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The Problems of the Civil War Draft-Draftee Substitution

The severe battles and camp diseases of 1862 drained the Northern Armies. McClellan started the Virginia Peninsula Campaign in March with 121,000 men. By July, he had lost approximately 27,000 men. At the end of August, John Pope who replaced the indecisive McClellan, lost over 14,000 men at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run. Lee continued his Maryland Invasion into September. McClellan back in charge again in September stalemated Lee at Antietam. Over 12,000 men became casualties. Then in December, Burnside lost close to 13,000 at Fredericksburg. A good percentage of these men suffered wounds and returned to the Army. Many did not. Whether recovering in hospital, or still too disabled to march 20-30 miles per day while on campaign, these soldiers represented a missing place on the firing line for line regiments. The American continent’s other theaters of war drained men steadily in smaller battles and frequent skirmishes.

Nearly 200,000 died in Northern military camps during the entire war. Tens of thousands died in 1862.

The terrible human math began to induce reality for the politicians and other leaders of the North. More men had departed the line regiments, cavalry units, and artillery batteries than had entered through normal volunteer recruitment. The nation’s ability to wage war through the free-willing bodies of its citizens began to tremble, then waver.

“During the Civil War, the U.S. Congress passes a conscription act that produces the first wartime draft of U.S. citizens in American history. The act called for registration of all males between the ages of 20 and 45, including aliens with the intention of becoming citizens, by April 1. Exemptions from the draft could be bought for $300 or by finding a substitute draftee. This clause led to bloody draft riots in New York City, where protesters were outraged that exemptions were effectively granted only to the wealthiest U.S. citizens.” conscription-act

An industry rapidly developed to bring men into the military, one way or the other. The escape into the American West beckoned for many on the draft lists. It became a crime for a man to leave his state to move to another. The wealthy purchased (hired) substitutes during these times as relatively few of the moneyed class volunteered prior to 1863. For example, historians have maintained that Teddy Roosevelt felt so ashamed by his father’s hiring of a substitute during the Civil War that he immediately volunteered for action at the beginning of the Spanish American War in 1898.

The enormous pressure to find men─any men─resulted in illegal and unfair practices to bring in substitute recruits. The Army commanders did not care how they got there as long as they were fit to march and pull a trigger. There were good men who entered the Army in this manner. The rest, however, were debatable.

“There were also many private draft agents who were unscrupulous, reaping small fortunes by charging high fees for recruitment of replacement soldiers. Those who weren’t poor willingly parted with substantial cash to avoid joining the battle.”

Often substitutes deserted only to join again in another unit. This was known as “bounty jumping” and resulted in many worthless soldiers. The proud veteran units suffered as the quality of the inbound soldiers declined. The new drafting system did not work. But no other viable choices appeared to entice men to increasingly die on the front lines of horrific yet-to-come battles.

From “Arise from the Dust”:

“Bu-but sir, I am a citizen of the Territory of Utah,” Myscal protested urgently. “I live in the Farr West township by the Great Salt Lake. I have a wife, three children there. I entered the Territory of Utah in 1848 from Council Bluffs. I have never been a citizen of the state of Indiana. I did not sign that paper. That is not my signature! I do not have the 300 dollars that paper states I should have.”

The group looked at him mutely, unsympathetically.

“Is this not your leather satchel, man?” the captain inquired in a bored manner, as if he had heard this same argument before.

“Yes, sir, it is,” responded Myscal, uncertain as to the direction the captain was taking.

“Well, here it is,” he stated matter-of-fact, drawing a sealed envelope from the satchel by his feet and removing the contents. “A promissory note for 300 dollars to one Myscal Taylor to be drawn at the First National Bank of Lafayette’s office on Main Street. During business hours I might add. The note is dated October 7th.”

“Sheriff Harrison,” said the captain turning to the sweating, heavy-set man standing nearby. “I am content that the documents are in order. This man has of his own free will has agreed to serve as a substitute for one Zedekiah Moore. I believe this man is having second thoughts and is claiming these ridiculous arguments to evade his duty to his country.”

“More like bounty jumping,” jeered Harrison. “Gittin’ set to collect his money and then jump. Hear about it all the time. Some men jump a dozen times or more, just to get money like Judas.”

The Sheriff looked at the group to see several nod their head in agreement, now looking suspiciously at Myscal.

“You know what they are doin’ to bounty jumpers now?” he demanded of Myscal, leaning close enough to gust his foul breath over Myscal’s face. "They shoot ’em. Make ‘em dig their grave first; then line them up in front of a firing squad, shoot ‘em down like dogs. If they don’t die quick an officer walks up and shoots them in the face. Like to blow the back of the skull off.”

“Is ya bounty jumping, boy?” he demanded again, bloodshot eyes glinting. “Is ya?”

“No, Sheriff,” said Myscal despondently, reality dripping into his tired brain. “I am telling you I never signed that paper. I never accepted a promise of money as a paid substitute. I don’t want to be part of any army.”

The events of the past 24 hours suddenly fell into place. Myscal realized with startling clearness the reasons for last night’s turn of events and his grandfather’s evident scheming. What a fool he’d been yesterday to step off the Chicago-to-Indianapolis train!

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