American Civil War: The Reactions and Consequences of the Army Draft Policies


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Substitution and draft both received adverse reactions and opposition in the North and the South. In the South, conscription faced a lot of resistance. According to state rights advocates, it was contrary to the principles of individual rights and state rights, the very foundations of the Confederacy—poorer men opposed it as it favored wealthy slave owners.

The oil painting shows soldiers marching through the rain during  the Civil War.
The people in the North and the South opposed the substitution and draft during the American Civil War. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

By 1864, hundreds of people deserted the army or escaped from drafts and fled to parts of Western North Carolina, northern Alabama, northern Arkansas, and Texas. Some governors helped their friends evade the draft by appointing them to civil service positions. According to some historians, resistance to the draft shows laws such as the drafts contributed to the disintegration of the Confederate society from within.

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The Results of Drafts in the Confederacy Army

But there is a more accurate interpretation of this resistance. Most white males of draft age in the South went to serve in the Confederate army. The vast majority of them didn’t try to escape the draft or desert.

In Virginia in 1864, an officer investigating manpower reported that almost all eligible men had gone to serve in the army. Those who hadn’t gone to serve weren’t up to military service because of their occupations.

Conscription laws made soldiers remain in the army and helped the Confederacy to continue fighting. Eighty percent of the Confederate soldiers were volunteers. Another 10 percent enlisted to avoid being conscripted. The war would have ended much earlier if it hadn’t been for conscription.

Learn more about African Americans in wartime.

Reactions to Army Drafts in the North

Thousands of Northern men escaped to Canada. According to an estimate, the number of men who fled mounted to 90,000. There were many protests against the draft in many Northern cities. The New York City Draft Riots in July 1863 was the most famous among these violent outbursts.

The riot, led by working men and foreign laborers, lasted for three days. It soon turned violent, killing more than a hundred people, hanging and burning black men, prompting a newspaper headline to say, “Great God, what is this Nation Coming to?”  The outburst was finally repressed with the help of the Army of Potomac.  

The painting depicts the violence that occurred during the Draft Riots in New York in 1863.
The New York City Draft Riots protested drafts and became violent. (Image: The Illustrated London news [1]/Public domain)

Trying to avoid getting drafted, many men went to extreme lengths of mutilating themselves, like cutting off their trigger fingers or shooting off their toes. They would also knock out their teeth because they needed to bite a cartridge to get it off and pour the powder.

Out of the two million soldiers who served, only 46,000 were directly drafted. Another 118,000 were substitutes for drafted men. It shows that only six percent of all the soldiers were directly or indirectly drafted.

Learn more about a season of uncertainty, summer and fall 1863.

The Positive Consequences of Draft

But the draft was not so much of a failure as it appears to be. From the Spring of 1863 to the Spring of 1865, when the draft was performed, almost a million men volunteered to serve in the Union Army. Although most of the men were lured by the bounties, the draft policy achieved its goal of encouraging men to volunteer.

Regarding keeping soldiers in service for the duration to make sure they had soldiers until the end of the war, the North didn’t act like the South. So, the number of soldiers in the Confederate armies was more than that of the Union armies.

The South replaced losses in original regiments. So, if a regiment had 500 soldiers and 150 were killed in a season of campaigning, they would replace men in the same regiment. Therefore, the number of veterans in those regiments remained the same to train the new soldiers.

The photo shows a group of people standing in front of the make-shift post office during the Civil War.
The South and the North had different approaches to replacing losses in regiments. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The North, on the other hand, had a different approach. They would wait for a whole regiment to bleed down, and then they would replace them with an entirely new unit. Sometimes whole regiments that had gone out of Union service would be replaced by new regiments. It meant new regiments without much experience would enter the Union service quite late in the war. Unlike their Southern enemies, they had little experience or training, which could lead to a weaker performance on their parts.

These units in the Union army were smashed by Confederate regiments because they were more experienced. Also, group identity and spirit were strong in Confederate regiments with a combination of veterans and new men.

But the problem that both sides faced was a financial one. These soldiers had to be armed and equipped and fed. They were under extreme pressure to fund their soldiers. However, the North was more successful in managing these financial problems.

Common Questions about the Reactions and Consequences of the Union and Confederacy Army Draft Policies

Q: How many volunteers served in the Confederacy Army during the American Civil War?

During the American Civil War, out of 800,000 Confederate soldiers, about 80 percent volunteered freely. Another 10 percent of the soldiers were conscripted because they didn’t want to be drafted.

Q: What was the significance of the New York City Draft Riots during the American Civil War?

During the American Civil War, riots broke out in New York as a reaction to the draft. The riots became violent, and 100 people were killed.

Q: During the American Civil War, how many Union Army soldiers were drafted?

During the American Civil War, only 46,000 Northern men were drafted directly into service, which is only six percent of the whole army. The rest of the army was composed of volunteers.

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