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Kevin Hillstrom


Kevin Hillstrom


Kevin Hillstrom

Recruitment: An Overview

Of the approximately three million men who fought in the American Civil War, more than 620,000 did not survive. The majority of these fatalities—360,000 from the Union side, 260,000 from the Confederate rolls—stemmed from disease and other causes rather than from battlefield wounds. But the carnage on the field of battle was nonetheless appalling. In one early clash, for example—the Battle of Shiloh of April 1862—more Americans fell than in all previous American wars combined.

While the soldiers who fought under the banners of the Union and Confederacy were not a monolithic group, most were young. About one-half of all Northern men who were between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four in 1860, for example, fought in the war at some point (Rorabaugh 1986, p. 696), and an even greater percentage of young Southerners took up arms for the Confederacy. But beyond this unsurprising preponderance of young recruits, there was no one type of Civil War soldier. Recruits were of many different nationalities and had widely different occupations; furthermore, while most troops were young, some were quite old—indeed, ages varied across a roughly fifty-year span (Sutherland 1989, p. 2).

The men who took up arms for the Blue and Gray also held a multitude of reasons for participating. Many on both sides were motivated by patriotism and other high-minded principles. Others were swept into the army by peer pressure and community expectations, the promise of adventure, or the prospect of proving their manhood through the crucible of war. All of the aforementioned factors were pivotal in accounting for the initial rush of volunteers that filled the ranks of the Northern and Southern armies in the opening months of the war.

As the Civil War ground on, however, both armies suffered astonishing rates of attrition. With each passing month, the list of soldiers who had succumbed to enemy bullets or illness grew longer, and generals on both sides beseeched their political leaders for reinforcements. This posed a dilemma for both U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, for volunteers were by then few and far between.

Both administrations responded by imposing military drafts on their people. This decision to resort to the draft—widely known as conscription—was enormously unpopular and triggered outright rebellion in some areas, particularly in the North. Conscription measures were deeply flawed because they contained numerous service exemptions that were, by and large, only available to middle-class or affluent men. As the inequities of the conscription systems became evident in both the North and South, farming and working-class families without the financial resources to secure exemptions began to complain bitterly. Charges that the war had become "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight" were heard again and again during the last two years of the war, both around the campfires of marching armies and in homes where fathers, sons, and brothers had long been absent.

But while conscription measures in both the North and South became notorious for their divisiveness and corrupt implementation, they ultimately served their purpose of replenishing the ranks of the Blue and Gray. In the latter case, however, the replenishment was only temporary, and it never reached the level necessary for the Confederacy to continue the fight against a foe with superior military and industrial resources. Conscription actions in the South saw steadily diminishing returns, and by the end of 1864 it was clear to even the most optimistic Confederate partisan that defeating the Yankees was impossible if the South ran out of soldiers.


Barton, Michael, and Larry M. Logue, eds. The Civil War Soldier: A Historical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Catton, Bruce. Reflections on the Civil War, ed. John Leekley. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Donald, David Herbert, Jean Harvey Baker, and Michael F. Holt. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences. New York: Viking, 1988.

Rorabaugh, William J. "Who Fought for the North in the Civil War? Concord, Massachusetts, Enlistments." Journal of American History 73, no. 3 (1986): 695–701.

Sutherland, Daniel E. The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860–1876. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.


In the first year of the Civil War, both the Union and Confederacy relied on volunteers to form the backbone of their armies. On March 6, 1861, the newly minted Confederate States of America (CSA) issued a call for 100,000 volunteers willing to defend the allied secessionist states against Northern "tyranny." Five weeks later, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued a similar call for 75,000 men to rally to the side of the existing federal army, which had shriveled to a mere 16,000 professional soldiers after thousands of Southerners resigned their commissions. Three weeks after this, the president issued an appeal for an additional 60,000 soldiers and sailors. Lincoln's first call to arms had required only ninety-day enlistments, but most of the men who answered his second call signed up for three-year enlistments.

A Rush to Join

The requests for volunteers issued by Lincoln and his Confederate counterpart, President Jefferson Davis, were met with a thunderous response. In fact, the mood was almost celebratory in the war's first few weeks. Thousands of men in both the North and South, their emotions at a fever pitch after years of steadily escalating tension and bombastic political rhetoric, were enormously relieved that the hour of reckoning seemed to finally be at hand. These men did not have to be convinced to volunteer; they went gladly, their steps lightened by patriotic pride and certainty of victory. Indeed, one key factor in the initial flood of applicants to join both armies was a pronounced fear that the war might end so quickly that the volunteer in question would not get an opportunity to snare his own share of combat glory. "The war was greeted in its first few weeks almost as a festival," confirmed one scholar. "People went out and celebrated, both in the North and the South. There were parades, bands playing, flags flying; people seemed almost happy" (Catton 1981, p. 40).

Volunteers for the Blue and Gray rushed to those colors for many of the same reasons. Countless idealistic and naive young men—including thousands of teen boys who lied about their age—enlisted not only to defend grand principles, but also out of a desire for adventure.

