Conscription in the Civil War

In the initial flush of patriotic fervor after Fort Sumter, men in both the Union and the nascent Confederacy rushed to the defense of their respective causes and home states. In the North, Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand militia, and “recruiting quotas were exceeded almost overnight”[1] amid patriotic rallies. Indeed, the response was so overwhelming that state governors offered many more troops than initially requested, with several states holding on to those units for future use by the Union army.[2] Both sides anticipated a short war, with each counting on the righteousness of their cause to propel them to certain victory. American experience in war, and recent wars in Europe, led Northerners and Southerners alike to believe that a single decisive battle would end the present conflict, and the Confederacy was duly elated over its victory at the First Battle of Bull Run. Imagine Southern surprise and disappointment, then, when Lincoln did not waver in his determination to suppress the rebellion and volunteers turned out in droves to his call for three hundred thousand more troops.[3] The war was going to last far longer than either side had anticipated.

As casualties mounted on a horrific scale never before experienced by American armies, both armies were forced to resort to some form of conscription in order to fill their depleted ranks. A year into the war, the Confederacy faced a truly daunting task, since its volunteer enlistments were set to expire just as the Union army was filling up with three-year enlistees. The Davis administration tried several tactics in order to forestall the coming manpower crisis, but none worked sufficiently. Finally, the Confederacy was forced to enact the first military draft in American history, which was richly ironic, given the CSA’s raison d’être—states’ rights and local control of a limited government.[4] There was resentment among some Southerners that, because of an exemption for slaveholders, poor whites would be forced to fight and die for the interests of the elite. Furthermore, the draft did not just apply to those who had not yet volunteered; it extended the enlistments of the volunteers for the duration of the war.[5]

The Union was able to put off conscription until the summer of 1863, and despite earlier Northern enthusiasm for the war, resistance to the draft was widespread. Many poor farmers and laborers, and especially immigrants, feared that the draft would unfairly target them for service, this despite Lincoln’s attempts to appease the lower classes with options for substitutes and commutation. Draft riots broke out among Irish laborers in New York City and German farmers in rural Wisconsin, as well as among various other constituencies in locations around the country.[6] Since the Union cause now focused on emancipation, many Northerners bridled at the thought of dying in a war being waged to free their racial inferiors. Despite their concerns, the data appear to show that Northern immigrants were not overrepresented in the draft, and accounted for only about three or four percent of those taken in the 1863 draft.[7]

When studying conscription policies, one must take into account the respective strategic positions of the Union and the Confederacy. Aside from Lee’s brief foray into southern Pennsylvania, the North did not experience a Confederate invasion and occupation of its territory. The South, by contrast, was subject to an invasion and occupation by Union armies that only grew in size and scope as the war continued. Southern fighting men, therefore, had to concern themselves with something their Northern counterparts did not, that they were not at home defending their families against a ravaging foe.


[1] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 36.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 51-52.

[4] Ibid., 117-8.

[5] John M. Sacher, “’A Very Disagreeable Business’: Confederate Conscription in Louisiana,” Civil War History 53, no. 2 (June 2007): 142, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/208266806?accountid=8289.

[6] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 226-8; Adam J. Kawa, “No Draft! Angry Farmers Turn a Wisconsin Town into a Battlefield When They Riot against Conscription,” Civil War Times, 37, no. 3 (June 1998): 54-60, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/199079057/abstract?source=fedsrch&accountid=8289.

[7] Tyler Anbinder, “Which Poor Man’s Fight? Immigrants and the Federal Conscription of 1863,” Civil War History 52, no. 4 (December 2006): 349-50, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/208244219?accountid=8289.

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