Civil War Profiles: Civil War soldiers were not all volunteers

When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, and Congress passed the Civil War Military Draft Act on March 3, 1863, these combined initiatives caused widespread reaction among opposition groups in the North. Citizens of New York and Pennsylvania, in particular, reacted negatively to these Washington-based decrees.

By 1863, the War Between the States that had erupted in April 1861 had continued longer than government authorities originally anticipated. The Southern Confederacy had already enacted draft legislation in April 1862. To sustain the Union army that bore heavy losses from combat and disease, Lincoln’s proclamation authorized blacks to join the military, and the federal administration began conscription of white males ages 20 to 45.

Discontent resulted among segments of the Northern population that opposed freedom of the slaves and feared competition from emancipated blacks for lower-wage jobs. Irish and German immigrants were especially concerned about this threat to their livelihoods.

Particularly galling was a provision in draft legislation that allowed those who could find a substitute or pay a fee of $300 (a substantial amount in those days) to avoid the draft. That led to the claim that it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.

In New York, anti-war newspaper editors published inflammatory attacks on the draft law, aimed at inciting the white working class. They criticized the national government’s intrusion into local affairs. The Democratic Party took advantage of this situation by maintaining that the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by a Republican president, would cause large numbers of blacks to flood into New York from the South.

On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the first lottery of the conscription law was held. Two days later, in response to what was considered to be unfairness of the draft, riots erupted, targeting military and governmental buildings.

A week earlier, the Union army had won a hard-fought victory over Confederate forces at Gettysburg, a small town in southcentral Pennsylvania. When the New York riots erupted, selected Army of the Potomac units diverted directly from Gettysburg to New York City to help quell the disturbances.

The rioting became racially-oriented when those engaged turned on the black community. As depicted in Herbert Asbury’s history of the city’s underground, “The Gangs of New York,” the out-of-control mobs roamed through black neighborhoods causing at least 12 deaths and more than $1 million of destruction in the city before police and military units regained control of the situation. Mark Boatner’s “Civil War Dictionary” records that troops killed or wounded numbered more than 1,000 before the rioters finally dispersed.

Meanwhile, Irish immigrants in the Schuylkill County coal-mining region of Pennsylvania northeast of Harrisburg were rankled by low wages and ineligibility to vote. The workers were caught in the bind of being draft-eligible, but many considered themselves anti-war “Copperheads,” in opposition to the draft. They viewed the war as designed to help free the slaves, to whom they feared they would lose their jobs.

When immigrant workers went on strike for higher pay, they clashed with militia units. In March 1863, enrolling officers came to Schuylkill County to record the names of men for the military draft. The Irish workers opened fire on the officers and drove them out of the community. (See

Draft-related problems existed in Delaware as well. Col. Edwin Wilmer received appointment as provost-marshal in charge of enforcing the draft. He was commander of the 6th Delaware Regiment, a home-guard unit organized specifically to suppress disloyal activity.

Delaware’s quota for a May 1863 draft was 2,454. Expecting trouble at the Smyrna enrolling headquarters, Wilmer warned the crowd of spectators that soldiers on guard had orders to shoot if things got out of control.

As described in Harold Hancock’s “Delaware during the Civil War,” the residence of a draft enrolling officer named John Green in Sandtown, in western Kent County, was surrounded by men who fired into the home. No one was injured, but the assailants left an ungrammatical and misspelled threatening note on a stick in the yard: “…you must resine two days and if you donte we will kill you at the risk of our Lives.”

Wilmer sent cavalrymen to the scene, on Green’s behalf. They arrested eight men, who agreed to take the oath of allegiance and were released.

The military draft was not popular in the North or the South, yet essential to maintain the strength of combat arms. More than 3 million men wore Union or Confederate uniforms from 1861 through 1865, many of whom did not enter the service voluntarily.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at, or visit his website at