The Enrollment Act, passed in March, required all able-bodied men in the North between the ages of 20 and 45 to register for a military draft. This law was deeply resented by people who opposed the war on various grounds (religious principles, refusal to fight to free slaves, refusal to fight to preserve the Union, supporting the Confederacy, etc.). In July, the drawing of draftee names sparked riots through the North, including the worst draft and race riot in American history in New York City.
As the violence simmered down in early August, New York Governor Horatio Seymour, one of the most prominent critics of the Lincoln administration, wrote the president urging him to suspend the draft. He argued that conscription was unconstitutional (and thus required judicial review before enforcement), that the quota assigned to New York was “glaringly unjust,” and that drafting men would encourage more rioting. Seymour, who many Republicans accused of emboldening the rioters, provided more detailed objections to conscription in subsequent letters.
While he awaited Lincoln’s response, Seymour also exchanged correspondence with Major-General John A. Dix, commanding the military department that encompassed New York, which included overseeing the draft’s enforcement. Seymour wrote Dix on August 1:
“I have this day sent to the President of the United States a communication in relation to the draft in this State. I believe his answer will relieve you and me from the painful questions growing out of an armed enforcement of the conscription law in this patriotic State, which has contributed so largely and freely to the support of the national cause during the existing war.”
“It is my duty, as commanding officer of the troops in the service of the United States in this department, if called on by the enrolling officers, to aid them in resisting forcible opposition to the execution of the law; and it is from an earnest desire to avoid the necessity of employing for the purpose any of my forces, which have been placed here to garrison the forts and protect the public property, that I wished to see the draft enforced by the military power of the State, in case of armed or organized resistance to it… I designed, if your cooperation could not be relied on, to ask the General Government for a force which should be adequate to insure the execution of the law and to meet any emergency growing out of it.”
“As you state in your letter that it is your duty to enforce the act of Congress, and, as you apprehend its provisions may excite popular resistance, it is proposed you should know the position which will be held by the State authorities. Of course, under no circumstances, can they perform duties expressly confided to others, nor can they undertake to relieve others from their proper responsibilities. But there can be no violations of good order, or riotous proceedings, no disturbances of the public peace, which are not infractions of the laws of the State; and those laws will be enforced under all circumstances. I shall take care that all the executive officers of this State perform their duties vigorously and thoroughly, and, if need be, the military power will be called into requisition. As you are an officer of the General Government, and not of the State, it does not become me to make suggestions to you with regard to your action under a law of Congress. You will, of course, be governed by your instructions and your own views of duty.”
President Abraham Lincoln responded four days later. He wrote that if Seymour could prove his claim that New York’s draft quota was “glaringly unjust,” Lincoln would modify the allotment “so far as consistent, with practical convenience.” But he refused Seymour’s request to suspend the draft until the courts could rule on its constitutionality: “I can not consent to suspend the draft in New-York, as you request because, among other reasons, time is too important for the nation to take such a course.” Lincoln agreed to allow the Supreme Court to review the law in due time; “In fact, I should be willing to facilitate the obtaining of” such a judicial review. But for now:
“We are contending with an enemy who, as I understand, drives every able-bodied man he can reach into his ranks, very much as a butcher drives bullocks into a slaughter pen. No time is wasted, no argument is used. This produces an army which will soon turn upon our now victorious soldiers already in the field, if they shall not be sustained by recruits, as they should be.”
According to Lincoln, the Confederate Conscription Act “produces an army with a rapidity not to be matched on our side, if we first waste time to re-experiment with the volunteer system, already deemed by congress… to be inadequate; and then more time, to obtain a court decision, as to whether a law is constitutional, which requires a part of those not now in the service, to go to the aid of those who are already in it; and still more time, to determine with absolute certainty, that we get those, who are to go, in the precisely legal proportion, to those who are not to go.”
Lincoln concluded with a familiar appeal to solidarity in the fight against the Confederacy: “My purpose is to be, in my action, just and constitutional; and yet practical, in performing the important duty, with which I am charged, of maintaining the unity, and the free principles of our common country.”
The president shared both Seymour’s letter and his own with his cabinet. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary that Seymour’s letter “is a party, political document, filled with perverted statements, and apologizing for, and diverting attention from, his mob.” In contrast, Welles called Lincoln’s letter “manly, vigorous, and decisive. He did not permit himself to be drawn away on frivolous and remote issues, which was obviously the intent of Seymour.”
On August 18, the day before the draft was set to resume in New York, Dix notified Seymour, “I applied to the Secretary of War on the 14th inst. for a force adequate to the object. The call was promptly responded to, and I shall be ready to meet all opposition to the draft.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had dispatched 42 Federal regiments and two batteries to enforce conscription in New York City. This dubious action overrode Seymour’s authority over his own state, but the draft would proceed, no matter what.
Lincoln offered a concession to New York by reducing its draft quota. But he also wrote an order forcing the New York militia into Federal service to help impose the draft if Seymour tried to stop it. About 20,000 troops patrolled Manhattan with three artillery batteries to ensure that no further violence broke out. Seymour did not interfere with the draft, but he bitterly noted that “the long arm of the president now reaches into the shops and homes of every hamlet, town, and city in the nation!” No unrest occurred.
Federal officials drew 292,441 names for the draft this month. Of these, 52,000 paid the $300 commutation fee to avoid service. The New York City Council appropriated money to pay commutation fees for many poor draftees. Those who could not afford to pay such a fee resented the commutation process, and the draft tended to net poor citizens and immigrants not necessarily loyal to the cause.
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