The Conscription Act that passed Congress on March 3, 1863, is often cited as "the first draft in the North" or words to that effect. Drafting in the North, under this act, began more than a year after the Confederate conscription act, which was approved April 16, 1862. This has been cited as evidence of different abilities or enthusiasm on the two sides in the Civil War. But this ignores the fact that the drive to draft in the North began less than three months after the Confederate conscription act, that in at least five states in the North an extensive draft took place in the fall of 1862, and that all the Northern volunteers in that season signed up under threat of being drafted.
The mistake by non-historians is easy to understand when popular reference books on the war contain misleading or mistaken passages like this one, from "The Civil War Dictionary" [N.Y., 1959, reprint 1988]:
"DRAFT RIOTS - On Aug. '62 the President called on the states for 300,000 militia to serve nine months and ordered the governors to draft from the militia if the quota could not be filled by volunteers. This precipitated riots in Wis., Ind., and threats of riots in Pa. Stanton then postponed the draft."
Or this one, from "Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War" :
"DRAFT RIOTS - Draft riots broke out in response to the Union's first national conscription act, passed 3 Mar. 1863. Prior to that law the North had obtained its troops from volunteers and state militia called into Federal service."
The Northern 1862 draft was an attempt to let the states handle their own conscriptions, based on the antiquated militia system. It taught the federal government much about drafting American men into the army, and it was in some ways a dress rehearsal for the large-scale draft of the following year, complete with organized resistance, lucrative bounties, and hired "substitutes" who were the bane of enlistment officers. Most importantly at the time, it was a spur to volunteerism in crucial months when enthusiasm in the North was at an ebb. And for tens of thousands of men who were drafted, and for their families, it was a life-changing event.
The Northern government entered 1862 with a foolish expectation of impending victory. In December 1861, then-Secretary of War Simon Cameron had instructed the Northern governors not to send any more regiments unless they were called for. His successor, Edwin Stanton, sent out a telegraph on April 3, 1862, ordering the federal recruiting offices closed [General Order 33]. Historians have puzzled over the motive for this, sometimes crediting it to a desire to save money. Others feel it was only intended as a temporary measure, but the communication does not support this reading. It ordered recruiting officers to sell off their furniture and return to their regiments. The troops in the undermanned regiments in the field grumbled and newspapers criticized the confusion.
It seems that Stanton, like many in Lincon's government, thought the war was about to be won, and the North would require only a few more men to finish it. On May 1, Stanton directed the army commanders to requisition troops through the states; and on May 19 he asked the governors to begin raising a few new infantry regiments. On May 27, after some vacilation, he directed that only three-year men would be accepted, but indicated they would probably serve less time than that because the war would be over within a year.
In the late spring of 1862, however, the leadership in Washington began to understand the gravity of the army's situation in Virginia. The closing of the recruiting offices was formally rescinded on June 6, and on June 18, Adjutant-Gen. Lorenzo Thomas wired all the state governors in the North: "We are in pressing need of troops. How many can you forward immediately?"
The answer can't have been encouraging. New Hampshire's Gov. Nathaniel S. Berry replied June 19 that "our Ninth Regiment is now recruiting. The field, staff, and a portion of the line officers are appointed. Every exertion is made and inducement offered to forward enlistments; still, owing to the season of the year, recruiting progresses much slower than heretofore." Berry thought it would be another 30 or 40 days till this regiment could be sent.
Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin wired back on June 18: "In view of the approaching harvest and the consequent difficulty attending the recruiting service, it has been considered better to confine our efforts to filling up the old than to attempt to recruit new regiments." Vermont said it was recruiting one regiment, but it wasn't yet ready. Iowa said it had one in process, but would require another 40 days at least. Illinois replied it had a regiment on the way and might manage another one, in three months or so. Ohio's governor thought he could have three regiments ready by Aug. 1, and two more by Sept. 1. Connecticut said it could round up 2,000 or 3,000 men for three months. New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri said they had no troops available.
Gov. O.P. Morton of Indiana wired the War Department an extensive reply on June 25: "The five regiments called for from this State for service during the war are progressing very slowly. I have just issued a special proclamation with reference to them and hope to succeed in getting them up during the summer, but the difficulties from the causes mentioned are greatly increased." Those "causes mentioned" included "newspapers of extremely doubtful loyalty" and "a secret political organization in Indiana, estimated and claimed to be 10,000 strong," which had as a leading objective, "to embarrass all efforts to recruit men for the military service of the United States."
Lincoln and his cabinet had realized they would need more volunteers -- many more volunteers. The trick was to call them up and yet avoid the appearance of acknowledging defeat outside Richmond. Secretary of State William Seward provided the answer. He went home to New York, drew up an appeal to the President to call up fresh troops to finish the war, and sent it by telegraph to all the Northern governors, asking their permission to attach their names to it as petitioners.
