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September 1, 2012

 Conscription in the Civil War:  The Beginning of the Military Draft

Early Draft Notice for Civil War

The Civil War was a most destructive conflict for the United States. To this day casualty figures for the war continue climb, 150 years since its conclusion.  Despite the initial enthusiasm for the war from both the North and the South, as the war continued enthusiasm began to wane on both sides. The governments for both the North and the South sought ways to replenish its losses of soldiers.  What effectively was put into practice was “conscription,” the precursor to the military draft.

Conscription relied on what was effectively a carrot and stick method of recruitment.  If men could not be enticed by monetary incentives, then they would be forced to join the ranks of the military.  The military has always offered incentives to get people to enlist.  Even before the United Stated existed as an official nation, many of the colonies offered rewards and incentives in the form of land and other ‘rights’ in order to have enough men to muster the militias. 

The first conscription in the United States was during the Civil War when the Confederacy passed its first of 3 conscription (draft) laws in April of 1862.  The North followed with its own conscription laws less than a year later.  Government officials on both sides hoped drafting would help manpower shortages and encourage voluntary enlistments Sentiment thought it would be better to enlist than to be drafted.  Generally the public on both sides considered it an infringement on individual rights, free will and personal liberty.

Seeking 30000 Volunteers

            Conscription nurtured class resentment as propertied men could hire substitutes.  It also brought about desertion and bounty-jumping.  Richer men could avoid military service by paying another to substitute for his duty and therefore the immigrants and the poor or men with few resources bore much of the burden of military service.  Unpopular and unfair conscription helped raise armies, but it was not unusual for conscripts to fail to report for duty.  The process was unwieldy and difficult to enforce.

Queensbury was no different with enlistments during the war. As described by A.W. Holden’s in his book, A History of the Town of Queensbury (1874), men from the area eagerly signed up, willing to fight for the preserve the Union.  In April 1861, just three days after President Lincoln issued a call for volunteers, the first area meeting to raise companies of soldiers was held at Numan’s Hall in Glens Falls.   On June 16th the local volunteers were mustered into the army as Company E and Company F in the 22nd Regiment New York Volunteers.

Bounty To Find Draft Replacement To Avoid Service

            In spite of the initial enthusiasm for putting the South in their place, even in Warren and Washington Counties, as the war progressed, more and more men were needed to fill the ranks of the army.  The volunteer system for filling the ranks was not adequate.  There was no choice. As Holden said, “The question was no longer one of patriotism, the claim was obligatory, its effect compulsory, month by month new regiments were raised, and new companies furnished.”  Recruitment numbers between communities became competitive, and envoys even went to the south to recruit as well.   

The Governor appointed a committee in each senatorial district whose responsibility was to make up the complement of soldiers for the various companies and raise funds to pay for substitutes where necessary. 

            As this began to happen, towns began to raise funds to have men enlist before the indignity of a draft was forced upon them.  This would happen multiple times during the war. It is interesting to note that this is not just particular to Queensbury or Warren County, but towns and counties all over the Union became forced to address this issue in much the same way.

            In the Glens Falls Republican at the time, it stated that remarkable bounties were available to men before the draft was forced upon them. Every call for troops after the passage of the Draft Acts involved money, which meant that patriotism was no longer counted on solely to get men to enlist. In the beginning bounties started low, but eventually, as the war progressed, those bounties increased and $800 to $1,000 to spend one year in the army was the norm.

If you read the papers during this time, there was a sense of dread that encompassed the draft.  Everything possible was done to ensure that no man was going to be forced to fight against his will, as it would be a true injustice.

An intriguing ideology was present during the time:  it was patriotic to have men fight the war and to do everything possible to support the war, but to force men to fight was considered wrong.  On one hand, joining was the right thing to do, but to force young men to enlist was wrong. As you can imagine, a system involving so much money, would be open to abuse. 

In WarrenCounty (New York):  Its People and Their History Over Time, the army recruits included opportunistic individuals who would make careers out of taking the town’s money and then ditching the service as soon as an opportunity became available.  Despite the unpopularity between the common citizen and the abuse that occurred, the draft acts achieved their goal.  Despite huge losses, the Union managed to fulfill its ranks and eventually was able to force the South to capitulate, thus ending one of the darkest hours of our nation’s brief history.

New York provided an impressive number of men for the War.  In his book, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion Part 1, Frederick H. Dryer provided these numbers:  409,561 white soldiers, 35,164 sailors & marines, 4,125 colored troops for a New York contingent of 448,850 soldiers.  Warren and Washington Counties provided their fair share to the war effort.

 

Civil War Monument, Monument Square Glens Falls, New York

 

 

© September 1, 2012, Warren County Historical Society.

Prepared for Warren County Historical Society by Kevin Matte. July 2012

Photos provided by Kevin Matte, a Queensbury resident attending SUNY Oswego.

Kevin was a summer intern at the Warren County Historical Society and the Town of Queensbury Historian’s Office.

 

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