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)

March 3, 1863

Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863, the Enrollment Act (aka Conscription Act) 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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Background

After Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, touching off the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln called for state militias to provide 75,000 volunteers to put down the insurrection. Northerners responded enthusiastically and quickly filled state quotas. Some Unionists expected the Southern challenge to Federal authority to be as short-lived as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1789. Overconfidence gave way to concern following the Confederate rout of Union forces at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Still, Northern bravado outweighed the reality of the situation as late as April 1862, when Secretary of War Simon Cameron ordered Federal recruiting offices closed, presumably because the Union had enough soldiers under arms to win the war.

By early June 1862, however, Confederate forces on the outskirts of Richmond halted Major General George McClellan’s advance on the Confederate capital. After the wounding of General Joseph Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31, 1862–June 1, 1862), Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia. With the Federal army stalled at the gates of Richmond, the new Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, formally rescinded the closing of the recruiting offices a week later. Facing the possibility of a prolonged siege, Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas sent word to Northern governors, “We are in pressing need of troops. How many can you forward immediately?” Lee contributed to the Union’s “pressing need” by launching a counterattack on June 25, 1862, known as the Seven Days Battles, which drove McClellan’s army away from Richmond and back to the James River by July 1.

On July 2, President Lincoln called for 300,000 fresh troops, but he soon discovered that the realities of war had considerably diminished the fervor of Northern men to serve the Union. Despite the incentive of offering cash bonuses before service, governors found meeting their recruitment quotas difficult. Federal authorities began to fret that a draft might be necessary.

Militia Act of 1862

With the Union war effort in the East rapidly deteriorating, the 37th Congress aggressively addressed the situation after it convened for its second session in July 1862. On July 8, 1862, Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduced a bill focused on rectifying the Union’s mounting military problems. After a week of debate, the Senate approved Wilson’s amended proposal and sent it to the House, which passed it the next day. President Lincoln signed the bill, commonly known as the “Militia Act of 1862,” into law on July 17, 1862.

The Militia Act of 1862 was a quasi-omnibus bill that, among other things, addressed the necessity of providing the Union with more manpower by opening the door for implementing compulsory service. Section one of the act authorized the president to “make all necessary rules and regulations to provide for enrolling the militia.”

By August 1862, state governors struggled to meet their established quotas for Lincoln’s July 2nd call for fresh troops. The president adroitly side-stepped the problem by implementing the powers given to him by the Militia Act. While Lincoln had no Constitutional or Congressional authority to draft citizens into the federal military, the Militia Act granted him the power to use conscription to fill militia quotas.

Initially, the threat of conscription proved more effective than the drafts themselves. Of 600,000 men Lincoln requested in July and August, roughly 508,000 eventually volunteered, necessitating the drafting of only about 90,000 men. The social stigma associated with being drafted (as opposed to volunteering), combined with the incentive of cash bounties, no doubt boosted volunteerism.

Emancipation

On September 17, 1862, the Federal Army of the Potomac engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The bloodiest single day of fighting in the American Civil War, the Battle of Antietam ended in a tactical draw. Still, the Union claimed a strategic victory when Confederate General Robert E. Lee retreated to Virginia two days after the conflict. Bolstered by the Federal success, President Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation on September 22 stating:

That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free;

Despite a staggering loss at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, Lincoln followed through with his pledge and issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Applauded by abolitionists, the document troubled some Northerners who initially supported the war as a necessary means to preserving the Union. Driven by racism and fears of competing for scarce jobs with potential waves of freedmen immigrating from the South, many northern workers lost what little enthusiasm remained for volunteering to fight in a prolonged crusade to free southern slaves.

Enrollment Act—Nationwide Conscription

A subsequent decline in enlistments prompted the government to abandon the unwieldy and largely ineffective state-administered drafts with a new mechanism for implementing compulsory military service on a national scale.

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, President Lincoln signed the bill into law on March 3, 1863.

The heart of the Enrollment Act 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.

