In early March, the Confederate Congress addressed the alarming string of recent military defeats by calling upon President Jefferson Davis to communicate “what additional means in money, men, arms, or other munitions of war, are, in his judgment, necessary.” Davis forwarded this request to the War and Navy departments. After collecting their estimates, Davis submitted them in a message to Congress on March 28.
The Confederacy currently had about 340,000 troops in the field, but to achieve military success, Davis stated that another 300,000 would be needed. Other needs included 750,000 small arms, 5,000 cannons, 50 ironclads, and 10 warships for service on the high seas. Davis then admitted that there was no money in the Treasury to secure these needs, but he did have a proposal for raising more men.
With many one-year enlistments about to expire, new Secretary of War George W. Randolph persuaded Davis to support a national military draft. Congress had tried to avoid a draft by passing a law incentivizing volunteerism through bounties and furloughs, but General Robert E. Lee, Davis’s military advisor, called the measure “highly disastrous.” Lee voiced support for a new law “drafting them ‘for the war.’”
Davis recommended that “all persons residing within the Confederate States, between the ages of 18 and 35 years, and rightfully subject to military duty, shall be held to be in the military service of the Confederate States, and that some plain and simple method be adopted for their prompt enrollment and organization.” He asserted that Congress could approve such a measure under its constitutional power to raise armies.
Davis pointed out that the recent Federal victories had dampened Confederate spirits, and this “requires rather to be regulated than to be stimulated.” As such, “all persons of intermediate ages not legally exempt for good cause, should pay their debt of military service to the country, that the burdens should not fall exclusively on the most ardent and patriotic.”
States’ rights supporters objected to conscription, arguing that such government infringement on individual liberty is what had prompted secession in the first place. Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas called on these opponents to “cease this child’s play… The enemy are in some portions of almost every State of the Confederacy… Virginia is enveloped by them. 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.”
The conscription debate continued into April. Anticipating approval of a draft, Virginia Governor John Letcher allowed the state militia to be absorbed into the Confederate army. This began a system in the Confederate military in which militiamen were assigned to preexisting regiments; this allowed green soldiers to serve alongside (and learn from) more experienced men. The system differed from the Federal military, in which new regiments were created for new recruits, often keeping the green troops separated from the veterans.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Spearman, Charles M. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation. HarperCollins e-books, Kindle Edition, 1976.