They Went into the Fight Cheering! Confederate Conscription in North Carolina

By Erslev, Brit K. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2007 | Go to article overview

They Went into the Fight Cheering! Confederate Conscription in North Carolina


Erslev, Brit K., South Carolina Historical Magazine


They Went into the Fight Cheering! Confederate Conscription in North Carolina. By Walter C. Hilderman III. (Boone, N.C.: Parkway Publishers, Inc., 2005. Pp. xv, 272; $24.95, paper.)

On February 23, 1863, Major General Daniel Harvey Hill, just assigned command of Confederate troops in North Carolina, impressed upon his new soldiers his opinion of men who avoided mandatory army service. "Our cities, towns, and villages," Hill wrote in a circular to the troops, "are full of young and able-bodied skulkers, wearing the semblance of men, who have dodged from the battle-field under the provisions of the exemption bill." These "abortions of humanity" would get their due, Hill believed, when their descendants were taunted on account of their shameful behavior.

Walter Hilderman III introduces the reader to North Carolinians who avoided those taunts-however reluctantly-in They Went into the Fight Cheering! Confederate Conscription in North Carolina. He focuses on the establishment, administration, and activities of the North Carolina Conscript Bureau, based in Raleigh from 1862 to 1864. Relying heavily on the Official Records, Conscript Bureau records, and both official and unofficial correspondence, Hilderman presents a complex picture of hard-working officers and soldiers, bureaucratic wrangling, and conflicting loyalties. He concludes that despite many obstacles, North Carolina provided more than its fair share of unwilling soldiers to the Confederate armies and navy. The state Conscript Bureau under Colonel Peter Mallett continually adapted to changing missions and guidance from the War Department and Governor Zebulon Vance. Despite its proven organization, the bureau ultimately fell victim to infighting among authorities in Richmond, a lack of enlistees, and the approach of Union troops.

After a general discussion of North Carolina's entry into the war and initial Union success infiltrating the Outer Banks, Hilderman summarizes the quandary in which Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government found themselves as six- and twelve-month recruits left the service and General George McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac into tidewater Virginia. Despite resistance from states' rights proponents, the Confederate Congress passed and Davis signed into law a conscription act on April 16, 1862, making all white men between eighteen and thirty-five years of age subject to immediate service and extending volunteer enlistments to three years. Hilderman then details how businessman and Fayetteville native Mallett opened two recruit-processing camps, using contacts and professional skills to build his bureau with able junior officers and reluctant conscripts. Mallett constantly negotiated between Governor Vance and Confederate Adjutant General and Inspector General Samuel Cooper over his use of the state militia to chase deserters and augment his meager manpower. The unavoidable camp-security issue, which placed reluctant conscripts as guards over captured deserters, along with transportation and equipment problems, continually plagued Mallett's efforts to process new soldiers for service.

Hilderman dedicates a short chapter to the hurried call-up and participation of Mallett's battalion in the Battles of Kinston and Goldsboro (December 1862), where casualties and capture reduced the unit by nearly one half. Shortly thereafter, the Confederacy approved the "Details of officers and men . . . from all N.C. regts to visit the State to obtain recruits & absentees," a policy in direct competition with the Conscript Bureau (p. …

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