Conscript is not a word frequently
used in discussing soldiers in the Civil War. In his book
They Went into the Fight Cheering: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina, Walter Hilderman III, a man of the
south, said the following: “Naturally, I assumed that my great,
great Grandfather had eagerly volunteered for the Confederate army
when the first shots were fired. Such was not the case. Through his
letters, I found that he and most of his army companions were known
as con-scripts. When I first came across the word, I had to look it
up in the dictionary. The words eager and volunteer were not part of
the definition.” (1)
Surprisingly, the South had a draft
almost a year before the North. This is surprising because one of
the big reasons given by the southern states for leaving the Union
was so they would not be ordered around by Washington. Now they were
being given orders by the Confederate government in Richmond. The
call was to join the Army or go to jail. Good grief, what happened
to States Rights?
OK, so much for States Rights. The
capital at Richmond was under attack by McClellan’s huge army. To
survive, the Confederacy had a desperate need for men in uniform.
The Union and Confederate armies had fundamental differences, but
not on conscription. Both sides hated it. No soldier, North or
South, wanted conscripted soldiers in his unit.
The New York draft riots are the
most famous, but there were small riots in towns in the North and
South. In North Carolina, agents were sent into the western
mountains to bring in mountain men to be conscripted into the
Confederate army. The mountain men in general had no interest in the
war. They had very few slaves and many supported the Union. In any
case, they were not going to die “for no darkies.” For a couple of
months, these mountain men were dragged into the conscription
bureaus at gun point. The mountain men got fed up. A group of them
went down the mountain to Morganton, North Carolina and burned the
conscription bureau office to the ground.
In Ohio and other places, the
threat was to conscription officials. Many times these officials
were simply escorted to the edge of town and told to get lost. In
Holmes County (Millersburg), 900 armed men took matters in their own
hands. They held the local draft officials under guard and asked the
governor to recall them to Columbus. The Governor promptly sent Ohio
troops to restore order. Typical of a mob, the demonstrators fired
one round and then, after the troops opened fire, they hurried home
for supper. There was no general military draft in America until the
Civil War. The draft affected the South much more than the North.
Southern conscripts were one-fourth to one–third of the eastern
Confederate army. In the North, of the 250,000 men drafted only six
percent actually served.
This also explains why the South
collapsed so quickly in the spring of 1865. A good example was
General Robert E. Lee’s letter to the governor of South Carolina in
February of 1865. The governor had requested troops be sent
immediately to protect the capital in Columbia, South Carolina from
General Sherman’s approaching army.
Lee wrote back saying there were
34,000 Confederate troops in South Carolina and they should be able
to defend the capital. However, the 34,000 troops were spread over
five different cities in the state. More important, these troops
were State Militia and garrison troops. They were mostly conscripts
who slept in their own bed every night. They had no interest in
dying to protect South Carolina from Sherman’s army.
Lee finally sent 1,500 cavalry to
help take on Sherman’s 60,000 troops. When Sherman approached, the
cavalry along with the State Militia fled Columbia without a fight.
Clearly, conscription was unpopular, unwieldy, and an unfair part of
the American Civil War.
(1)They Went into the Fight Cheering: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina by Walter Hilderman III.