Both the North and the South began the Civil War with the intention of using volunteer armies, even though European experience had shown for generations that they were unsuited to modern wars. Both sides eventually turned to conscription, but circumstances forced the South to do so a few months sooner than the North.

The natural obligation of every able-bodied man to defend his hearth, home and country against foreign aggression has been assumed for as long as agricultural implements could effectively be used as weapons. The Greek and Roman city militias, and the Anglo-Saxon fyrd compelled men into service by natural right and tradition, with no limit of term of service.

An army of drafted men was the norm in the 19th century, and the United States and Great Britain were alone among the great powers in not embracing that. Napoleon won all his brilliant victories with conscripted armies -- France drafted 2,613,000 men in 13 years beginning in 1800. That set the tone for the century's military strategy: "God marches with the biggest battalions."

What the Confederacy (and the United States) did differently when calling out its volunteers in 1861 was to set a limit on their terms of contract. This was done obviously with an eye to politics, and it came back to haunt both sides: the South a few months sooner and more severely than the North.

In the initial upwelling after Sumter, the South, expecting a quick victory or a European intervention, mustered in most of its volunteers for only one year. But the North was even more short-sighted (and also constrained by a militia law that dated from the Whisky Rebellion) and only called its men to three months' duty. Three years was a more common term of enlistment for a conscripted man in Europe (Prussia, for example). It may not have been short-sightedness at all, of course: if you tell a young man you're going to take him away from his family, his farm, his sweetheart, his education, his trade for three years and more, he's likely to feel his ardor for your cause grow a bit chilly.

Albert B. Moore, in "Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy," seems to regard the South's great mistake was not in turning to conscription, but in relying at first on volunteers. "[C]onscription would have been less odious if it had been made the exclusive policy of raising armies at the outset. It might then have been regarded as a scientific way of allocating the man power of the country and distributing fairly the burdens of war. But the volunteer system was tried the first year, and after conscription was adopted volunteering was still allowed. This made conscription appear to be a device for coercing derelicts, hence the taint that attached to the conscript."[1]

The North was fortunate in a way it never could have foreseen, because three months gave it just enough time to get the boys in uniform, give them big parades, and send them off into one battle, where they got chased off the field. Most of the three-month men in the regiments I've studied immediately signed up again. They had something to prove, having lost once, and they had had enough of a taste of army life (all of it in the late spring and early summer) to make it seem like a grand hunting trip.

Furthermore, the pressure on the Northern homefront to enlist (or reenlist) in July 1861 was enormous: the Union's defenses had melted in the wake of the first Bull Run, and the people were being told that the national capital, and their own homes beyond it, lay wide open to rapacious Rebel hordes. The panic was over in a few weeks, but those happened to be the crucial weeks in which Lincoln called for, and got, 500,000 troops. And he got them for three years.

Thus the North was able to postpone its enlistment crisis. The South was not so lucky. It rested on the laurels of Bull Run, confident that the war was won, and awaited European recognition. It wasted the summer and fall, and by the time it prepared for action again the enlistments were running out and the boys in arms, who had done their duty well, were eager to see home again.

Perhaps the proper model for the Southern rebels of 1861, in terms of their logistical and political challenge in fielding an army, is not to the North in the same year, but the American colonies of 1776. The historical comparison would point up some valuable lessons in the frustrations of maintaining a large-scale rebellion through several agrarian cycles in a sprawling, diverse country.

Even before the Confederate Congress decreed a re-enlistment, there were mass voluntary re-enlistments by company and regiment and even brigade that spring. Yet these units were supposedly, if we read the "lack-of-will" writers, utterly demoralized and disgusted. Some soldiers complained that manipulation was involved; others knew that the CSA's Congress would probably find a way to keep them there anyhow. But historian Gary Gallagher concludes that "most reenlistments in early 1864 seem to have been motivated by patriotism."[2]And the event was widely applauded across the South, in newspapers as well as private correspondence, as a "contrast to the bribes & threats & false pretences of our enemy!"

There's a sort of weary determination to stick it out in the letter soldier Benjamin Freeman of the 44th N.C. wrote home on Feb. 19, 1864, during a later re-enlistment drive:

"Pa we have all Reinlisted for the 'War.' We had to do it and I thought I would come on as a patriot soldier of the South. We are soldiers and we have to stay as long as there is any 'war.' There is no way to escape it."

The manpower crisis facing the Confederate armies in the spring of 1862 was a result of legislative incompetence, specifically, the Confederate Provisional Congress' foolish re-enlistment law of Dec. 11, 1861. The "bounty and furlough act" demonstrated, in the words of historian John C. Ropes, that "the difference between an army and a congeries of volunteer regiments was not appreciated." Every soldier who re-enlisted for three years or for the duration of the war was promised a bounty of $50 and a 60-day furlough. He could choose his arm of the service, and if he did not like his company, he could join a new one. Men could elect their own officers, "rewarding those who curried favor by laxity and demoting those who had enforced discipline," in the words of Douglas S. Freeman.

Freeman wrote, in "Robert E. Lee": "A worse law could hardly have been imposed on the South by the enemy. Its interpretation was confusing, its effect was demoralizing, and it involved nothing less than a reconstruction of the entire land forces of the Confederacy in the face of the enemy." He cites Union general and military historian Emory Upton, who wrote later that the bounty and furlough law should have been styled "an act to disorganize and dissolve the provisional army." The CSA Congress only made matters worse when it passed a series of hurried measures, designed to dangle more bait for re-enlistments.

When the permanent Congress took its seats shortly after this, it reversed the course and put the army on a firm, professional basis. It did so just in time, for that summer by means of drafts and threats of drafting, and by hefty bounties, the North would mobilize its manpower, which of course was vastly greater than the South's, for a long war. The Civil War was the last war that Americans tried to fight with volunteer minuteman patriotism. By the end of it, both sides had armies built up largely through conscription, threat of conscription, and (in the case of the North) offering a small fortune in bonuses to enlistees.