Another important factor in the initial flood of volunteer enlistments in both the North and South was peer and community pressure. The divided nation of the mid-nineteenth century was, despite the rapid growth of some cities, still predominantly an empire of villages, towns, and ethnically distinct neighborhoods. In most of these enclaves, neighbors were on a first-name basis with one another and anonymity was not an option. Healthy young men who did not join their peers in the enlistment line, then, were often subject to ridicule or outright condemnation. As one historian observed, "not a few fellows found their way to recruiting depots only after being pushed by the questioning glances of neighbors, disdainful jeers of uniformed swains, and resounding haughtiness of fair maids" (Sutherland 1989, p. 3).

In both the North and South, the importance of personal and family honor, and allegiance to town and county, were crucial incentives to enlistment. This was greatly intensified by the fact that platoons, companies, and regiments were usually composed of men from the same county—and often from the same town or village. The knowledge that one could enlist, train, and fight with other young men who had attended the same school or church, or even serve side by side with relatives and friends, was a powerful incentive to join the cause.

Preserving White Supremacy

While Northerners and Southerners volunteered for many of the same reasons, there was an additional rationale at work in the Confederacy. In the secessionist South, where a majority of military-age white males fought in the war at some point (and where an estimated 20 percent of that demographic group perished), much of the volunteer push was explicitly linked to the preservation of a "way of life" built on the twin foundations of white supremacy and black slavery.

As historian Gary Gallagher observed in The Confederate War (1997), the Confederate government was able to mobilize 75 to 80 percent of its white male population of military age over the course of the war. This success was due in no small measure to the "peculiar institution" of slaveryand the South's determination to defend the practice to its last breath. As a practical matter, the South's ability to gather such a high percentage of white males into its armies was directly attributable to the fact that the continued enslavement of an agricultural work force that included nearly 800,000 male slaves freed up white males to join the military in far greater numbers than otherwise could have been managed. The cultural mandate to preserve slavery, however, may have been just as great an impetus to enlistment in many areas of the South. Enlistees were motivated not just by the desire to preserve slavery as a system of labor, but by a fear of what might happen if the racial hierarchy were overturned. One young Confederate volunteer—a planter's son who joined the army with a slave servant in tow—offered a typical assessment of the stakes involved in a letter home: "The time for action on the part of our entire race is swiftly passing, and unless [fellow white Southerners] all awake and get up on their feet like men, they may be compelled to forever crawl upon the ground like worms" (Logue 2002, p. 46).

Cogs in the Military Machine

Whether donning the colors of the Confederacy or the Union, soldiers in the first great wave of volunteers found themselves enmeshed in military machines that were quite similar in their structure and operating philosophy. For instance, both federal governments relied on individual states to raise their respective armies from the war's outset. These state-based regiments remained the cornerstone of both assembled forces for the war's duration, and though they had been raised for national service, their primary identification and allegiance was often to their home state.

This state of affairs put heavy pressure on state governors. They knew that they would get the credit if their state met its enlistment quota goal—and the blame if it failed to do so. With this in mind, governors in both the North and South tackled the task with zeal. They strong-armed state legislatures (who were generally compliant in this area anyway) to acquire additional funding with which to accelerate the enlistment process. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew (1818–1867), for instance, used state funds to charter steamboats and railroad facilities for the transportation of enlistees, as well as to provide food, clothing, and shelter for volunteers until they received supplies from the federal government. His energetic leadership in these and other areas made Massachusetts one of the first Northern states to meet (and then exceed) its quota of volunteers.

Governors in both the North and South were also empowered to select various community leaders and military veterans to lead the recruitment process at the village, city, county, and district levels. Oftentimes, these community leaders received military commissions in return for their help. These commissions became official as soon as the regiment they were responsible for overseeing was raised and sworn in.

Of Companies and Regiments

In both armies, enlistees were assigned to fifty-man platoons, many of which were composed entirely of men from the same township or county. Two platoons comprised a company, and ten companies formed a regiment. It was the regiment—consisting of roughly one thousand men of various ranks, many from the same region of the country—that was the basic military unit for both the Blue and the Gray. Regiments frequently had their own insignia and nicknames, and most carried unique battle flags, generally handmade by women from the soldiers' towns and villages.

Colorful sobriquets were not the exclusive domain of regiments, though. Within many Yankee and Rebel regiments, individual companies also christened themselves with cocky nicknames that often made explicit reference to the town or region from which the regiment's membership hailed. In his classic The Life of Johnny Reb (1943), historian Bell Irvin Wiley rattled off a representative sampling of company names that could be found sprinkled among the Confederate forces, including the Tallapoosa Thrashers, Bartow Yankee Killers, Chickasaw Desperadoes, Southern Rejecters of Old Abe, Cherokee Lincoln Killers, and South Florida Bull Dogs.

