- Civil War Conscription and the International Boundaries of Citizenship
From a small Florida town in March 1863, John Harrold penned a letter to “Her Majesties Consul Savannah.” Harrold was a desperate man. He began by asserting his identity as “a subject of her Majestys Government,” one who had never sworn allegiance to either the United or the Confederate States, one who did not own property in America. Yet “the people of this place tries to maintain that I shall be subject to Conscription.” Harrold’s response was to “solemnly protest against they haveing any Millitery Contole over me”; to reject their calls that he “must lave the country or fight.” The way he saw it, foreign subjects had no obligation to fight for the Confederacy. “I wish to knough from your honour,” he asked, “if they can compel me to join their army.” In essence, he sought clarification of his status and his obligations as a Briton in Confederate territory—wanted, if possible, the “protection” of his native government amid the tremendous pressures of all-out mobilization.1
John Harrold was one of thousands of foreign-born men who tried to avoid conscription during the American Civil War by virtue of their nationality. These men acted for the most personal of motivations. They wanted to stay out of the army. They wanted to stay alive. Yet, in resisting conscription and enlisting their consuls’ help to do so, they raised fundamental questions about the nature of citizenship, a concept becoming ever more widely consequential in the nineteenth century. We generally think of citizenship as a sharply defined legal category with clear parameters. But in practice, particularly prior to the new constitutional definition of citizenship in the wake of the Civil War, there were many shades of gray within and between the opposing categories of “citizen” and “alien.”2 What was the status of someone like John Harrold, who moved to a foreign country but did not formally naturalize? Was it determined by the destination country or the country of origin? What could each government demand of individuals whose status was unclear; and what, in turn, could those individuals demand of the governments? These were thorny problems, of the kind that [End Page 373] nineteenth-century governments ignored whenever possible. But doing so became more difficult than ever during the American Civil War, because of the actions of men such as John Harrold.3
Modern citizenship emerged incrementally and unevenly over the course of the long nineteenth century, beginning with the American and French Revolutions. The revolutions produced a template for a new system of political belonging: a system that involved mutual rights and obligations between individuals and their state; assumed a horizontal equality of status among all citizens; and rested on a clear distinction between insiders and outsiders, citizens and aliens. As James Kettner has explained, the shift from traditional subjecthood to modern citizenship was reflected in the widespread American conviction that “the tie between the individual and the community was contractual and volitional, not natural and perpetual.” This conception of volitional citizenship emerged in opposition to the traditional belief, still widely accepted in Great Britain and other European countries, in perpetual allegiance: the conviction that allegiance was ascribed at birth and could never be revoked or transferred. Great Britain finally accepted the rights of expatriation and naturalization in 1870, but prior to that the clash between perpetual allegiance and volitional citizenship had generated frequent Anglo-American disputes, including the War of 1812, and underlay the difficult position in which John Harrold and others found themselves during the American Civil War. More than anything else, these disputes were caused by the massive human migrations—particularly emigration from the British Isles—that prompted a transnational restructuring of allegiance. For John Torpey, the nineteenth century was the “golden age of the codification of citizenship laws, a process directly motivated by the need to establish who did and who did not have a right to the benefits of membership in these states.”4
If migration was one key driver of these developments, war was another. War has promoted state formation and the rise of citizenship across the modern world, not only...