How do you force someone to fight for someone else’s freedom? This question reveals the irony of the policy of conscription that the U.S. government implemented during the Civil War. The Confederacy had introduced conscription first and experienced its own widespread popular opposition. But as the conflict wore on, the Northern rush to enlist to put down the rebellion and preserve national unity eventually ebbed, and the question became relevant to the Union. In July 1862, Congress passed a militia law authorizing the president to draft state militia troops into service in the national Army. By autumn the government had begun use of the “state draft” or “militia draft,” authorizing the president to draft militiamen from the states, especially after President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after the Battle of Antietam.
By promising to free the slaves still held in Confederate territory on January 1, 1863, the president’s executive order explicitly made the war a conflict over slavery and saving the Union. This motive proved unpopular in many areas of the North, and heightened fears of job competition with Blacks, higher taxes, expanded government power, and what some considered to be the tyranny of a stronger executive branch. Recruitment for the expansion of the armed forces became more difficult, and federal authorities turned more frequently to inducements for volunteers and the threat of conscription.
Opponents reacted with protests and sometimes violence. In response, the Army sent troops into areas of resistance, such as the coal regions of Pennsylvania, German Catholic communities in Wisconsin, and parts of southern Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, where large populations of migrants from the South had settled decades before the war.
That fall, the Democrats used civil-liberty concerns, racism, and opposition to the draft and emancipation to gain ground with voters in the 1862 election. The Republicans, meanwhile, argued that anyone who opposed the war and the government was a traitor and called some Democrats “Copperheads”—after a poisonous snake. The term meant a Democrat who went so far in opposing the war as to commit treason. Although the Republicans held on to their congressional majority and most state legislatures, Democrats won control in several states, including the key state of New York. The draft became a potent political policy that, even as it allowed the government to continue waging the war, served to unify the opposition to it.
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The next spring, in March 1863, Congress passed the Enrollment Act authorizing a national draft. Every able-bodied male citizen and immigrant between the ages of 20 and 45 years was to be enrolled in the draft. When districts proved unable to fill their quota of recruits with volunteers, provost marshals were to implement the draft to make up the difference. In July 1863, the army carried out the first of four drafts; the next three followed in 1864.
Those whose names were drawn in the draft lottery might be eligible for an exemption—especially if they were the sole means of support for a widow, aging parents, or motherless children. If such an exemption could not be obtained, the draftee could hire a substitute to take his place or pay a $300 commutation fee (which typically only the wealthy could afford) that allowed him to return home. Substitutes tended to be young men of 18 or 19 years who were old enough to serve but too young to be drafted. Immigrants who had not yet applied for citizenship also provided a large pool of possible substitutes.
The option to hire a substitute or pay a fee not to serve angered many, who complained about the conflict’s being a “rich man’s war and [a] poor man’s fight.” With many tens of thousands of soldiers dying, it was not surprising that large numbers of men tried to avoid the draft. More than 20 percent of those drafted refused to report, fleeing to the West or going into hiding.
Immigration raised additional concerns about the draft. Throughout the decades before the war, the number of immigrants had increased exponentially. The beginning of the war slowed the rate to a mere trickle, but the demand for workers during the conflict brought dramatic increases in wages, and the number of immigrants began to grow again in response to such economic opportunities. Some immigrant men saw military service as a financial boon as well, viewing the bounties offered to enlistees and the hiring of substitutes as a chance to improve their lot.
Approximately 25 percent of Union soldiers were immigrants. Some wanted to enlist and made good soldiers; others were tricked into service by criminals who took advantage of their inability to speak or read English. Nativism remained strong in the Northern states, and Irish immigrants especially experienced prejudice and violence.
Many saw the draft as a violation of individual freedom and civil liberties. When the first national draft was carried out in July 1863, the result was widespread protest. To rally the poor, workers, white farmers, and immigrants against the draft, the Democratic Party often used racist rhetoric, blasting the Lincoln Administration for forcing white men to fight and die for the cause of freeing Black slaves. Race, ethnicity, economics, and the expansion of government power all combined in the crisis of the draft.
New York’s governor, Horatio Seymour, predicted a draft would lead to mob violence and the worst came when opposition to conscription led to the New York City Draft Riots. The situation in New York made the city a tinderbox of tension that summer. Divided along ethnic and racial lines, New Yorkers were also stratified by social class and religion. Long the gateway to the nation, the city was home to many German and Irish immigrants, who lived in ethnic areas and neighborhoods and worked for low wages. Thousands of African Americans also called New York home and found themselves targets of racism and discrimination. The Democratic Party had built a political machine in New York City, organizing the city’s wards to win elections in exchange for valuable help with everything from municipal services to jobs and housing.
Images of Unrest
Party leaders directed the Democratic ward bosses to move immigrants quickly along the path to citizenship in order to get their votes. When the draft began, immigrants who had applied for citizenship were enrolled and made eligible for conscription. Meanwhile, the Emancipation Proclamation implied that the war was a crusade against slavery and this stoked resentment against Blacks among workers, the poor, and immigrants, in part because they feared job competition from millions of freed slaves and in part because of widespread racism.
On July 11, 1863, army officers began the draft lottery in New York City. On July 13, a mob began to form and what started as a protest quickly became a riot marked by violence and the destruction of property. Buildings were set on fire, and firefighters who arrived to fight the blaze were attacked. Soldiers and policemen were targeted, and so were African Americans. The mob beat and tortured those it managed to capture. They lynched Black men and set their bodies afire. The riots that mixed draft unrest with class, race, and ethnic tensions killed over 100 and wounded many more.
A. James Fuller is a professor of history at the University of Indianapolis and has authored Oliver P. Morton and the Politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction (2017), The Election of 1860 Reconsidered (2012), and Chaplain to the Confederacy: Basil Manly and Baptist Life in the Old South (2000), among other books. “The Draft and Draft Riots of 1863” is an essay within Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness and is licensed under CC-BY 4.0 by the Bill of Rights Institute and OpenStax.
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