Once a company was formally organized and recognized by the authorities, its soldiers went about the process of electing their own company officers. This odd procedure was commonplace in both the North and South, and underscores the improvisational quality that typified the frantic efforts of both sides to create a working military force. The positions that were most often filled in this manner were those of captains and lieutenants, but some regiments elected all of their noncommissioned and commissioned officers, from corporals to colonels. This led in some cases to the elevation of inept individuals, who were selected purely on the basis of their personal popularity.

After officers were elected, military training could begin in earnest. But the volunteers who filled the ranks of the Blue and Gray during the first two years or so of the Civil War were not professional soldiers, and frequently balked at efforts to rein in their proudly individualistic ways. This tension remained palpable in both armies from the opening days of the war to its conclusion.

An Overwhelming Response

The response to the call for volunteers to march under the Union and Confederate flags quickly swamped federal authorities. The war departments in both Washington, DC, and Montgomery, Alabama (Richmond, Virginia, did not become the Confederate capital until May 6, 1861) were completely unequipped to handle the flood of new soldiers, and the first few weeks of army-building became an administrative nightmare for both sides. The situation became so bad in the North that the War Department urged star recruiters such as Illinois Governor Richard Yates (1818–1873) to ease up on enlistment efforts until it was better prepared to accommodate new troops.

By early 1862 more than 700,000 troops had been enrolled in the Union army—all of them volunteers. But the initial ninety-day enrollment period for the first wave of volunteers had proven to be laughably optimistic, so by the time the War Department sent out the call for another 300,000 volunteers in early July 1862, the service commitment was for a much more realistic three-year term. Less than one year later, in March 1863, the continued demand for still more troops forced the U.S. government to take the momentous step of instituting the first of its military drafts. This controversial turn to conscription reflected a stark reality in the North: The first two years of the war had exhausted its supply of genuine "volunteers" and it would now have to turn to less enthusiastic men to fill the Union ranks. This is not to say that voluntary enlistment ended when the draft began; to the contrary, volunteerism continued to account for the majority of new troops. Historians agree, however, that many of the men who technically volunteered for military duty during the draft era did so in reaction to the conscription threat, not out of patriotic pride or other high-minded motivations.

Down in the South, meanwhile, the initial call for 100,000 volunteers had also been easily met. But these enlistees had only been asked to serve for six months or a year. As it became evident that the war was going to drag on longer than many people on either side had believed, Confederate officials authorized in April 1862 the conscription of another 300,000 men who would serve for three years—or until the war ended. As in the North, the draft was hugely controversial in the South, but it was somewhat successful in replenishing the Confederacy's increasingly soldier-starved army. It encouraged thousands of draft-age men to volunteer rather than face the uncertainties of the draft, and conscription itself scooped up thousands of others.


Catton, Bruce. Reflections on the Civil War, ed. John Leekley. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Catton, Bruce. The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, rev. ed. Ed. James M. McPherson. New York: Viking, 1996.

Donald, David Herbert, Jean Harvey Baker, and Michael F. Holt. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Logue, Larry M. "Who Joined the Confederate Army? Soldiers, Civilians, and Communities in Mississippi." In The Civil War Soldier: A Historical Reader, ed. Michael Barton and Larry M. Logue. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Sutherland, Daniel E. The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860–1876. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.


For much of the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies relied on conscription—mandatory military service—to replenish their battered companies and regiments. During 1861 and 1862 the Confederacy won the Battles of First and Second Bull Run, McDowell, First Winchester, Port Republic, Gaines Mill, and Fredericksburg, split honors at Antietam and Perryville, and lost at another eighteen engagements. The Confederacy's casualties in 1861–1862 totaled a much greater percentage of its population than the percentage lost by the Northern states. Given this reality, the Confederacy was the first side to reluctantly turn to conscription, also known as "the draft" due to its many casualties in the first years of the war.

The Confederate Congress passed its first conscription act on April 16, 1862. This measure, designed to add another 300,000 soldiers to the Rebel ranks, required non-exempt white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five to sign up for possible military service. The United States followed suit eleven months later, on March 3, 1863, when the U.S. Congress passed the first of four wartime conscription acts. These conscription measures by the South and North ultimately accounted for about 20 percent of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War. More importantly, the mere threat of conscription convinced many other young men to claim some measure of direction over their own lives by "volunteering" for military service.

In both the North and South, however, the imposition of military drafts—and the exemptions that went primarily to the affluent or politically connected—proved proved to be enormously unpopular. Antidraft riots beleaguered many Northern cities, and in the South many citizens viewed the imposition of conscription as an affront to self-proclaimed values of personal freedom and states' rights. "What will we have gained," Georgia Governor Joseph Brown (1821–1894) angrily declared, "when we have achieved our independence of the Northern States if in our efforts to do so, we have … lost Constitutional Liberty at home?" (Robbins 1971, p. 93)

Conscription in the North

The 1863 conscription act passed by the U.S. Congress in March 1863 required all able-bodied male citizens between twenty and forty-five, as well as immigrants who had sworn their intention to be naturalized, to register for military service. Draftees, also known as conscripts, were required to serve three-year terms. They received the same pay and federal bounties as three-year volunteers. Federal conscription laws also provided mechanisms for enforcement of the draft, including funding for a new government agency that included enrollment officers (who were organized by congressional district), boards of enrollment, provost marshals, and a provost marshal general in Washington, DC.

