CONSCRIPTION – MILITARY DRAFT
Conscription, or the draft, dates back to Ancient Greece and Rome, when men were, at times, drafted into their armies. Generally professional troops were relied on. In Europe during the middle ages, war wasn’t really a part of the ordinary man’s life. Actually bearing arms was then considered a privilege of the nobility. Mercenaries, “soldiers for hire,” were often employed by the rulers. Here in the U.S., conscription dates back to colonial times, when in the colonies, men were drafted into their militias. During the Revolutionary War, most of the colonies sent militias to fight.
I’m going to focus on the Civil War era. On April 16, 1862, the Confederacy passed the first of its three (3) conscription acts and about a year later the Union also began drafting as there was a shortage of manpower. A few “side effects” of conscription were bounty-jumping, desertion and substitution. A draftee could pay $300 to get an exemption or he could "hire" a substitute to take his place in the military, which on both the Union and Confederate sides caused accusations of discrimination, which stemmed from exemption and commutation clauses allowing “propertied men” to avoid serving. Because of this, it was the immigrants and men who had few resources that were the ones who served. The law included other exemptions also, which allowed for loopholes - occupational, only-son, and medical exemptions. Many healthy men were certified not fit for fighting while other conscripts, who were in poor physical and mental condition, were said to have been fit for war. Many conscripts just didn’t report for duty.
If a draftee volunteered before the final muster, he was eligible to receive a bounty, usually $100 from the Federal government and states and communities may have paid bounties. The total bounty could have exceeded what would have been an average year's pay during that time, $500. Many would join, collect their bounty and then desert. They would then enlist someplace else and collect an additional bounty. If caught "bounty jumping," they could have faced death by a firing squad or hanging.
When the Union passed their conscription law, draft riots took place, mainly in NY in 1863. There were close to 249,500 18 to 35 year old men chosen. The majority of them paid commutation or hired a substitute. Only about 6% of those drafted actually served.
The Confederate’s law applied to men between 18 and 35 years of age. In September of 1862, the age was raised to 45. Then in Feb 1864, all men between 17 and 50 were called. In the Confederate armies one-fourth to one-third of the Confederate armies east of the Mississippi between April 1864 and early 1865 were conscripts.
In reading the letters of my husband’s
great-grandfather, Levi McCormick mentions the conscripts several times.
On May 27th 1863, he wrote “I got a letter from Lizzie and pap the same day I got the one from you. Wot does the copper heads think of the draft by this time. I hope it may bring them.”
Then on August 22nd 1864, he wrote
“It would not due to tel you all we see hear everyday or the drafted
men would durty their pants before they start but you can tel them for me that I
don’t pity them and they can come along.
There is one lady told me that she had heard me talk befor and she will
find that some things has come to pass but it don’t hurt me.
I take notise that my name is not on the list.
I would never ask a man to go for me but I would go for no man.
I have had a chance to talk to the conscripes coming down hear and they
are drove like oxens but the oxen would not hav the guards that it takes to
On September 5th 1863, Levi wrote:
“I have heard that we are not to get eney substutes for our Regmt
and I will be glad if we get none of them for they are bad fellows.
Samuel go a letter from Westley today and they are all well but Joseph
Pogue has got in a scrape. It may
take some of his change and I don’t caire if it does when he finds how they
are treated he will more uneasy. I
would not be a substitute for a thousand dollars of eney mans money but the rich
thinks they can get a poar man to doe eney thing for their money but it aint me.
I have sean men down hear that was verry rich that cant hardly live now
and som of our Delawarians may see that thime yet when their oney may not be so
plenty with them but let it be so this war will be settled some of these days
and then we will tend to them they
cant blaggord us then or down goes their meet house
the copperheads has put out a book about our last election but if they
cut a shine again we will come and see the again and they will have to sing dum
and dig out. They are traitors and
they are nothing else. I don’t want to write about this for I have travled in
the dark ad up to my knees when they have bin laing in their beds and enjoying
the comforts of them and they they will curs us for what we are doeing but their
dog is dead and they leaders know it. If we live to get back they will find a
change for we will never patronize a reb they
will never get a dollar of my money if I know it
if I cant get things from our own men I wil doe without it”
On September 19th, 1864, Levi’s
brother-in-law, John Worrall wrote: “I
guess they did make an draft on Del I
did not her of it. They don’t do
much but talk in Del I heard tell
of some getting scared at the draft up there once but I guess they wont shut
there eyes again”
And finally on the subject of the draft Levi wrote:
I don’t think he can
ever move us from the position we now hold and this next draft that is to be
maid will be one of the best things that has ever bin don although it will bring
some union men it will catch the
coperheards and there is plenty of them that cat pay to get substitutes this
time and they will find that it is earnest at last.”
“I had already sean the news about Mr Day
he is a union man and I glory in his spunk but I hav often heard that’s
when the ritch is so hard on the poor when they hav them in their power that the
heavy hand of providence comes on them selves
I think for my part that a man is not to live in this world for his self
alone but he put hear to live for his fellow man but everybody has their own
pinion about these thing”
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