Civil War Profiles: ‘The Heavens are weeping’ over the Smyrna draft


Antipathy to President Abraham Lincoln’s policies and resistance to serving in the Union army were widespread throughout the Northern states during the Civil War. This was particularly true in the slaveholding border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri that decided against seceding from the Union.

As Stephen E. Towne points out in “Surveillance and Spies in the Civil War,” Union soldiers were lured into deserting by promises from protesters in their home states that they would be hidden and protected from arrest if they abandoned their units. Many thousands responded to those appeals.

As the war droned on into 1863 and deaths and desertions multiplied, it became clear to federal authorities that a draft might be necessary to maintain the army’s strength. Congress responded with the Enrollment Act in March 1863.

As Lincoln had done at the outset of the war, during the period when sufficient volunteers were available, he allocated quotas for each of the loyal states to conscript men for service in 1863. Men ages 20 to 45 were eligible for the draft if there were insufficient volunteers to fill the respective quotas.

A sign that this was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight was seen in the Enrollment Act’s stipulation that anyone could avoid the draft by hiring a substitute or paying $300, the equivalent of an annual wage for many workers.

In his forthcoming work titled “They Fought for the Union: A History of the 1st Delaware Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac,” Jeffrey R. Biggs explains that Delaware’s quota in Lincoln’s call for more troops in 1863 was 2,454, of which Sussex County was to contribute 743. Sussex was the least pro-Union county in the state, and those unwilling to serve had to devise ways to avoid the draft.

Biggs quotes the Georgetown Messenger that Sussex men resorted to using life savings or selling their property to raise the $300 commutation fee or to hire a substitute. The independent newspaper predicted “nearly all who can by any means raise $300 will do so.”

However, the federal government was determined to replenish its military forces. Its official order concerning the draft read:

“When a person has been drafted … notice of such draft must be served within ten days thereafter … on him personally or by leaving a copy at his last place of residence, requiring him to report for duty. Any person failing to report … without furnishing a substitute or paying $300 … may be arrested and held for trial court-martial, and SENTENCED TO DEATH [emphasis added].”

For the majority of Delawareans who opposed the abolition of slavery, it was unacceptable to serve an administration that had only recently issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The hapless Union officials called upon to administer the draft faced threats and intimidation from the local populace. That led to the arrest of many recalcitrant draftees and their supporters.

When a Kent County draft took place in Smyrna in August 1863, the provost marshal in charge, Col. Edwin Wilmer, announced, “Any demonstration of resistance would be met promptly with powder and ball…” To insure impartiality, Wilmer employed a blind person to select the names from a lottery wheel, and draft lists appeared in the next editions of the newspapers.

Capt. James Parke Postles, recipient of the Medal of Honor for his heroics on the Gettysburg battlefield, led a 1st Delaware detachment to Smyrna, eager to collect draftees to replace losses his regiment had sustained. Postles would soon recognize, however, that this was a different breed of men than the original Delaware volunteers who were anxious to fight for the Union.

One newspaper reported that a number of hired draft substitutes escaped from the trains on the way to Washington, while others had fled even before the trains had left the station. Many of the remaining reluctant soldiers were in a state of despair.

As the draftees were marching out of town, a rain shower motivated one of the men to cry out, “Even the Heavens are weeping over the disgrace of Smyrna!” This did not bode well for a harmonious merger of these men with the remaining heroes of the war-weary and decimated 1st Delaware Regiment.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan’s latest book is “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.