Liable to Perform Military Duty

The Lincoln administration was facing a serious manpower shortage in the coming months, as 38 two-year regiments raised in 1861 and 92 nine-month regiments raised in 1862 were scheduled to disband. To offset this, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law, under which:

“… all able-bodied 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 20 and 45 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.”

The law required men to enroll at draft boards within their congressional districts. Provost marshals, assigned by a Provost Marshal Bureau within the War Department, managed the boards. The number of enrollees represented a district’s quota, and each district had 50 days to fill their quotas with volunteers. Quota shortfalls would be filled by a military draft, under which a lottery system would select the draftees. To discourage men from waiting to be drafted, generous bounties were offered to those who volunteered.

All Republican senators and representatives voted in favor of this bill, while 88 percent of congressional Democrats voted against. Unlike the Confederate Conscription Act, this law offered no exemptions for religious sects, such as Quakers or Mennonites, or other conscientious objectors who objected to warfare on moral grounds.

The law’s most divisive provision allowed men to buy their way out of the draft by either paying a $300 commutation fee or hiring substitutes to serve in their place. This was meant to give war dissenters an option to avoid service, but the provision sparked outrage because most men could not afford such a high fee.

Rep. Thaddeus Stevens | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens voted for this law, but he nevertheless called it “a rich man’s bill, made for him who can raise his $300, and against him who cannot raise that sum.” Lincoln argued that the fee actually helped the poor because the market would drive the price much higher without the fee cap. He tried setting an example by hiring a substitute, but that did little to satisfy the detractors. The provision was later repealed.

The Enrollment Act radically increased the power of the Federal government at the expense of the states. It gave the president the unprecedented power to pull individuals from their homes and put them in harm’s way. Before the war, it was widely held that only states had the power to directly govern their people. New laws such as these centralized power in Washington to make for a more efficient war effort, but also to have more direct control over the people. Democratic Senator Henry M. Rice of Minnesota supported the war effort, but he could not bring himself to vote for this measure. He argued that it would be “violating the constitutions of the states… The moment you touch upon those rights, I say there will be a rebellion in the North.”

Shifting the draft process from the states to the national government made it more enforceable. It also made the act more resented. The law had its intended effect of inducing more men to volunteer for service, but it also helped spread a new corrupt practice called “bounty jumping,” in which men joined the army to collect the bounty and then deserted, moving on to another district to repeat the process.

Regarding the substitution clause, most men who could afford to hire substitutes could also afford to bribe doctors into attesting that mentally or physically defective substitutes were fit for service. Conversely, the law did sometimes help working men who could hire substitutes to avoid military service and continue providing for their families. Future President Grover Cleveland and the fathers of future presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt hired substitutes.

Many northerners opposed the notion of a military draft as a whole. Workers feared their jobs would be given to freed slaves while they served. Angry immigrants contended that they came to America because of the promises of the Homestead Act, not to serve in the military. And many argued that compulsory military service violated civil liberties. Only six percent of Federal military personnel was drafted over the course of the war, and two-thirds of these draftees hired substitutes.


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