Conscripts in the Civil War

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011, All Rights Reserved

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.”

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.

Civil War draft wheel

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.

Related links:
Civil War draft wheel at National Museum of American History
Civil War draft wheel at New-York Historical Society

They Went into the Fight Cheering: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina by Walter C. Hilderman III.

Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.