Mobilization for War

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Raising an American army has traditionally been complicated by competing political ideologies, the fear of a strong standing army, a reliance on citizen-soldiers, and wartime dissent. From the nation's inception in the late eighteenth century through the Cold War years (1946–1991), America's defenses consisted of state militia forces (later called the National Guard) and a small regular (federal) army—the latter expanded by citizen-soldiers who joined as volunteers and only when necessary as draftees. This two-army tradition of militias and professionals grew out of the colonies' early use of militia forces, the new nation's intense debate over the power of the federal government, and the growing concern that a permanent force of trained soldiers could threaten the liberty of the people. During America's wars, patriotic fervor as well as varying degrees of political dissent converged with each mobilization effort.

the mexican war

The Mexican War (1846–1848) was no exception. Years of tension stemming from the Texas Revolution and Texas's subsequent declaration of independence from Mexico resurfaced with a boundary dispute and the 1845 admission of Texas into the United States. This was far more than a quarrel over land. President James K. Polk's insistence that Mexico acknowledge the boundary Texas claimed had more to do with the president's desire (and the desire of many other imperialists in the United States) to spread what they thought of as America's superior cultural, political, and economic institutions from sea to sea. A war with Mexico had the potential to add vast lands, from Texas to California, and to extend American commerce to countries across the Pacific. Although most Americans generally supported the idea of expansion westward, others (particularly abolitionists and the northern Whig and the Free Soil political parties) resisted the spread of slavery into any newly acquired lands. Anti-imperialists and pacifists—a small minority of Americans—stood firm against Manifest Destiny, most of them objecting to an attitude they considered presumptuous for violating other peoples' right of self-determination.

When war with Mexico began in May 1846, the country's longstanding tradition of maintaining a small regular army brought the United States to the conflict with a force of only about 8,600 men. Polk quickly expanded the military after Congress authorized a regular (federal) army of 15,500 men and an enlistment of over 50,000 one-year (or duration) volunteers. Also called into service were 1,390 three-month militiamen, a call-up which soon expanded to 11,211 six-month militiamen. However, a fierce public debate over the war forced the government to restrict its military efforts. Mobilization was not easy; Northern opposition to the war forced the government to recruit in other regions. The American military victory over Mexico came in 1848 and involved the combined forces of the regular U.S. army, 12,000 militiamen from the Gulf states, and 73,000 volunteers who came primarily from the Southern and Midwestern states. Irish and German immigrants composed some forty-seven percent of the army's recruits during the 1840s, so undoubtedly immigrants made up a significant part of the American regular army during the war. Like native-born enlistees, they were lured into the military by a sense of adventure, a feeling of patriotism for their (adopted) country, and the anticipation of upward mobility.

the civil war: volunteers and draftees

Mobilizing for war became even more complex during the American Civil War (1861–1865), which was brought about by continued political and economic conflict between the North and the South and exacerbated by conflict over whether slavery would expand westward. Despite the South's rallying cry of states' rights, the Confederacy implemented a national draft before the Union did, on April 16, 1862. In response to increasing casualties, a decreasing number of volunteers, and the expiration of one-year enlistments, the South declared all white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five eligible for the draft. Facing conscription, many men volunteered in order to have some say in which unit they joined. However, a draft-age man was allowed to hire someone to take his place, and substitutes soon charged top dollar (some over $5,000) to take up arms. Of the 120,000 Confederate draftees, 70,000 found substitutes. Although Southern lawmakers later eliminated the substitution option, the new draft system allowed for so many exemptions (particularly for the wealthier classes), that fifty percent of would-be draftees stayed out of service.

Attempts to mobilize men in the North resulted in similar problems. President Abraham Lincoln asked Congress for 300,000 three-year volunteers. At the start of the conflict, enlistment of young men eager to fight for the cause and drawn by patriotism, the spirit of adventure, or the promise of a steady paycheck allowed the North to attract a good supply of soldiers. The threat of a possible draft also helped bring volunteers, especially among men who would rather join on their own terms than be forced into the army. Initially, 421,000 volunteers and 87,500 militiamen answered the call. The North's early use of volunteer and militia forces permitted the Union to honor the deeply held beliefs of the founding fathers that a small standing federal army be enlarged in time of crisis by citizen-soldiers.