The institution of a draft troubled many Northerners. By the time it took effect many had become alarmed by the war's slide into stalemate and by the shocking amount of blood already shed. Questions about the Lincoln administration's respect for personal liberty and constitutional freedoms also abounded. But as the historian David Williams (2005) notes, there was an economic dimension as well: Many feared that families would slide into destitution should breadwinners be drafted—and the soldier's measly pay of thirteen dollars per month did nothing to allay these fears or to serve as an inducement.

Lincoln and other Republicans were keenly aware of public opposition to conscription. Indeed, antiwar Democrats focused much of their political energy on denunciations of the draft, and this stance increasingly looked like a winning theme in their quest to make Lincoln a one-term president. Nonetheless, Lincoln issued four separate draft orders during the last two years of the war—in October 1863, March 1864, July 1864, and December 1864. The infusions of manpower they brought about proved pivotal in securing an eventual Union victory in the war. During this span of time, however, major flaws in the draft became starkly apparent. Most of these flaws were in the realm of exemptions.

Draft Exemptions

When the Lincoln administration, the U.S. Congress, and the War Department decided to impose a military draft, they recognized that certain service exemptions had to be included, both in the interests of military efficiency and public acceptance. As a result, exemptions were granted to men who were mentally or physically unfit, selected officials within state and federal governments, and only sons who provided primary support for widower mothers or infirm parents. The act also exempted aliens who had neither voted nor declared their intention to become American citizens. There was initially no exemption for conscientious objection based on religious beliefs, but exemptions were eventually added that permitted Quakers and other conscientious objectors to work in non-combat positions (such as hospital work).

None of these exemptions aroused widespread public indignation or protest. But two other exemptions folded into the 1863 conscription law were breathtakingly brazen in providing loopholes for middle-class and wealthy white men of draft age. The first of these loopholes was a stipulation that permitted a man who was drafted to pay a $300 commutation fee and thus be excused from service (until his number was drawn in a subsequent draft, at any rate). Because $300 amounted to a decent annual income for many American men, the price tag prevented all but wealthy men from exploring this loophole. This provision remained in effect until July 1864, when it was finally abolished in response to the public outcry. The second controversial loophole was one that allowed drafted men to hire substitutes to serve in their stead; if they could quickly find someone willing to serve, and could pay them the going market rate, they were off the hook. (Northerners who were conscripted had ten days in which to pay commutation, find a substitute, or report for duty.)

These two exemptions made it clear to many Northern soldiers—and their families waiting anxiously back home—that the Civil War was turning into "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Other citizens reached the same conclusion, and within weeks of passage of the 1863 conscription law, a new level of skepticism and cynicism about the war was detectable on many Northern city streets. During this time, for example, a parody of the patriotic recruiting song "We Are Coming Father Abraham" became popular in many urban areas. One representative verse of the parody, dubbed "Song of the Conscripts," went as follows:

We're coming Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more,

We leave our homes and firesides with bleeding hearts and sore,

Since poverty has been our crime, we bow to thy decree,

We are the poor who have no wealth to purchase liberty.

(Williams 2005, p. 274).

How the Draft Worked

Far from ending recruitment drives, in the North the military draft actually served to galvanize recruiting by states, cities, and other government organizations, because the draft was not imposed on any locality that had met its quota of recruits through volunteerism. The country was divided up into congressional districts, each of which was supposed to provide an apportionment of soldiers based on its population. If counties (or entire states) could meet their quota through volunteer enlistments, they did not have to use conscription to make up the "deficiency."

This state of affairs gave rise to a bounty system, in which towns and cities offered a lump-sum cash payment to any man who enlisted voluntarily. This "bounty" was often further supplemented by contributions from county boards of commissions, state legislatures, the federal government, and even private citizens or organizations. These bounties became as high as $1,000 in the latter stages of the war. Not surprisingly, these astounding sums led some ethically challenged but enterprising young men to become "bounty jumpers"—men who would enlist at one locale in order to collect the bounty, then disappear and do the same thing in another location. One bounty jumper reportedly executed this maneuver more than thirty times before he was finally apprehended and thrown into prison.

Another shady profession that blossomed in the wake of the United States' conscription laws was that of the substitute broker. For a fee, these men took on the task of finding substitutes for wealthy clients who had been served with draft notices. In many cases, however, brokers preyed on the most vulnerable members of society—alcoholics, the impoverished or homeless, the mentally ill—when rounding up substitutes. They then bribed doctors and other officials to get these down-and-out substitutes approved for military duty.

These and other men brought in by the substitute and bounty systems generally made for poor-quality soldiers. This reality did not go unnoticed by military leaders such as Union General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), who lamented at war's end that not one soldier in eight who was brought in by the high-bounty system ever became a decent front-line soldier. Nor did it escape the notice of fellow soldiers, who loathed high-bounty troops, and often set out to make their lives miserable.

