Enrollment Act (1863) (The Conscription Act)
Enrollment Act (1863) (The Conscription Act)
Daniel W. Hamilton
The Union and the Confederacy armies instituted the first federal military draft in American history during the Civil War. In the wake of military losses and a shortage of soldiers, the Union resorted to a federal draft in March 1863, almost a year after the Confederacy. President Lincoln signed The Enrollment Act on March 3, 1863, requiring the enrollment of every male citizen and those immigrants who had filed for citizenship between ages twenty and forty-five. Federal agents established a quota of new troops due from each congressional district.
Once set, states were responsible to fill the enrollment quota through the enlistment of volunteers and draftees. States worked not to draft soldiers, instead offering volunteers a considerable amount of money to enlist. Volunteers received a bounty of $100 from the federal government, plus state and local bounties. Combined bounties in some locations exceeded $500. This gave way to the practice of bounty jumping—men enlisted, took the bounty, deserted, and then enlisted elsewhere to receive another set of bounties.
Even those that were drafted often successfully avoided military service. Many simply failed to report, and those with disabilities or who were the sole supporters of dependent family members were excused. Any draftee not excused could hire a substitute, guaranteeing exemption from any future draft, or pay a fee of $300, providing exemption for one draft. The $300 commutation fee soon became the most controversial part of the act, leading to the widespread charge in newspapers and political meetings that the Civil War was "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight" (Mcpherson 1989). Ironically, the $300 fee was fashioned by Republicans who "saw this as a way of bringing exemption within reach of the working class instead of discriminating against them." Paying for substitutes had a long tradition in European and American warfare and was employed during the American Revolution. In setting a $300 fee, the drafters of the act hoped to cap the price of substitutes, who at time received over $1,000 in the Confederacy, where the use of substitutes was abandoned in late 1863. In the Union, Congress ultimately repealed the use of a commutation fee in July 1864.
Because of the widespread use of bounties to spur enlistment, only a relatively small amount of men fought in the war as draftees. Conscription was most important for its social impact—in particular, the class and racial divisions it revealed and provoked. Whatever the intent of its framers, the practice of substitution and commutation fees provoked violent opposition to the law's enforcement. The most serious reaction to the Conscription Act took place in New York, a city with significant southern sympathy. The Irish population of New York, many living in cramped, disease-ridden tenements, feared competition from black workers. It was largely opposed to abolition and hostile to a conscription law that exempted the rich. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Enrollment Act, both in 1863, New York's Irish opposed both the practice of substitution and commutation at the expense of the working class and participation in a war to free the slaves. In a July 4 speech New York's Democratic governor, Horatio Seymour, openly condemned the conscription law, declared the bill unconstitutional and suggested that conscription was enforced along partisan lines, claiming that Democrats were being drafted at a greater rate than Republicans.
On July 11, 1863 the first names for induction into the army were called. The next day, New York erupted into some the most violent riots in American history. The office of the provost marshal—charged with enforcing the draft—was burned, railroad lines were destroyed, and telegraph lines cut. Signaled out for attacks were the rich and African Americans, together the chief targets of the mob violence. Mobs attacked those who appeared rich as "$300 men." Rioters burned the Colored Orphanage Asylum and businesses that employed blacks. Some blacks were lynched and scores were beaten. For nearly a week the city raged, overpowering local police. Ultimately five Union regiments, along with police, militia, and even cadets from West Point, subdued the rioters. Over one hundred people died in the rioting, thousands were wounded, and thousands of African Americans fled New York.
While New York saw the most violent draft riot, it was far from an isolated event. Draft riots took place, among other places, in Newark and Albany, as well as in rural counties in Indiana and Illinois. Still, there was, overall, a remarkable degree of compliance with draft legislation, if only because the legislation was structured so that a draft was a measure of last resort. The lack of resistance to the conscription legislation is important to the extent that it shows the widespread participation in the Civil War by nearly a million white soldiers and nearly 180,000 black soldiers. While bounties were expensive, they did result in a nearly all-volunteer Union army during the Civil War. Resistance to conscription is also important historically, in part for what it revealed about the legal and popular opposition to federal conscription legislation; but even more so for exposing the smoldering tensions within communities brought to the surface by conscription legislation. The Enrollment Act was a national law enforced locally, and the resistance to the law offers insight into divisions within communities in the North in the midst of the Civil War.
Bernstein, Iver. The New York City Draft Riots. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2001.
Donald, David H., et al. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Norton, 2001.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.
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