Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Enrollment Act of 1863

Three Hundred Dollars or Your Life
One of the many headlines in Democratic newspapers.

"In America conscription is unknown and men are induced to enlist by bounties." wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. "The notions and habits of the people... are so opposed to compulsory recruitment that I do not think it can ever be sanctioned by their laws." However, as the American Civil War took its toll on Northern manhood, Congress passed the Enrollment Act of 1863 on March 3 of that year. Many in the ranks of the Union Army felt that the new legislation would grant them a reprieve. As Edwin Weller of the 107th New York wrote his father later in the month, "We were all glad when we heard of the passage of the Conscript Law and only hope they will enforce it. Let a lot of those home guards, as we call them, come down here and go through what we have and they will not croak quite so much about the Army and why it does not do more." Unfortunately for Weller and Union troops of like mind, it did not work out that way.

In America conscription is unknown and men are induced to enlist by bounties. In the words of historian James McPherson, conscription was "a clumsy carrot and stick device to stimulate volunteering. The stick was the threat of being drafted and the carrot was a bounty for volunteering." McPherson also adds that the "half-billion dollars paid in bounties by the North represented something of a transfer of wealth from rich to poor." This change was helped by "bounty jumpers," men who enlist, obtain their money, desert, change their identity and go to somewhere else in the North, and then begin their enlistment anew. It became more organized than that; "bounty brokers" would get half of the bounty as payment for helping their client find the best place for him to volunteer. To many, the bounty was a better example of the Lincoln Administration's villainy than the Enrollment Act.

To ensure that law would be executed, Congress established the Provost Marshals Bureau, which would send provost marshals to all congressional districts. There, they would sign every male citizen or immigrant trying to become one, aged 20 to 45 years of age, and have them sign up for the draft. These potential soldiers were separated into two classes:

  • Class one- 20-25 year olds.
  • Class two- married men over 35.
Until virtually every member of the first class was in uniform, the second class would be drafted. That would hardly ever happened during the course of the war.

In the first draft of July 1863, 20 percent of the men who had registered, selected by lottery, were told to report for duty. For the subsequent drafts, each district was given a quota by the War Department. Fifty days were allotted to the districts to fulfill the demand for manpower by trying to get volunteers; if that did not succeed, then the lottery and draft would be used. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of conscription was essentially nil. Most draftees would either try to find a new home out West, in Canada, or away from any sort of civilization; learn that the quota had been met and have to return home; manage to persuade the authorities that they could not take up arms because they had to take care of a loved one; claim to aliens; pretend to be insane or have a disease; mutilated themselves; pay a commutation fee of $300; or hire a substitute.
An illustration in Harper's Weekly, 1863: Resumption of the draft - inside the Provost Marshal's office, Sixth District [New York City]- the wheel goes round. A blindfolded man is drawing the draftees' names.

It was the fee and the substitution that disappointed soldiers like Weller and would become one of the most sorriest chapters of the conflict.

Three hundred dollars is, of course, a lot of money today; but in the mid-19th Century it had even more value. Indeed, it was about yearly salary of an unskilled worker. Not surprisingly, it seemed to many that the poor were the ones who would have to fight while the rich would not. "We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More" became "We Are Coming Father Abraham, Three Hundred Dollars More." Yet that was not necessarily the case. With the help of cash given to them by the local governments, their bosses, and draft insurance organizations, many of the lower class were able to evade the draft. Nevertheless, Congress abolished commutation in July 1864.

But substitution, an evil that was not new to American history even then (it was used during the American Revolution as well as in the militia), was not. The substitutes were in their late teens or immigrants who had yet to try to become citizens, and they had agreed to become so due to the money they would receive. Once again, employers and localities came to the rescue of the working class by gathering sufficient finances for the hiring of a substitute.

Conscription only strengthened the Union army by 120,000 men, 76,000 of whom were substitutes while 46,000 were actual draftees, but it did hardly anything to contribute to Northern victory. The men who were the most responsible for winning the war were the men who had enlisted in those patriotic days of '61 and '62, those veterans whose experience caused them to be worthy opponents of the Rebels, at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and beyond.

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