All told, more than three-quarters of a million names were enrolled during the two-year life of the Union conscription act. But only a little over 46,300 entered the army as actual draftees. In addition, almost 87,000 draftees evaded service by paying a commutation fee, and another 73,600 soldiers enrolled in the ranks as substitutes for wealthier countrymen (Donald 2001, p. 229). Thousands of others—possibly tens of thousands—avoided the draft by volunteering. And finally, there were those who responded to the threat of conscription with subterfuge or by fleeing.

Other Methods of Evading the Draft

Many Northern men evaded military service by ignoring conscription notices. This decision—whether it stemmed from cowardice, ideological opposition to the war, or concern for the welfare of family members—usually involved relocation to an area of the country that was inhospitable to conscription officers. The relatively unpopulated and thinly policed western territories were a particularly attractive destination for draft evaders, as was Canada. In these parts of North America, the vast spaces could easily swallow up a man or family that wished to disappear from the government's sight. For example, an officer stationed in California would find that tracking down deserters and draft dodgers was a nearly impossible task due to the sheer size of the state and the indifference of the population to the war (Williams 2005, p. 266).

Other draftees tried to avoid conscription by giving false identities or feigning blindness, deafness, or some other serious physical malady. Others hurriedly proposed to sweethearts or family friends in the mistaken belief that the Conscription Act excused married men from military service (in actuality, it merely put married men over the age of thirty-five on secondary draft status). Still others bribed draft administrators in order to avoid reporting for duty.

Another novel—and effective—response to the threat of conscription was the emergence of "draft insurance" societies or clubs. In these clubs, which popped up in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and other larger cities of the North, each member contributed a sum of money that would be used to hire a substitute or pay a commutation fee should any fellow member receive a conscription notice. Members thus diluted the financial pain while simultaneously receiving ironclad protection from the battlefield.

Violent Opposition to Conscription

In some parts of the North, public unhappiness with federal conscription laws boiled over into violence. Intimidation of draft officers was commonplace in many cities and counties—and in some cases the threats were so serious that it was difficult for authorities to find people willing to hire on as draft officers. Some of this hostility had an organizational basis, and conscription administrators sometimes voiced genuine alarm about the number of antidraft societies springing up in their midst. One provost marshal in New Jersey, for instance, reported that "organizations are formed or forming in nearly all the districts in New Jersey to resist the draft" (Murdock 1971, p. 85).

Tensions over the draft in some areas frequently became so great that bloodshed was virtually inevitable. One highly publicized explosion of draft-related violence occurred in the coal towns of Pennsylvania. According to historian Bruce Catton in Reflections on the Civil War (1981), mine workers in the region had long been trying to form unions in an effort to be more justly compensated for their dangerous and exhausting toil. When several leaders in the unionization effort were plucked from the ranks by the local provost marshal and carted off to the military, the frustrated miners lashed out in rage. Over the next several days they rioted across the countryside, reserving special violence for area draft offices.

The most deadly and infamous of the draft riots to afflict the Union, however, occurred in July 1863 in New York City. Many white city residents—and especially the city's large Irish population—opposed Lincoln and the emancipation cause in the first place, as they viewed free blacks as major competitors for scarce jobs, and after the passage of the Conscription Act their anger was further stoked by the bombastic rhetoric of anti-Lincoln city newspapers and political leaders such as Democratic Governor Horatio Seymour (1810–1886).

On July 11, 1863, the city's drawing of the first draftees' names commenced, and this proved to be the match that set off the powder keg. White mobs formed and marauded through the streets, cutting telegraph wires, burning the provost marshal's headquarters, and attacking police. Eventually, African Americans became the special focus of the mob's wrath, and throughout the city blacks were beaten and lynched, and had their homes burned to the ground. All in all, 119 New Yorkers were killed in the 1863 draft riots and more than 300 African Americans were wounded. In addition, thousands of African American families fled the city in fear for their lives.

The Cornerstone of the Union Army

Conscription thus was a mixed blessing for the Union cause. It did provide the army with much-needed infusions of new soldiers, either through outright conscription or volunteerism stemming from the threat of the draft. But the quality of the soldiers caught by the conscription net was uneven at best, and some commanders saw conscripts as little more than cannon fodder.

It was the volunteers who had first signed up for the Union cause in the heady days after Fort Sumter who remained the backbone of the army to the very end. Virtually all of them had lost close friends to the war and had been away from their families for nearly three years—but they reenlisted in early 1864 to finish the job when they could have gone home.

Conscription in the South

Saddled with significant disadvantages in terms of manpower, military equipment, and other resources, the Confederacy was forced to play the conscription card a full year before the Union did. First, however, the South needed to ensure that the soldiers it already had on hand stayed put. In the early spring of 1862, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress were confronted with the looming possibility that much of the Southern army—comprised of volunteers who had accepted twelve-month enlistments the previous spring—might return to their homes. Determined to stave off this threat, lawmakers passed an act that offered lucrative signing bonuses and generous furloughs for veterans who reenlisted.

