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CIVIL WAR CONSCRIPTION IN THE NORTH: A HISTORIOGRAPHICAL REVIEW James W. Geary Federal conscription did not become a reality until long after the guns at Fort Sumter had been silenced. In the immediate wake ofthis attack, compulsory service proved unnecessary as thousands rushed to defend the Union. Indeed, more men volunteered than could be accommodated. As the North began experiencing military reverses, however, the initial enthusiasm began to subside. Disillusioned soldiers returned home with tales of disease, camp life boredom, inadequate and irregular pay, and the belief that the war would last much longer than originally anticipated. Such stories dampened the volunteering spirit. A high rate of desertion and sickness contributed as well to thinning the ranks of the Union army. ' In the second summer of the war, the Thirty-seventh Congress passed the first of two conscription laws. The Militia Act of July 17, 1862, a weak and ineffective measure, had to be replaced die following winter with the Enrollment Act which President Abraham Lincoln signed into law on March 3, 1863.2 As with its predecessor, the 1863 measure also would require substantial revision. Indeed, it contained so many deficiencies that the Thirty-eighth Congress, in less than a two-year period, would thrice alter the original Enrollment Act. These later modifications involved significant changes, not merely the correcting of minor problems. Despite the numerous defects that surfaced during the implementation of the Enrollment Act, it is the measure that historians usually point to in assessing federal conscription during the Civil War. According to some scholars, this singular act sounded the death knell for states rights; for others, it represented class legislation that gave credence to the phrase "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Largely because of its perceived The author wishes to express his appreciation to Dr. Eugene C. Murdock, Chair, Department of History, Marietta College; and Dr. Robert E. Sterling, Chair, Social Science Department , Joliet Junior College, who read and commented on an earlier version of this study. 1 For a more detailed account and citations to sources on raising troops during the first year of the Civil War, see James W. Geary, "A Lesson in Trial and Error: The United States Congress and the Civil War Draft, 1862-1865" (Ph.D. diss., Kent State University, 1976), 19-30. 2 Foradiscussionofthe Militia Act and problems with its implementation, see ibid., 31-93. Civil War History, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, ©1986 by The Kent State University Press CONSCRIPTION IN THE NORTH209 discriminatory nature, many historians believe it caused widespread resistance to the draft which found its most salient expression in the New York City riots of July 1863. In addition to various studies on both overt and covert forms of discontent with the draft, other historians use the Enrollment Act as a focal point for their studies on the administration ofthe draft, especially how it coexisted and operated with a recruiting system that relied principally on bounties to entice men into Union ranks. Some historians contend that die Enrollment Act, by creating a federal conscription system, enabled the North to attain ultimate victory on the batdefield. Still others view this act and the conscription system as parts ofthe modernization process that was occurring in American society. The importance of this benchmark legislation for any study on the Civil War draft cannot be overestimated. In final form, the Enrollment Act consisted of diirty-eight sections. Most significantly, it authorized the president to draft Northern citizens for a period of up to three years. This legislation also created the bureaucracy necessary to implement the federal draft. Each congressional district was to have a provost-marshal whose broad authority included the right to arrest and detain all persons resisting the draft or discouraging enlistments. It also established military commissions and invested these bodies with die power to try civilians suspected of spying and, where appropriate, to impose the death penalty. Further, the Enrollment Act permitted various exemptions and, in section thirteen, extended the dual privilege of commutation and substitution to all drafted men. A conscript who possessed the means could either pay a $300 exemption fee or provide a substitute. Congress deliberately inserted these provisions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 208-228
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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