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Civil War History 52.4 (2006) 344-372


Which Poor Man's Fight?
Immigrants and the Federal Conscription of 1863
Tyler Anbinder

Why was Hugh Boyle the only one? Of the more than 15,000 New Yorkers living in the teeming Five Points slum, this sandy-haired, blue-eyed, twenty-seven-year-old laborer was the only one forced into the army as a result of the Civil War draft. Anyone familiar with either the conscription law or its reputation among New York's Irish immigrants should find this fact surprising. Few Five Pointers could afford the $300 commutation fee that exempted one from the conscription. As a result, impoverished immigrants such as those who dominated Five Points thought that the onus of conscription would fall disproportionately on their shoulders. They believed that "the draft was an unfair one," reported the New York Herald, "inasmuch as the rich could avoid it by paying $300, while the poor man, who was without 'the greenbacks,' was compelled to go to the war."1 But the draft rolls from New York seem to suggest a different story. Perhaps the draft did not create a "poor man's fight" after all. Only a systematic study of immigrants in the Union draft could determine if the conscription had forced many immigrants into uniform, or if, instead, immigrants had found some way to avoid service despite their relatively modest economic circumstances. [End Page 344]

One might imagine, given the voluminous historiography of the American Civil War, that the subject of immigrants in the Northern draft would have been thoroughly examined already. But in fact no satisfying study of the subject has ever been published. The few works that specifically survey the role of immigrants in the Civil War barely mention the draft, focusing instead on the heroics of foreign-born volunteers. The two book-length studies of the Northern draft, by Eugene Murdock and James W. Geary, devote very little attention to immigrants, concentrating instead on the conscription's many procedural problems and controversies.2 Bell Wiley and James McPherson have both published careful analyses of who fought for the North, but because their figures lump draftees together with volunteers, their statistics tell us only that immigrants were not overrepresented in the army as a whole, and leave the question of the newcomers' treatment in the draft unresolved. The drama of Civil War draft rioting continues to attract interest from a wide range of scholars, but none of them has determined whether the rioters' fear that they would be disproportionately affected by the draft actually proved to be true.3 [End Page 345]

Lax record keeping made the undertaking difficult. Draft officials nationwide were supposed to maintain identical records, indicating the name, age, height, eye and hair color, occupation, and birthplace of each draftee. Provost officers were also expected to record the ultimate disposition of each conscript—whether he was exempted for medical or other reasons, paid the $300 commutation fee, hired a substitute, or was "held to service." But most draft officers left important portions of the ledgers blank. Some recorded most of the information but failed to note nativity, the crucial variable for this study (this was the case for most of New York City, for example). Even the fairly complete draft books do not typically indicate the nativity of those who "failed to report" (the official term for those who did not appear at a draft office after their name was drawn). Because it appears that immigrants failed to report at a higher rate than natives, ledgers lacking nativity information on draft dodgers are far less valuable than those that contain this data. Finally, the army's record keeping grew worse as the war progressed. A draft officer who kept good records during the first draft (which took place in most areas in the summer of 1863) usually recorded far less information concerning those drafted in later conscriptions. Consequently, this study focuses on the conscription of 1863, although it also includes data from cities...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 344-372
Launched on MUSE
2006-10-30
Open Access
No
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