Then, on April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the first conscription law in American history. This act to legalize compulsory military service—service that Davis described as "absolutely indispensable" to the future of the Confederacy—applied to white men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five (later amended to age forty-five). Eager to blunt the impact of the draft, the South sweetened the pot for potential enlistees before conscription even came into effect, by promising cash bonuses and choice of unit assignments to those who volunteered. These inducements had the desired effect, as thousands of Southerners who had not been moved to join in the war's beginning months now stepped forward. According to historian Albert Burton Moore, author of Conscription and Conflict in theConfederacy (1924), the Confederate War Department later estimated that fully three-fourths of those who volunteered to march under the Rebel flag did so to avoid the stigma of conscription.

Within the army ranks, meanwhile, news of the conscription measures elicited a range of emotions. On the one hand, soldiers felt a measure of relief that new men would be arriving to help them shoulder the burden of warmaking. But many Rebel soldiers saw conscription as blatantly unconstitutional and as a sign of the South's desperate situation.

Exemptions to the Conscription Act

As was the case with the Union draft laws that followed a year later, Confederate conscription measures included a number of service exemptions. Eager to minimize disruptions on the domestic front and keep its army supplied with necessary staples, the Confederate conscription law permitted men engaged in a wide range of professions to be excused from enlistment. Schoolteachers (of at least twenty pupils), college professors, ministers, mail carriers and postmasters, druggists, assorted state and federal officials, telegraph operators, railroad and ferry workers, blacksmiths, tanners, millers, printers, newspaper editors, and workers in cotton mills, mines, and foundries all had the option of claiming an exemption. The announcement of these exemptions prompted a flurry of career changes in some parts of the South. For example, a number of men—including some with virtually no formal education—abruptly opened schoolhouses and promised to teach students for free if they could entice twenty students from the surrounding area to enroll.

In addition, wealthy Southerners—like their counterparts to the north—had the option of paying a commutation fee or hiring a substitute to serve in their stead. Finding a substitute was the preferred method of sidestepping military service, but this option soon became the sole province of the very rich. By the end of 1863, substitutes were demanding thousands of dollars for their services, and in some parts of the South the fee reached as high as $10,000. An advertisement for a substitute in one newspaper offered to pay "in cash, land, or negro property." Another offered a 230-acre farm. All told, at least 50,000 wealthy Southerners evaded military service by hiring substitutes (Williams 2005, p. 76).

The most unpopular and controversial exemption, however, was the "twenty-slave" exemption. This provision released one slave owner or overseer from military duty for every twenty slaves under their direction. Plantation owners with hundreds of slaves were thus able to excuse not only themselves but also their most valuable foremen from the army. Most wealthy Southern landowners were quick to take advantage of this loophole (though it should be noted that a number of them were exempt from the draft anyway because of their age). According to scholar William Kauffman Scarborough in Masters of the Big House (2003), only thirty-one (11.4 %) of the Confederacy's 272 largest slaveholders (those owning 250 slaves or more) saw military service during the Civil War, and only four of them died on duty. By contrast, nearly half of the South's military-aged white males served at one time or another, and one-third of those did not survive the war.

Anger and Disillusionment

Wealthy Southern landowners defended their absence from the Rebel ranks, noting that they played an important role as producers of food, clothing, and other essential goods for both the army and the wider public. But their emphasis on lucrative cotton production over badly needed staple crops such as corn diluted their claims that they were practicing their own brand of patriotism, and fellow Southerners recognized that every time a wealthy man evaded military service, the army turned more avidly to financially defenseless prospects such as poor farmers. As one Virginian angrily wrote to the Confederate War Department,

It is impossible to make poor people comprehend the policy of putting able-bodied, healthy, Mr. A in such light service as collecting tithes and money at home, when the well known feeble & delicate Mr. B.—who is a poor man with a large family of children depending on him for bread—is sent to the front. … I beseech you to be warned of the coming storm—the people will not always submit to this unequal, unjust and partial distribution of favor and wholesale conscription of the poor while the able-bodied & healthy men of property are all occupying soft places. (Escott 1978, p. 119)

Frustration with the inequities of the draft combined with other factors—fear, concern for vulnerable family members, disenchantment with the Davis administration—to create a significant draft evasion problem. Some men avoided the front lines by joining home guard or militia companies (which were supposed to be manned by seniors and teenage boys). Others fled to Mexico. But some, especially those living in communities that had become disillusioned about the war and the Confederate leadership, simply ignored the law. In these areas, convictions for draft dodging were few.

During the campaigns of 1864 the Confederate army became dangerously depleted, in part because desertion was emerging as a serious problem. Richmond responded by eliminating some exemption loopholes and expanding the age restrictions for enlistment to the minimum of seventeen and the maximum of fifty. But these measures took a toll on the South's factories and railroads, which increasingly struggled to operate with skeleton crews.

