Portrait of Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson

Sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, in February 1863, Congress enacted Senate Bill 511, entitled “An act for enrolling and calling out the national forces, and for other purposes,” more commonly known as the Enrollment Act, or the Conscription Act. [Wikimedia Commons]

Enrollment Act (aka Conscription Act) - Facts

March 3, 1863

Facts about the Enrollment Act (aka Conscription Act) that established procedures for implementing federally mandated drafts in Congressional districts that did not meet prescribed quotas for volunteer enlistments during the Civil War.

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  • A decline in voluntary enlistment in the Union’s armies in 1862–1863 prompted the federal government to abandon unwieldy and largely ineffective state-administered drafts with a new mechanism for implementing compulsory military service on a national scale.
  • In February 1863, Congress enacted Senate Bill 511, entitled “An act for enrolling and calling out the national forces, and for other purposes.”
  • Senate Bill 511, entitled “An act for enrolling and calling out the national forces, and for other purposes” is commonly known as the Enrollment Act or the Conscription Act.
  • The Enrollment Act was introduced in Congress by Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs.
  • President Abraham Lincoln signed the Enrollment Act into law on March 3, 1863.
  • The Enrollment Act replaced the Militia Act of 1862.
  • The heart of the Enrollment Act legislation declared that “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 . . . between the ages of twenty and forty-five years . . . 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 Enrollment Act established mechanisms for implementing local drafts on a nationwide scale.
  • Local drafts authorized by the Enrollment Act were used only in congressional districts that failed to meet federally prescribed quotas for volunteer enlistments.
  • The Enrollment Act listed thirty-seven sections outlining how the draft world be implemented, and it established certain cases for exemptions.
  • The Enrollment Act specified that “any person drafted and notified to appear . . . may . . . furnish an acceptable substitute to take his place in the draft.”
  • The Enrollment Act specified any person eligible for the draft could pay the government a “commutation fee” not greater than $300 to be exempted.
  • The Enrollment Act specified free black citizens could volunteer for service, but they were exempted from being drafted.
  • The Enrollment Act established that any person drafted had ten days to hire “an acceptable substitute,” pay a $300 commutation fee, or report for service. Failure to do so would result in prosecution.
  • Many poorer Americans objected to the idea that affluent Americans could hire substitutes or pay a commutation fee of $300 to avoid service.
  • The Enrollment Act’s provisions allowing men to hire substitutes or pay a commutation fee of $300 to avoid service led to the adoption of the slogan “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”
  • Some northern whites objected to the Enrollment Act’s exemption for free blacks from conscription.
  • The Enrollment Act spawned riots and murders in several northern cities and states.
  • The most notable example of violent protests spawned by the Enrollment Act was the New York City Draft Riots (July 13–16, 1863).
  • In addition to violence, the Enrollment Act also evoked evasive tactics.
  • Some men with the means to do so illegally bribed doctors for medical exemptions from the Enrollment Act.
  • Labor unions, employers, political parties, draft insurance societies, and even local governments raised funds to pay the $300 cost for individuals to avoid the draft.
  • An array of men, known as “jumpers,” lined their pockets by collecting compensation as substitutes, deserting before being sent into action, and then repeating the process.
  • In light of the evasive tactics and social turmoil spawned by the Enrollment Act, Congress amended the legislation twice.
  • An 1864 revision to the Enrollment Act limited the term of the $300 exemption to one year, after which draftees were required to serve. That move resulted in the prevailing rates for substitutes to increase substantially.
  • An 1864 revision to the Enrollment Act, designed to curtail the number of dissenters crossing the border into Canada to avoid service, imposed the loss of citizenship on draft dodgers and deserters.
  • The direct impact of the Enrollment Act on the size of the Union armies was negligible. Between 1863 and 1864 the government implemented four drafts resulting in 776,829 names being drawn. Of that total, only 46,347 actually served.
  • The Enrollment Act may have boosted voluntary enlistments due to the potential social stigma associated with avoiding service until drafted.
  • The Enrollment Act did raise roughly 120,000 troops (substitutes plus draftees who reported).
  • Anecdotal accounts from veterans suggest that many of the substitutes and draftees who reported were inferior soldiers.
  • Although not the intent of the Enrollment Act, the commutation fees raised roughly $25 million.
  • When balanced against the human and financial losses suffered during the domestic turmoil that the Enrollment Act engendered, the merits of the legislation remain open to doubt.
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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Enrollment Act (aka Conscription Act) - Facts
  • Coverage March 3, 1863
  • Author
  • Keywords enrollment act, draft
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 30, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 11, 2021
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