America’s First Military Draft
In the spring of 1861, decades of simmering tensions between the northern and southern United States, over issues including states’ rights versus federal authority, westward expansion, and slavery, exploded into the American Civil War. Since neither the Union nor the Confederacy relied on conscription to fill the ranks, both sides believed volunteers would be enough to do the fighting – which was expected to be over by the end of summer 1861. However, as the one-year mark neared, it became obvious to the Confederacy and the Union that the war would last much longer and its armies would need many more soldiers in the increasingly violent and protracted conflict.
But it wasn’t until the Battle of Shiloh on April 6 & 7, 1862 that the need became critical enough to address. The battle began when the Confederates launched a surprise attack on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces in southwestern Tennessee. After initial successes, the Confederates were unable to hold their positions against fresh union reinforcements and were forced back, resulting in a Union victory. Both sides suffered nearly 25,000 casualties killed, wounded, or missing it was the bloodiest single day of the Civil War so far. The glaring deficiency in troop numbers prompted Confederate President Jefferson Davis to quickly authorize the first Conscription Act on April 16, 1862.
This legislation required all white males aged eighteen to thirty-five to serve three years of Confederate service if called. Soldiers already in the military would now be obligated to serve an additional twenty-four months. Five days later, the Confederate government passed the Exemption Act, which excused from military service select government employees, workers deemed necessary to maintain society (such as teachers, railroad workers, skilled tradesmen, ministers and owners of twenty or more slaves.) Substitution was an additional way to avoid the draft, though the Confederate Congress abolished the unpopular practice in December 1863. However, even before the 1862 Conscription Act, a group of Unionists in Arkansas known as The Peace Society were essentially drafted after their arrest, being given the choice between enlisting or face a trial.
Exemption and substitution were just two of the many reasons conscription was controversial. Governors considered that a draft assigning soldiers to Confederate national service was an usurpation of their state authority. Those who had volunteered in April 1861 and whose enlistments were expiring resented the additional two years of obligatory service. Draftees, who had not volunteered in the initial excitement of 1861 and were less enthusiastic about the Confederate cause, were not eager to leave their homes and families.
The first conscription act was only moderately successful, and a second was passed in September 1862. This legislation raised the draft age to forty-five. A third conscription act in February 1864 stipulated that boys of seventeen and men up to fifty would be eligible for reserve duty.
The draft was especially problematic and difficult to enforce in Arkansas, and figures for Union and Confederate conscription are difficult to quantify. The Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge fought March 6 & 8, 1862, one month prior to the enactment of Confederate conscription, meant that the pro-Confederate administration of Arkansas Governor Henry Rector no longer had full autonomy statewide. Resistance to Confederate conscription was also noteworthy in the highlands of Arkansas, where there was little investment in slavery. In the Ouachita Mountains, men who had avoided conscription efforts fought with Confederate forces in the February 15, 1863 Skirmish at McGraw’s Mill, resulting in a Confederate victory.
The Union government instituted its own draft a year later in March 1863. The Enrollment Act required all able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five to serve in the local units of their state militias. In the decades prior to the Civil War, these laws were rarely enforced; state militias, such as they were, served more as social clubs than military units, with parading and picnicking more common than artillery and musketry drill. In the first year of the war, the militia system was the template to organize volunteer recruits into local regiments. Now, states would be legally required to fill quotas apportioned by the War Department. These troops were to serve for up to nine months. The Union government allowed some exceptions for certain occupations and physical disabilities, and for religious conscientious objectors.
Like the Confederate conscription act, the Union’s state militia draft of 1862 achieved only moderate results. A more permanent procedure would be needed to provide necessary troops. To this end, President Lincoln signed the Enrollment Act on March 3, 1863, which called for a Federal draft that summer. Exemptions from the draft could be bought for $300 or by finding a substitute draftee. Protesters, outraged that exemptions were effectively granted only to the wealthiest U.S. citizens, led to bloody draft riots in New York City where eleven African Americans were killed by angry mobs in July 1863. Immigrants and the poor were especially resentful of the methods used by wealthier citizens to avoid service.
In both the North and the South, compulsory service embittered the public, who considered it an infringement on individual free will and personal liberty and feared it would concentrate arbitrary power in the military. Believing with some justification that unwilling soldiers made poor fighting men, volunteer soldiers despised conscripts. Conscription also undercut morale, as soldiers complained that it compromised voluntary enlistments and appeared as an act of desperation in the face of repeated military defeats.
Conscription nurtured substitutes, bounty-jumping, and desertion. Charges of class discrimination were leveled against both Confederate and Union draft laws since exemption and commutation clauses allowed propertied men to avoid service, thus laying the burden on immigrants and men with few resources. Occupational, only-son, and medical exemptions created many loopholes in the laws. Doctors certified healthy men unfit for duty, while some physically or mentally deficient conscripts went to the front after sham examinations. Enforcement presented obstacles of its own; many conscripts simply failed to report for duty. Several states challenged the draft’s legality, trying to block it and arguing over the quota system. Unpopular, unwieldy, and unfair, conscription raised more discontent than it raised soldiers.
In the Union and Confederacy, conscription was partially meant to encourage voluntary enlistment, as those who joined as volunteers were eligible to receive bounty money (enlistment bonuses) from states, counties, cities, and the federal government – in some cases totaling a sum upwards of $1,000. However, these bounties created the problem of bounty jumping, wherein men would volunteer, collect the money, then desert and re-enlist elsewhere and collect that money as well.
Neither the North nor South exercised full control within the state through the remainder of the war. Regardless, the primary purpose of conscription was never to raise substantial numbers of troops but to spur enlistment. In this aspect, at least, Union and Confederate conscription achieved some success.
Although the Civil War saw the first compulsory conscription of U.S. citizens for wartime service, a 1792 act by Congress required that all able-bodied male citizens purchase a gun and join their local state militia. There was no penalty for noncompliance with this act. Congress also passed a Conscription Act during the War of 1812, but the war ended before it was enacted. During the Civil War, the government of the Confederate States of America also enacted a compulsory military draft. The U.S. enacted a military draft again during World War I, in 1940 to make the U.S. ready for its involvement in World War II, and during the Korean War. The last U.S. military draft occurred during the Vietnam War.