The Civil War – The 1st American Draft

Submitted by C.J. Johnson
“The Draft” was first enacted during the War Between the States and was utilized by both sides. Actually, the very first draft was initiated by the Confederacy in April 1862. The South was in serious need of more men and enacted their “Conscription Act,” which required all healthy white men 18 to 35 to be subject to three years of service. Earlier one-year enlistments were extended, while subsequent amendments changed age ranges and exemptions.

Some states tried to work around the draft. Some segments of the population were upset that rich men could buy their way out of the draft by hiring substitutes. This practice ended later in the war due to strong opposition. Two years into the war, with no end in sight, Lincoln signed “The Enrollment Act”. The War now required more Union soldiers. This Federal action, signed by the President on March 3, 1863, made every male citizen between the ages of 20 and 45, as well as male immigrants of the same age who had signed an intent form to become a U. S. Citizen, subject to military service. Like the Confederate draft, there were certain exemptions. An exemption could be bought for $300, or a substitute could be used.

Federal agents had responsibility for establishing a quota for each U. S. Congressional District. States were responsible for meeting the quota, whether by draft or volunteer enlistment. Similar to what happened in the South, individual Northern states tried not to draft, by resorting to offering bounties to those who volunteered to enlist. Bounties varied but were at least $100, provided by Federal funds, with additional money from state or local funds.

In some areas, bounties reached the $500 level. With money to be had, “bounty-jumping” became a problem. A man would enlist and collect the bounty, then desert and go elsewhere and enlist again, receiving another bounty.

Any man drafted in the North could avoid service by providing or hiring a substitute. Having a substitute avoided being drafted in the future as well. Or, a man could pay $300 to buy an exemption from the current draft. Hiring a substitute or buying an exemption led to the public perception that this was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight,” as noted by historian James M. McPherson. The custom of hiring substitutes had been long-used in Europe and during the American Revolution. Congressional Republicans enacted the $300 exemption fee to counteract the substitution issue. But it did little to settle the growing outrage of working-class men facing the draft.

During the summer of 1863, protests occurred in several northern locations, notably New York City, where the large Irish population was opposed to the draft of working-class men, and where strong Southern sympathies abounded in the business sector. By July 4th, the Governor of New York declared the Enrollment Act “unconstitutional”.

One week later, fierce riots took place in New York – burning businesses, tearing up rail lines, and disrupting telegraph service. There were lynchings and beatings. One source stated more than one hundred killed and thousands injured. Rebellions took place in rural areas.

Because of bounties, and in spite of the uprisings, Union enlistments in 1863 were mostly volunteers.