Monday, September 18, 2017

Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

By the time March of 1863 rolled around, the American Civil War, a war which most had assumed would be over by Christmas, had been going on for nearly two years. At the outbreak of the war, enthusiasm was high and there were actually more volunteers than could be equipped or trained. The longer the war went on, the fewer men were joining up. In July 1862, Congress Passed the Militia Act of 1862. Among other things this act:

  • ·         Established recruitment quotas for each state based on population
  • ·         Authorized states to use a draft to fill said quotas
  • ·         Allowed Blacks to serve in the military for the first time
  • ·         Established rules about court-martials, enlistment bounties, and activation procedures

Unfortunately, the Act wasn’t enough to keep the army in warm bodies. On March 3, 1863, Congress passed the Enrollment Act which required all male citizens and immigrants who had applied for citizenship between the ages of 18 and 43 to enroll for a military draft. For the next several months, military census takers working under the State Acting Assistant Marshall went door-to-door in each city, town, and village in the state recording the names, ages, and professions of each eligible male, with occasional comments about their fitness for duty.
Ledger of persons liable to military duty in the town of Erin, 1862

J section of the ledger for the town of Erin. Note the remarks on fitness for duty.

The Enrollment Act was hugely unpopular, especially among the poor. Draftees could avoid service if they could pay the government a $300 commutation fee. They could also hire someone to take their place. Both required that the draftee had the funds to do either and many poor people, especially among immigrant groups, did not. In Elmira, a group of concerned citizens began to collect funds so that poorer draftees with families to support could hire a substitute or pay the fee. 

Notice from the Elmira Daily Advertiser regarding the fund to help drafted men, April 10, 1865
Elsewhere, people rioted. The first round of the draft occurred on July 11, 1863 along with some outbursts of unrest in Buffalo, New York, and a few other cities across the nation. They were quickly quelled. On July 13, the day of the second draft pick, a group of firefighters began a riot at the Ninth District Provost Marshall’s office in Manhattan which lasted for nearly four days. Rioters attacked telegraph lines, police stations, newspapers, abolitionists, and blacks, before eventually being overwhelmed by additional troops. 

All told, only 2% of those who served in the war were draftees. Of the 168,649 men procured for the Union through the draft, 117,986 were paid substitutes. Only draftees 50,663 actually served, largely because they were too poor to avoid it. Some 120,000 men dodged the draft altogether, mostly by fleeing to Canada.  

1 comment:

  1. Its hard to believe that after the Civil War we had additional draft' enstated, World World I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
    Defending our Freedom has always come at a price !!