drafts of the Civil War era in America men were offered a few alternatives to being conscripted. One was to find a substitute who was willing to fight in your stead. The other was to pay $300 to exempt oneself from the draft. These were put in place largely for rich people because very few could afford to pay $300 and a substitute was likely to cost a similar amount. In the south plantation owners who owned large amounts of slaves were exempt from serving because they were needed at home to control order. These policies in both the north and south led to a feeling that the war was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.
    Another way the war effort sought to attract recruits was through a bounty system. In many ways the draft, combined with the monetary incentives of enlisting, was simply a way of encouraging people to volunteer rather than be conscripted. This for the most part was done in such a way that was both clumsy and in many cases ineffective. There are many reports of men signing up just to receive bonuses and then deserting, only to repeat the process in the next county. There was also a large disparity on what a soldier would receive depending on what area he was from. One key example of inflated expectations of northern recruiting was the planned Veteran’s Corps. This was an idea that started high up in the war department in late 1864 early 1865 to create a corps of 50000 men who had already served 2 years to bolster the Army of the Potomac, which had been depleted as a result of Grant’s endless campaign in Virginia. A bonus of $400 dollars on top of whatever local incentives were offered, along with the prospect of serving under the famous Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock was supposed to drive former soldiers to the recruiting stations in the thousands. In actuality only several thousand showed up and the plan was canceled. While the effects of poor recruitment and conscription practices were an issue that the north had to contend with through the entirety of the war they were able to overcome the issue because of their large population base. The south did not have this luxury.

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