The Evolution of Military Conscription in the United States

By Perri, Timothy J. | Independent Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Evolution of Military Conscription in the United States


Perri, Timothy J., Independent Review


Conscription before the Civil War

My history of conscription begins with colonial militia. All of the colonies except Pennsylvania had similar militia laws. Substitution was allowed, and some colonies permitted one to pay a fee to avoid service (an option known as "commutation" in the Civil War). Conscription was designed to provoke volunteering (Levi 1997). Decentralized militia drafts were used in the Indian wars, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812 (Hummel 2001). The tradition of local defense meant the militia would often not cross state and national borders, so regular British units were required to fight the French and Indian War (Rafuse 1970). Other problems with the militia were the popular election of officers and the relatively short terms of service (Murdock 1967).

States used militia drafts in the late 1770s to maintain the Continental Army, and substitution was permitted (Chambers 1987). During the Revolutionary War, annual recruiting began in 1777. One's term of service was no more than one year, ending in December each year (Royster 1979). The Continental Congress assigned each state a quota, which each state allocated among the towns. A militia commander then called for volunteers in a town. Few usually came forth. Thus, the state, town, or private citizens (sometimes all three) offered bounties to fill the quotas.

There were several proposals for conscription in the War of 1812. These plans were very similar. One version was close to being enacted when the war ended. The plans essentially involved shifting some of the burden of financing the military to individual classes of twenty-five men. If a member of a class could not be induced to volunteer, the class would pay a tax based on its members' wealth. Cotton Lindsay (1968a) argues that these plans did not really involve conscription because no one would be forced into the military, and those with less wealth would pay a lower tax if no one in their class could be induced to volunteer. Indeed, Lindsay (1968a) and John Rafuse (1970) claim that these plans were similar to the then proposed and now existing volunteer military in the United States.

Conscription in the Civil War

The militia system was initially used to provide and finance troops. A variety of states appropriated funds in 1861 to pay for recruiting and equipping the militia. (1) Before enactment of the militia law of July 1862, calls for troops were voluntary. The Militia Act of 1862 was the beginning of the transition to federal authority in raising an army. The act provided for a draft of the militia if a state did not fill its quota of three-year volunteers. Exemptions and substitutions were allowed. The prospect of a draft provoked riots in many states. The draft was rescinded, and the use of bounties, along with the threat of a draft, enabled states to meet their quotas. (2)

The Enrollment Act of 1863 completed the transition to federal control of recruitment and national conscription. Enrollment was similar to draft registration in recent history, except that it was conducted as a census: individuals were sought out to be enrolled. Enlistment quotas were assigned to each congressional district by its pro rata share of the number the president called minus the number of previous enlistees from the district. After fifty days, a lottery would be held to obtain the remainder of a district's quota. Thus, some districts had drafts, whereas others did not. The draft calls were in October 1863, March 1864, July 1864, and December 1864. (3)

In all four drafts, one could furnish a substitute and avoid service for three years. Also, in the first draft, one could pay a $300 commutation fee and be excused from service for three years. In the second draft, commutation bought one out of service only for that draft. In July 1864, President Lincoln signed a bill eliminating commutation except for conscientious objectors. Commutation effectively ended after the second draft.

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