Mixed Feelings toward Conscripts

Meanwhile, Southerners who submitted to the draft or served as substitutes for more well-heeled countrymen were treated with suspicion or contempt by the dedicated veterans who had been wearing the Gray since the war's opening weeks. These attitudes were understandable, but they did not advance the Confederate cause, as they hardly made it likely that already unwilling conscripts would develop into first-class troops—and indeed, few did.

Despite these hard feelings, Rebel veterans often voiced a deep desire to force "stay-at-homes" into service. These battle-scarred soldiers recognized the truth of a basic equation: The larger the Confederate force was, the better its chances of victory over its foe. But even here, the Rebel veteran made exceptions for brothers, sons, and fathers who remained back home supporting their family. In the view of many soldiers, a family that sent one representative into the meat grinder of the Civil War had amply fulfilled its duty and defended its honor.


Barton, Michael, and Larry M. Logue, eds. The Civil War Soldier: A Historical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Catton, Bruce. Reflections on the Civil War, ed. John Leekley. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Catton, Bruce. The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, revised edition. Ed. James M. McPherson. New York: Viking, 1996.

Donald, David Herbert, Jean Harvey Baker, and Michael F. Holt. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Escott, Paul D. After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism. Baton RougeLouisiana State University Press, 1978.

McPherson, James M. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences. New York: Viking, 1988.

Moore, Albert Burton. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy. New York: Macmillan, 1924. Reprint, New York: Hillary House, 1963.

Murdock, Eugene C. One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971.

Robbins, John. "The Confederacy and the Writ of Habeas Corpus." Georgia Historical Quarterly 55 (Spring 1971): 83–101.

Scarborough, William Kauffman. Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Indianapolis, IN, and New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Williams, David. A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom. New York: New Press, 2005.

Kevin Hillstrom


views updated May 29 2018

Recruitment. The military manpower policy of the United States has been marked by sharp contrasts between principles and realities. Universal service has often been the ideal, but the militias and conscript armies have never been equally representative of society.

America's early military traditions were heavily influenced by Great Britain's, and included a predisposition toward militia organization and a distrust of centralized standing peacetime forces. The militias—military organizations composed of civilians enrolled and trained as defensive forces against invaders—developed from medieval notions of the duty of all free men to help the king defend the realm. The colonists, threatened by Native Americans and rival colonial powers, organized as citizen‐soldiers in order to protect themselves and their interests.

When troops were needed for a campaign, legislatures assigned quotas to local militia districts. Local officials then called for volunteers and could draft men when necessary. Thus, the militia—in theory composed of all able‐bodied free white men—served as the mobilization base for the colonies, with volunteers, usually called provincials, providing the troops for campaigning. A considerable proportion of the citizenry was exempted from service by over 200 militia laws. For instance, the Massachusetts Militia Act of 1647 exempted officers, fellows, and students of Harvard College; church elders and deacons; schoolmasters; physicians; surgeons; captains of ships over twenty tons; fishermen employed year‐round; people with physical problems; and many others. When the militia failed to produce a sufficiently large number of volunteers, or when legislative calls for additional volunteers failed to expand the force sufficiently, men could be drafted, or impressed. During the colonial period, impressment was rarely successful, and avoided in most provinces because of its potential to create desertion or even riot. For this reason, impressed men were always given the option of paying a fine or hiring substitutes to serve in their stead.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress allocated manpower quotas for the Continental army to the states, and left conscription policy up to them. At the conclusion of the war, George Washington urged Congress to accept the principle of universal national military obligation and establish a small peacetime army backed by a national militia. Congress declared that standing armies in times of peace were inconsistent with the principle of republican government, and discharged virtually the entire Continental army.

This tug‐of‐war between national military need and national thought on standing armies has influenced the whole of military history. One day after it had dismissed the Continental army, Congress requested that the states of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania recruit a total of 700 militiamen for a year of service on the frontier. The term of frontier service was extended to three years, and then the militiamen were replaced by regular soldiers.

With the adoption of the Constitution, the federal government acquired the power to raise and support armies, to provide and maintain a navy, and to make rules for the regulation of the land and naval forces. The right of the states to control their militias was confirmed, and the state forces were to be the country's major land force in the event of a crisis.

A standing army did not fit naturally into the ideological landscape of the new republic. Necessary or not, the armed forces were typically kept small and often suffered from neglect. Soldiers were often untrained, poorly housed and fed, and not always paid. In 1812, as America faced a war, the regular army consisted of less than 7,000 men and was dispersed throughout the expanding country. Older regiments were commanded by aging revolutionary veterans, training was lax, and supply and staff were inadequate even in peacetime. The war effort was built upon volunteer companies and the amorphous state militias behind them. Congress approved enlistment bounties totaling $40 for regular recruits plus three months pay in advance and 160 acres of land. The next year, Congress invited members of volunteer militia organizations to join the regular army for one year. The actual turnout was disappointing. In order to raise necessary manpower in wartime, Congress created the U.S. Volunteers, locally raised troops for national service for the duration of a conflict.