Implementation and Exemptions

The bill listed thirty-seven sections outlining how the draft would be implemented, and establishing certain cases for exemptions. The latter generated unintended and unwanted consequences. Three provisions of the act were so unpopular that they spawned protests, riots, racially motivated violence, and the assassinations of draft officials in several states. Those items stated that:

  1. “any person drafted and notified to appear . . . may . . . furnish an acceptable substitute to take his place in the draft”
  2. Any person eligible for the draft could pay the government a “commutation fee” not greater than $300 to receive an exemption
  3. Free black citizens could volunteer for service, but they could not be drafted

In effect, 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 lead to prosecution.

Objections

The urban poor found these provisions particularly objectionable. That affluent Americans who could readily afford 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.” The sum of $300 was roughly equivalent to the annual wage of unskilled workers of the day; thus, the funds needed to hire a substitute or pay the commutation fee were beyond the reach of most urban dwellers. In contrast, business tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, along with future U.S. presidents Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland, could—and did—take advantage of the exemptions to hire substitutes or become “$300 men.”

The objections of urban dwellers (most of whom were of European descent) to the Enrollment Act extended beyond economic discrimination against the poor. As noted before, racism, combined with concerns about waves of freedmen migrating north after the war to compete for jobs—and potentially driving down wages—made many urban whites less than enthusiastic about joining a crusade to free southern slaves. The possibility of being forced to do so, while free African Americans were exempt from the draft, further intensified their opposition to the Enrollment Act.

Aftermath

Implementation of the Enrollment Act provoked violence and invited evasion. In New York City, two days after the first draft lottery on July 11, 1863, an angry mob, consisting mostly of Irish immigrants, attacked and burned the assistant provost marshal’s office in the Ninth District, sparking four days of rioting (July 13–16). As word of the incident spread, the size of the throng grew and events got out of hand. The murderous horde began torching prominent buildings in the city before turning their wrath upon African American residents. By the time New York police, aided by the State Militia, restored order on July 16, 119 people had died—mostly blacks—and thousands suffered injuries. The hateful rioters brutally beat and lynched eleven African-American men. Other black murder victims included a seven-year-old boy.

While the New York Draft Riots were the most deadly protests against the Enrollment Act, they were not the only turbulent protests. Uprisings also occurred in other northern cities including Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, but on a smaller scale. In four states (Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), dissidents murdered provost marshals hired to execute the draft. In Ohio, state officials dispatched 420 soldiers from the 15th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry to disperse over 900 dissidents who had attacked a draft official in Holmes County. Following one volley of gunfire, cooler heads prevailed and negotiated a peaceful resolution to the confrontation, known as the Battle of Fort Fizzle (June 17, 1863).

Besides violence, the Enrollment Act also evoked evasive tactics. Men with the means to do so, illegally bribed doctors for medical exemptions. 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.

The evasive tactics and social turmoil spawned by the Enrollment Act prompted Congress to amend the legislation twice. An 1864 revision limited the term of the $300 exemption to one year, after which draftees had to serve. That move resulted in the prevailing rates for substitutes to balloon. A second change in 1865, designed to reduce the number of dissenters crossing the border into Canada, 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. Officials implemented drafts only in congressional districts that did not meet federally prescribed quotas for volunteer enlistments. Between 1863 and 1864, the government implemented four drafts resulting in 776,829 names being drawn. Of that total, 522,187 reported for physical examinations—the others either left the country (161,244) or received discharges for other reasons. Of those examined, 159,403 received medical exemptions. Another 156,106 received “other exemptions,” and 86,724 paid the commutation fee. Of the rest, 73,607 draftees provided substitutes. In total, only 46,347 of the original 776,829 men drafted actually served, which comprised roughly six percent of those who fought in the volunteer army during the war. Indirectly, the Enrollment Act may have boosted voluntary enlistments because of the potential social stigma associated with avoiding service until drafted.

In sum, the impact of the Enrollment Act is ambiguous. While it raised roughly 120,000 troops (substitutes plus those who reported), anecdotal accounts from veterans suggest that many of them were inferior soldiers. Although not the intent of the legislation, the commutation fees filled Union coffers with roughly $25 million. Still, 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)
  • Coverage March 3, 1863
  • Author
  • Keywords constriction act, draft
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date November 28, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 11, 2021
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