Part of the USA Today Network

Got money? The substitution system in the Civil War

Early in the Civil War, regiments were all-volunteer, including the 7th New York, shown here in this old woodcut marching off to the South in front of cheering citizens.
As the Civil War progressed and the need for manpower increased, the U. S. government resorted to conscription in 1863 to raise additional troops with the passage of the Enrollment Act on March 3. It was not a new practice in military circles, with many European countries having widely used forcible means to ensure compliance with orders to join the army or navy. However, the draft was new to America, and many citizens resented the concept. It had been tried earlier in the war to fill the ranks of drafted militia regiments, including here in York County, Pennsylvania, in 1862 by the state government.
The controversial 1863 act required the enrollment of every male citizen and those immigrants who had filed for citizenship between ages twenty and forty-five. The War Department did provide a way out. If a man was drafted and ordered to report to the service, he could legally avoid the order by providing a willing substitute who would serve in his place.
The catch?
The draftee had to pay a bounty to the “volunteer” replacement. If you were relatively wealthy, you could afford to hire a sub and stay home. If you were poor, welcome to the Union Army. Even President Abraham Lincoln hired a substitute, John Summerfield Staples from rural Monroe County, Pennsylvania, as a gesture of support for the measure. Staples received a bounty of $500 and served in various rear lines posts until the end of the war.

What about York County?
The first draft here was in 1862 when the state called for additional troops. A substitute could be used for a fee that ranged in York County from $200 to $1000 for the 1862 drafted militiamen according to an article written some time ago by Dr. Mark Snell.
The York Gazette reported, “Almost every drafted farmer in the county possessed of the means to procure a substitute, has done so regardless of expense. But the poorer class of laborers and mechanics, many of them with large families depending upon their daily labor for support, will be obliged to go into service, leaving the loved ones at home unprovided for and unprotected.”
The editor of the local paper added that it was becoming a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” something that was again raised as an issue during the controversial draft days of the Vietnam War era.
Dr. Snell’s interesting research indicates that most of the York County substitutes were enrolled in a single new regiment, the 166th Pennsylvania Infantry, which consisted entirely of drafted men and paid substitutes from the county. It was organized in York from October 24 to December 8, 1862, and served for nine months until July 1863 when the regiment was mustered out. Seventeen men would never return alive to York County, six dying in battle and the rest of disease.
A few of the substitutes became professional “bounty jumpers,” deserting from the regiment, pocketing the money, and volunteering again elsewhere as a substitute and thereby claiming another cash reward (some men in other regiments made this a lucrative career, using assumed identities in some cases to avoid detection). As the war progressed the fee was commuted to “only” $300, still an exorbitant sum for the working class.
Resistance to the draft became violent in some places as the war dragged on, sparking draft riots (the largest of which in the summer of 1863 forced the War Department to send troops from the Gettysburg Campaign into New York City to quell rioters). Another outbreak in Ohio also resulted in the Union Army occupying Northern towns to keep the peace.
Cannonball reader Jonathan Stayer of the State Archives adds, “Congress enacted the 1863 and subsequent drafts because the 1862 draft, drawing from state militia systems, was thought to be unsuccessful and unsatisfactory as well as politically unpalatable for some Governors. The 1863 regulations did not apply to the drafted militia regiments raised under the 1862 draft.
In Pennsylvania, the 1862 draft operated under the State constitution, which did not set an amount for commutation. The 1863 and subsequent drafts were the results of federal statutes that set the commutation fee at $300.00. As the war progressed, the qualifications to be eligible to pay the commutation fee became more restrictive.
While draftees did hire substitutes, bounties most often were paid by communities seeking to fill the federal draft quotas with volunteers; bounties generally were not offered by individuals. An individual draftee would seek to employ a substitute at whatever rate he could negotiate. Men could be drafted more than once, such as my Civil War ancestor Adam Stayer who was drafted in 1862 for the state draft and again in 1865 (if I recall correctly) for the federal draft.
The drafts -there really were six of them: one state (1862), five federal (1863-65)–are another subject that has not received the attention of Civil War buffs that it deserves. The drafts encompassed a number of issues with which we still struggle today: federal power vs. state power, church vs. state, individual rights vs. community needs, small government vs. big government, etc.
I recommend the following books on the subject:
James W. Geary, We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991) – this is considered the best book on the drafts to date; however, it shortchanges the situation in Pennsylvania
Eugene C. Murdock, One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971)
William A. Itter, “Conscription in Pennsylvania During the Civil War” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1941) – although a half century old, this is the most detailed discussion of how the Civil War drafts worked in Pennsylvania.”
Thanks Jonathan as always for your interesting insight into the nuances of the war that were far beyond the more commonly reported battlefield actions.