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Gloom, deepening by the week, had settled across the Confederacy as the winter of 1861-62 gave way to spring. Wherever Southerners looked, Union forces were achieving gains. In Tennessee the Federals  had captured Forts Henry and Donelson and occupied Nashville. Along the Atlantic Coast, combined Army-Navy forces had closed the mouth of the Savannah River and seized Roanoke Island. Finally, the massive Army of the Potomac had landed on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, beginning a campaign that threatened to take Richmond.

While the setbacks darkened Southern hopes, a graver crisis potentially awaited. Nearly half of the Confederacy’s troops— tens of thousands of men—could leave the Army with the expiration of their one-year enlistments. The fervid patriotism of the war’s initial weeks, which had brought forth a flood of volunteers, had diminished, resulting in few new enlistments. “The romance of the thing is entirely worn off,” declared a veteran soldier in Virginia, “not only with myself but with the whole army.”

The Confederate Congress had tried to resolve the issue with the passage of the Furlough and Bounty Act in December 1861. The law granted one-year men who reenlisted a $50 bounty and a 60-day furlough. The legislation also allowed the men to join new regiments and elect their officers. But the act created more difficulties than it resolved. General Robert E. Lee described it as “highly disastrous.”

Lee advised President Jefferson Davis that the achievement of Confederate independence demanded a draft of able-bodied men for the duration of the war. On March 28, 1862, Davis submitted a bill to Congress that called for the conscription of Southern men into the service. For a government founded on a pillar of individual states’ rights, Davis’ measure was a momentous assertion of national power.

States’ rights advocates in Congress protested against the bill, arguing that it contradicted the rationale for secession and the war. One senator countered: “We need a large army. How are you going to get it?…No man has any individual rights, which come into conflict with the welfare of the country.” In the end, on April 16, more than two-thirds of the members of both houses voted for the legislation. The existence of the Confederacy seemed to be at risk without an influx of new troops, and that sobering possibility moved the members to enact the revolutionary measure.

The law prescribed, with some exceptions, that all white Southern males aged 18 to 35 were now subject to conscription for three years’ service. One-year men in the Army had their enlistments extended for an additional two years. If a man volunteered, he could join a unit of his choice and elect its officers. Months later, Congress expanded the age limit to 45.

The measure and a supplemental act, passed five days later, provided exemptions from service. A drafted man could hire a substitute to serve for him and no longer be subject to conscription. The additional law listed various occupations as exempt from service, including Confederate and state civil officials, telegraph operators, railroad and river workers, teachers, druggists and clergymen. While certain jobs were necessary for the war effort, the exemptions invited fraud— resulting, for instance, in a rise in the number of apothecary shops in the Confederacy.

Although the prospect of conscription induced more men to volunteer in order to avoid being drafted, the law fomented widespread resistance. States’ rights governors, particularly Joseph Brown of Georgia and Zebulon Vance of North Carolina, vehemently opposed the expansion of national power. They circumvented the law by enlarging the number of exempt civil servant positions.

In areas of Unionist sentiments, notably in the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, conscription officers faced violent opposition that frequently resulted in bloodshed. Eventually gangs of deserters and draft dodgers preyed upon civilians and ruled over whole sections of the countryside. Detachments from the armies were sent to quell those disturbances and to capture the outlaw groups.

The most controversial aspect of the law was the hiring of substitutes. Poorer Southerners deeply resented the ability of wealthier individuals to avoid service by securing a replacement. They claimed that the provision made it “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” In turn, many substitutes—after collecting money from a drafted man and entering the army— deserted, only to repeat the practice in another region. Abuses of the substitute system became so bad that Congress revoked it in December 1863.

The Federal Congress enacted a national conscription law in March 1863. It contained provisions similar to the Confederate legislation and also encountered resistance. It had been the Confederate States of America, however, that initially had broadened its national power over states and individuals. Doctrine had given way to necessity. The Confederacy could not contain the revolution it had begun.


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.