Lincoln Signs the Federal Conscription Act

March 3, 1863 (Tuesday)

Though the Confederacy has been heralded as the bastion for states rights pretty much since the war ended, they had been the first “federal” government to impose a nationwide draft. By this point in the war, the Southern draft had been in effect for nearly a year, undergoing many changes, mostly involving wealthy people being excepted from it.

For a time, the North seemed not to need one. Enrollment had been great for much of the early war, but over the summer of 1862, when Lincoln called for 300,000 more, many less came forward. Soon, the Federal government charged the individual states to make up the difference through the passing of their own conscription acts.

Almost immediately, there was opposition. For a time, it looked as if Lincoln might have to fight two wars. Mostly, the cries against the draft came from Democratic strongholds. They did not like the way the Republican war effort was turning the war into a war to free the slaves.

When the states could not enforce it, Congress drew up their own plan. By the end of February, both branches passed the Enrollment Act, and on this date, Lincoln signed it into law.

The Enrollment Act (technically called “An Act for enrolling and calling out the national Forces, and for other Purposes”) declared that “all able-bodies male citizens of the United States, and persons of foreign birth who shall have declared on oath their intention to become citizens under and in pursuance of the laws thereof, between the ages of twenty and forty-five years, except as hereinafter excepted, are hereby declared to constitute the national forces, and shall be liable to perform military duty in the service of the United States when called out by the President for that purpose.”

Like its Confederate counterpart, the Federal conscription act had its exceptions. One would be excused from service if found physically or mentally unfit. Any high government official was also excused.

The exceptions then got specific and somewhat complicated. If a widow or an aged or sick parent was dependent upon their only son, the son was exempted. If there were more than one son taking care of the sick or widowed, the surviving parent could choose which son would be allowed to stay home. If an of-age brother or father of children aged twelve and under were their only source of support, that brother or father was exempt.

Also, felons were exempt. Murderers could do no more killing.

Since the age range ran from twenty to forty-five, the Act first called upon those aged twenty to thirty-five, allowing the older folks a temporary reprieve.

It made a lot of sense to excuse the sick and those taking care of the young. What made less sense to a lot of poorer people was substitutions.

If someone’s name came up and they were to be drafted, all they need do is find a substitute. Of course, this would be no easy task – if this substitute really wanted to fight, he would have already signed up.

To circumvent this, if you could not find your own substitute, the Federal government would find one for you, for the measly sum of $300. Actually, they would probably just pocket the $300. But still, if you had that lying around, you were good to stay home. In today’s money, that would be roughly $5,500.

If someone was found to be resisting the draft, or even aiding and enabling draft resistors, they would be subject to a fine of $500 and/or a prison sentence of two years. Conversely, conscripts would be enrolled for no longer than three years.

As far as drafts went, this was pretty standard. The Confederate draft had similar exceptions for the wealthy, including the “Twenty Negroes Law,” which allowed those owning or overseeing twenty or more slaves to stay out of the military.

Though it did not at first, soon after its inception, the Confederate draft allowed exceptions for Pacifists like the Mennonites. The Federal Enrollment Act made no provisions for such moral sentiments. If a Northern Pacifist wanted to hold true to his faith, he had to pay $300.

Through the summer of 1863, Congress would try to make some allowances for conscientious objectors, but mostly it would miss the point.1

  1. Congressional Record, 37th Congress 3d. Session, Ch. 74, 75, 1863. []
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  1. Residents of the Pacific Coast states of California and Oregon were also exempted from the draft.

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