However, as one bloody battle followed another and casualties mounted, an acute manpower shortage left the North no alternative but to institute a draft. The March 3, 1863, Enrollment Act (also called the Conscription Act) made all able-bodied male citizens between twenty-one and forty-five eligible for conscription. This included native-born citizens, naturalized citizens, and immigrants who had declared their intention of becoming citizens. Problems with the Northern draft also quickly became apparent due to special exemptions allowing men to hire substitutes or pay $300 to purchase exemptions.

The federalized draft system caused much controversy, further divided Republicans and Democrats, and led to widespread draft resistance, including riots. Peace Democrats saw the draft exemption rules as class based and argued that commutations would cost a worker one year's pay. They vehemently challenged exemptions that allowed the upper class to escape military service while the lower classes died in what was often called a rich man's war and a poor man's fight. Resistance to the Union draft took on a number of forms, including creating fictitious identities, going into hiding, and open violence. More than 161,000 men evaded the draft.

Armed draft resistance led to bloodshed and even murder as a growing number of working class Democrats from both native-born and immigrant groups mixed their resentment of the draft with anger over prolonged economic hardships and lingering feelings of exploitation by their Republican bosses. Many from the working class also feared that freed African Americans would compete with them for jobs, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, which freed slaves in the Confederate states. Draft resistance and riots took place in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The worst draft riot occurred in New York City and began on July 13, 1863, after the first name was drawn from the conscription wheel. The riot lasted five days and included beatings, looting, vandalism, arson, and murder. The frustration of the rioters was directed at not only at upper class Republicans but also at New York's African-American population.

The Northern drafts were far from effective. Of the 522,187 men examined, 315,509 received exemptions for medical or other reasons, and many of those who could afford to pay their way out of service did so. Of 206,678 "draftees," 86,724 paid their way out of service and 73,607 found substitutes. Only 46,347 men who served in the Civil War—about six percent—came directly from the conscription system. To attract more volunteers, the government resorted to bounties, payments to entice men to enlist, which eventually cost the government some $700 million. Most of those who served in the Union army came from the lower classes and were brought into the war as draftees, bounty enlistees, volunteers, or substitutes. Irish and German immigrants made up about twenty-four percent of the soldiers and African Americans represented ten percent. Several hundred women also served in the Union Army, however, most women who joined the war effort did so in non-combatant roles.

post-civil war period

America's rapid demobilization at the close of the Civil War was in keeping with its prewar ideology: The country returned to a small standing army. By 1876, the regular forces were made up of about 27,500 men, and most of them were scattered on the Western frontier. Increased settlement, dramatically accelerated by railroad construction, brought over two million settlers to the West and further disturbed the land and game that sustained the Indian way of life. Government policy forced tribes to live on reservations, often on uninhabitable lands, and treaties with the Indians were commonly invalidated when white fortune hunters found gold and silver on Indian lands. Skirmishes in the Great Plains increased sharply as Indians reacted to this encroachment. Territorial militiamen and volunteers joined the fight, but in many cases they made the situation even more contentious by their cruel treatment of Indian tribes.

Before the close of the nineteenth century, the United States fought the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. Both conflicts forced the nation to rethink its military practices. By the early twentieth century, America was fully industrialized and involved in global trade and international affairs. As an emerging world power, military leaders argued that reform was not only recommended, it was necessary. Although leaders could agree on many aspects of military modernization, they debated America's mobilization practices, especially the use of volunteers and militiamen in combination with a small regular army. Some reformers argued for universal military training, which would require all able-bodied young men to practice as soldiers. Others called for maintaining a larger federal army of professionally trained soldiers. In the end, the tradition of expanding the military only in time of crisis was maintained. Mobilization continued to bring together citizen-soldiers in the form of draftees, volunteers, and the National Guard to assist the regular army. Not until the late twentieth century did the United States break the tradition, forming and maintaining a large professional trained army and stationing it throughout the world.


Chambers, John Whiteclay, II. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Ford, Nancy Gentile. Issues of War and Peace. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

Millett, Allan R., and Maslowski, Peter. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States. New York: Free Press, 1984.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: The History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1977.

Nancy Gentile Ford

See also:New York City Draft Riots.