September 27, 1862 (Saturday)
The first Conscription Act of the war came from the national government most remembered for its anti-Federal and “small government” ways. In April of 1862, the Confederate States of America decreed that all able-bodied, white men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five be drafted into the army.
Conscription is never popular. If it were, there would be no “need” for such a thing – the soldiers would simply volunteer out of a sense of duty. Since there were not enough dutiful Southerners stepping forward to pick up a musket to defend their homes, President Jefferson Davis, along with the Legislature in Richmond, passed the Conscription Act.
But that was not enough. By July, it was becoming clear that, as Confederate Secretary of War George W. Randolph put it, “Our armies are so much weakened by desertions, and by the absence of officers and men without leave, that we are unable to reap the fruits of our victories and to invade the territory of the enemy.”1
Randolph was writing to several Southern governors, asking them to do everything in their power to send deserters back to the army. Several such governors, however, were hardly interested. Apparently, they believed that a national Conscription Act was counter to the idea of states rights.
Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia labeled it as unconstitutional. There was noted resistance to it in North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. In the Shenandoah Valley, pacifist religious orders and Unionists banded together in opposition. A lower court in Georgia found it unconstitutional (though several other states’ Supreme Courts disagreed). Even the Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, thought the Conscription Act “very bad policy.”
Davis explained it all away, addressing Governor Brown. The central government usurping the rights of individual states was a “familiar and well-settled principle.” Was all that “states rights” talk just a fancy way of saying “we don’t want to give up our slaves”?
Amidst all of this tumult, on this day, Jefferson Davis signed the Second Conscription Act into law, ordering all men aged thirty-six to forty-five to be enlisted in the army. Though, at first, nobody over forty would be accepted.
When the news of this act reached the already outraged Governor Brown, he wrote a scathing and unbelievably lengthly monologue to the Secretary of War. “No act of the Government of the United States prior to the secession of Georgia,” wrote the irate Brown, “struck a blow at constitutional liberty so fell as has been stricken by the conscription acts.”
While he claimed that multitudes from his state would gladly volunteer, several times he stated another reason he was against the draft. If the Confederate government was “to take all between thirty-five and forty-five as conscripts, you disband and destroy all military organization in this State and leave her people utterly powerless to protect their own families even against their own slaves.”2
With even South Carolina’s governor falling in against it, Richmond would soon issue a list of certain classes of men who would be exempt from being drafted. And while this would certainly please those who fell under such privilege, it would do little more than infuriate those who could not meet the conditions.3
Lincoln Dismisses Key
In Washington, President Lincoln was personally presiding over a case of possible treason. Major John Key, of General-in-Chief Henry Halleck’s staff, had uttered some disparaging words concerning the outcome of the Maryland Campaign to another Union officer, Major Levi Turner. When Turner asked Key why he believed the Rebels weren’t bagged following Antietam, Key replied that the object was “that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.”
When word got to the President, he ordered both Key and Turner to appear before him immediately. At 11am, they both arrived. Lincoln first asked Major Key if he had said such a thing. Key admitted that he did. Then, Lincoln looked to Major Turner.
Turner stated that Key often said such things, but that it was a private conversation. He had never heard Key say anything against the Union or anything at all that could be construed as disloyal.
Nevertheless, Lincoln ruled that it was “wholly inadmissible” for any Federal officer to utter these thoughts. “Therefore,” judged the President, “let Major John J. Key be forthwith dismissed from the military service of the United States.”
Following the death of his son on a western battlefield, Key would later petition the President to be allowed back into the service. Lincoln would deny him the privilege.
Later, Lincoln would confide to his secretary John Hay, that he “dismissed Major Key because I thought his silly, treasonable expression were ‘staff talk’ and I wished to make an example.”4
- OR, Series 4, Part 2, p7. [↩]
- OR, Series 4, Part 2, p126-131. Well, if you wouldn’t have slaves in the first place…. [↩]
- Sources: History of the United States: From the Compromise of 1850 to the Final Restoration of Home Rule at the South in 1877, Volume 5 by James Ford Rhodes, 1909; Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy by Albert Burton Moore. [↩]
- Sources: Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay; Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works, Vol. 2 edited by John Jay. [↩]