"In the army," Freeman wrote, "those who had intended not to re-enlist on the expiration of their terms grumbled and charged bad faith on the part of the government, but those who were determined to carry on the war to ruin or independence rejoiced that those who had stayed at home were at last to smell gunpowder. In the well-disciplined commands, men who went home at the expiration of their twelve months and returned as conscripts soon settled down to army routine." William D. Rutherford, adjutant of the 3rd South Carolina regiment, wrote home on April 18, 1862, approving the conscription bill. His only regret was that, "[t]o those who are loyal and brave, it is somewhat mortifying that their services cannot be voluntarily offered to their Country."

Confederate draft legislation was also far-sighted in attempting to provide exemptions that would allow skilled workers in essential trades to stay home and further the war effort on the job, something most other nations didn't adopt until after World War I. As it turned out, though, this provision was not used by the South as efficiently as it could have been. The exemptions are sometimes blamed because they increased the social tensions in the South. But in fact they were a progressive feature.

Historians of warfare also praise the Confederate conscription act of 1862, specifically for its exemptions. They call it the first modern draft in the world, because it recognized that industry and agricultural leadership, and organization behind the lines were as important to a national war effort asarmies were. The goal of a draft isn't just to shovel as many men as possible into uniforms; it's to get the best soldiers there, and leave the best workers at their jobs. The combatants in World War I failed to realize this, and they fought each other with universal conscription, huge armies, and losses of millions of men. World War I proved "it was nothing less than a national, let alone military crime to conscript all classes of men as if they were one class and of equal value, and to fill the trenches, which were little more than altars of human sacrifice to a discredited god, with highly skilled mechanics, miners and professional men."[3] Of course, the men who go to war always resent the men who do not. But that resentment does not necessarily make for the wisest policy when trying to guide a nation to freedom out of war.

The flaws of the Southern draft were functions of all conscripted armies and prevailed in the North as well as in Europe: overzealous draft officers; the host of exemptions, widely abused, however well regulated in theory; and the ease with which the richer class of men of military age avoided service.

Not surprisingly, the Rebel soldiers hated the Conscript Law. It was unfair, and they knew it. It took the glory out of the war, and the war was never the same for them. Sam R. Watkins, my second-favorite rebel, serving in the First Tennessee regiment under Braxton Bragg, had this to say about it:

"[S]oldiers had enlisted for twelve months only, and had faithfully complied with their volunteer obligations; the terms for which they had enlisted had expired, and they naturally looked upon it that they had a right to go home. They had done their duty faithfully and well. They wanted to see their families; in fact, wanted to go home anyhow. War had become a reality; they were tired of it. A law had been passed by the Confederate States Congress called the conscript act. ... From this time on till the end of the war, a soldier was simply a machine, a conscript. It was mighty rough on rebels. We cursed the war, we cursed Bragg, we cursed the Southern Confederacy. All our pride and valor had gone, and we were sick of war and the Southern Confederacy.

"A law was made by the Confederate States Congress about this time allowing every person who owned twenty negroes to go home. It gave us the blues; we wanted twenty negroes. Negro property suddenly became very valuable, and there was raised the howl of 'rich man's war, poor man's fight.' The glory of the war, the glory of the South, the glory and pride of our volunteers had no charms for the conscript."[4]

That was how he felt, and how his companions felt, in the spring of 1862. It was a low point of the war. They would have walked away from it, but they couldn't, so they didn't. They went back to the business of war, of being an army, which is a highly illogical business, after all, as Sophocles knew. The war went on, and their lives went on, and things looked different. Of the invasion of Kentucky that summer, Watkins wrote:

"I remember how gladly the citizens of Kentucky received us. I thought they had the prettiest girls that God ever made. They could not do too much for us. They had heaps and stacks of cooked rations along our route, with wine and cider everywhere, and the glad shouts of 'Hurrah for our Southern boys!' greeted and welcomed us at every house. Ah, the boys felt like soldiers again. The bands played merrier and livelier tunes. It was the patient convalescing; the fever had left him. he was getting fat and strong; his step was buoyant and proud; he felt ashamed that he had ever been 'hacked'; he could fight now. It was the same old proud soldier of yore. ... New recruits were continually joining our ranks. ...[O]ur pride was renewed and stood ready for any emergency; we felt that one Southern man could whip twenty Yankees."[5]

And after many more hills and valleys, high points and low points, it ended. Sam R. Watkins went home and wrote a beautiful little book about it. He thinks secession was justified. He despised the conscription and the men who ordered it. He didn't own slaves or hate black folks. He seems to have liked them better than most Yankees did. He was proud to have been in that army, and proud of how his regiment fought, and mourned his companions who died. He liked being an American. He thinks secession was legal. He uses "rebel," invariably, as a good word. He uses the phrase "Lost Cause" without a hint of shame.

And I'm willing to bet the Rebel army, like the Yankee one, was full of hundreds of thousands of Sam R. Watkinses. I see the same sentiments in personal writings on both sides: contempt for military bureaucracy, for politicians, for the stay-at-home men who made fortunes and danced with the gals that the boys in uniform left behind.

The more than one-year lapse between the Confederate conscription act, approved April 16, 1862, and the Conscription Act that passed the U.S. Congress on March 3, 1863, is often cited as evidence of different abilities or enthusiasm on opposite sides in the Civil War. This ignores that fact that in at least five states in the North an extensive draft took place in the fall of 1862. In fact, the drive to draft in the North began less than three months after the Confederate conscription act.

Others are reading


Latest stories