Most of them replied, more or less approving of the sentiments in the appeal, and Seward promptly attached their names to the appeal, back-dated it from June 30 to June 28, and presented it to the President. "The recent victories (real or fancied) were mentioned, and the men were asked for, not to retrieve disaster but to hasten to a speedy conclusion a victory already in immediate prospect."
The next day, Lincoln wrote to the governors, "Fully concurring in the wisdom of the views expressed to me in so patriotic a manner by you in the communication of the 28th day of June, I have decided to call into the service an additional force of 300,000 men. I suggest and recommend that the troops should be chiefly of infantry. The quota of your State would be ______." The formal call for fresh troops was made July 2.
The quotas were sent out July 7. They can be seen, broken down by states, here. But the call to arms in the North was greeted with nothing like the enthusiasm of 1861. The governors, into whose laps this recruiting drive had fallen, knew they faced a steep road in getting men into the ranks for three years now that the public knew the realities of war. They urged Lincoln to call up troops for shorter terms, in keeping with Washington's "victory is imminent" tone.
"Recruiting for three years is terribly hard," Gov. Israel Washburn of Maine telegraphed the White House in the wake of this announcement. "Shall be obliged to resort to drafting unless I can be authorized to take volunteers for three or six months." Gov. Samuel Kirkwood of Iowa, like all the loyal governors, thundered mightily in public to whip up enthusiasm and urge recruiting down to the last man: "Our old men and our boys, unfit for war, if need be, our women must help to gather harvests," and so forth. But privately he wrote to Lincoln and suggested three-month enlistments would be better; Gov. Curtin of Pennsylvania argued in favor of six months, while Adj.-Gen. John W. Finnell of Kentucky requested that he be allowed to raise a portion of his men for 12 months.
The administration made one important concession to the governors, though it had to be strong-armed into it. On June 30, Seward wired Stanton from New York, "Will you authorize me to promise an advance to recruits of $25 of the $100 bounty? It is thought here and in Massachusetts that without such payment recruiting will be very difficult, and with it probably entirely successful."
Massachusetts was the arm-twister in this case. In late May 1862, Gov. John Andrew had begun an effort to force a change in federal policy by allowing advance payment of bounties. Stanton rejected him, so Andrew turned to Henry Wilson, his junior senator, who was chair of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia in the 37th and 38th Congresses. On June 21, Wilson secured congressional approval of the practice of advance payment of bounties. Andrew held out from the governors' call for troops until he got Stanton to approve what Congress had authorized: advance payment of $25 of the $100 federal bounty.
This was the cause of Seward's frantic telegram. Stanton replied that this was a "judicious" plan, and that he would see to it that the necessary legal changes were made to allow this, which was done, and the advance was ordered on July 1. Andrew was responsible for other changes in government policy; on July 21, Stanton answered a request from Andrew, "you are authorized to say that new recruits for old regiments will be mustered [out] with the regiment." In other words, the "three year" volunteers might only end up serving two years. The offer was soon extended to the other states.
Massachusetts, wealthy and well-organized, could affort to play the quota game. Other states could not. Morton, the Indiana governor, in a "confidential" July 9 letter to Lincoln (also signed by Indiana's state officers), strongly suggested the administration consider a draft. "The undersigned would urge upon you the vital importance of procuring the passage of a law by Congress by which men can be drafted into the Army. If Congress shall adjourn without doing this you will doubtless have to call them together for the purpose. We send you this as the result of our conclusions from what we know of the condition of the Northwest."
On July 14, Gov. E.D. Morgan of New York also wrote to the administration, expressing the same sentiment. "Congress should not adjourn without providing by law, if it has the power to do it, for filling up the volunteer regiments in the field and those now organizing by a draft."
"It was now recognized that the previous year's enlistment of 700,000 represented the full, hard core of patriotic citizenry," one historian has written. This was recognized in the camp tents, as well as in the White House. The volunteers of '61 were jaded to army life and resentful of the incompetence of their generals. By the end of July, they could add to their list of gripes bitter feelings toward those still at home.
Maj. Octavius Bull in the 53rd Pa. Infantry Regiment wrote home to his brother on Aug. 1, 1862. The letter is more eloquent and witty than most, but the sentiment is that of hundreds of letters and diaries from the Army of the Potomac in those months:
"What has become of the much vaunted bravery and stubborn will of the 'Northern Freemen' which we were wont to hear during every political campaign? How is it that, beside the bounty of $100 given by the U.S., the state must add half as much more? And then how very rapidly recruiting progresses -- truly 'Northern Freemen' do love their country! Yes, so much that no inducement except positive force can get them over state lines! Oh, what patriotism. Ain't you proud of your birthright?
"We can never conquer the South in this way, don't you begin to realize it? How now about the war being over in three months? But I'm sick of this subject. We've been here, begging for reinforcements from a population of twenty millions, and have received two brigades, the aggregate of which is probably three thousand men, not more."
Those close to the Northern war effort had awakened to reality by the start of summer. On July 8, Seward wrote privately that he feared a draft would be necessary, but he cautioned that "we ... first prove that it is so, by trying the old way."