Recruitment suffered from all the impediments to men leaving their homes for war. Popular indifference always hampered raising and supporting troops. In the early years of the republic, there was strong opposition to any exercise of armed force on the part of the United States—opposition that arose from the fear that the government would come to depend upon the force and from disagreement over whether the Constitution actually allowed it. Historically, the quality of men who would sign up with the army, in a country of expanding economic opportunities, was poor. Until the turn of the nineteenth century, visitors to army posts spoke of the men's low intelligence, loose morals, and habitual drunkenness, and described frontier posts as dirty, dusty, and remote. Desertion was common. The army was barely growing, promotion prospects were dismal, and there was no retirement system.

The patriotic angst that brought the Civil War fueled its armies as well, composed primarily of U.S. and Confederate volunteers. In a few weeks, nationalism produced the first mass armies in American history. The U.S. Army grew to twenty‐seven times its original strength in the four months following the capture of Fort Sumter (1861). Both Federal and Confederate forces swelled with volunteers in the early months—and both turned to conscription to augment their mass armies.

Conscription was rationalized on the grounds that the rights guaranteed to the individual by the government implied an obligation upon him to defend his rights by defending the government that assured them. Exemptions were commonplace and the hiring of substitutes remained lawful.

In 1916, with eyes on the war in Europe, Congress passed the National Defense Act, which provided for an expanded peacetime regular army—the National Guard—a reserve force, and a volunteer army to be raised in time of war. That summer, mobilization of the National Guard failed to recruit the Guard to full strength. This convinced the Wilson administration of the inadequacy of voluntary enlistments to raise an army for the Great War. A conscription bill, the Selective Service Act of 1917, was passed immediately after the declaration of war. The regular army and the National Guard continued to recruit volunteers, and the draft was held to remedy any deficiencies.

Having learned lessons from the Civil War, for World War I there were no substitutes and no bounties. Students under the age of twenty‐one, however, were able to defer service by enrolling in the Student Army Training Corps for three years. Otherwise, each eligible person was required to register as an obligation of citizenship or residence in the United States. Conscription was based on the principle of universal obligation to service. The World War I draft supplied close to 67 percent of the total force. It acted as a spur to voluntary enlistment, and the enlistment rate fluctuated with conscription policy. The draft lapsed at the end of the war, and precedents were set not only for a national draft and for student deferments but also for those deferments to expand into exemptions from service.

Although distinctly concerned by the onset of World War II, the Roosevelt administration hesitated to ask for conscription before a declaration of war for fear of arousing isolationist sentiment. In the summer of 1940, however, public and congressional sentiment outran President Franklin D. Roosevelt and conscription was enacted. Later that summer, a joint resolution called for mobilization of the National Guard and reserves.

With the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, the whole landscape changed. Neither life nor war would ever be the same again. Many Americans, including some in the armed forces, believed that an atomic monopoly had brought an end to the era of mass armies. Demobilization proceeded at great speed: by 1948, the army's combat effective strength was reduced to two and one‐third divisions. In June 1948, however, in response to growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, Congress passed a new Selective Service Act, with a two‐year limit. The revival of the draft encouraged voluntary enlistments among men who wished to choose service and branch rather than to leave themselves at the mercy of local draft boards. The act was extended for the Korean War. As voluntary enlistment increased, inductions under Selective Service dropped, from more than a third of accessions during the mid‐1950s to less than 10 percent during the early 1960s.

Had it not been for the Vietnam War, the draft might have been phased out a decade earlier than it was. Opposition to the war and the draft, and the perceived inequities of Selective Service, contributed significantly to the advent of the All‐Volunteer Force in the early 1970s. Critics of the force warned that it would weaken patriotism, attract the economically disadvantaged, and attenuate the relationship between the armed forces and civilian society. In January 1973, peacetime conscription ended in the United States.

The resulting All‐Volunteer Force has surpassed all national concerns. Solely dependent upon volunteers, the force has attracted recruits from across a broad social spectrum, is well trained, well equipped, and well led. To paraphrase a contemporary recruiting slogan, it is all that it can be.
[See also Militia and National Guard; National Defense Acts; Naval Militia; Reserve Forces Act; Selective Draft Cases.]


Jerome Johnston and and Jerald G. Bachman , Young Men and Military Service, 1972.
John K. Mahon , History of the Militia and the National Guard, 1983.
John W. Chambers , To Raise an Army, 1987.
Christopher Duffy , The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 1988.
Mark J. Eitelberg , Manpower for Military Occupations, 1988.
David R. Segal , Recruiting for Uncle Sam, 1989.
Martin Binkin , Who Will Fight the Next War? 1993.
Mark J. Eitelberg and Stephen L. Mehay, eds., Marching Toward the Twenty‐first Century, 1994.

Susan Canedy


views updated Jun 08 2018

recruitment The activation of extra motor neurons in order to bring about an increased response to a stimulus that is present at an even intensity.