Remembering Confederate Conscription

Given my last post I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that today is the 150th anniversary of the Confederate Conscription Act, which made  all white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five eligible to be drafted into military service.  This was the first draft in American history.

It could be celebrated by those who believe that that the Confederate government was justified in instituting any measure necessary to bring about independence from such a corrupt government in Washington.  The problem is that the memory of Confederate heritage tends to avoid any challenge to a vague notion of a principled defense of states rights such as the centralization of power in Richmond that only increased as the war dragged on.

What is lost, however, is any acknowledgment of continued resistance against the Confederate government by such governors as Vance and Brown as well as countless others, who worried about the dangers associated with concentrated power.  Instead folks such as Thomas DiLorenzo rail against Lincoln for his supposedly corrupt efforts and embrace Davis and the Confederacy as counter-revolutionary.  Such a picture completely ignores the rich history of states rights advocacy that continued within the Confederacy itself.

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As you point out, it is truly ironic that the Confederate government imposed a draft. Up to the time that the Confederates took that great step, it was assumed by both Northerners and Southerners that only States could draft. There had never been a federal draft. When Lincoln called for troops, he asked the States to provide them. The Confederate central government drafted before the U.S. central government did. In this area and in others, President Davis sought and obtain extremely broad and sweeping powers under the Confederate Constitution, which had been designed to have more limited powers that the federal government created by the U.S. Constitution but ended up being interpreted very broadly in every area except the ability to interfere with slavery.

Lincoln quickly followed suit and overtook Davis regarding the expansion of the central government’s power to fight the war.

And the changes to the U.S. Constitution were not merely aggressive interpretations of the Constitution (such as the power to coin money included the power to make notes legal tender). Other expansion of powers were codified in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and the later amendments. The civil war caused a constitutional revolution in the U.S. more significant that the people killed or cities destroyed. As the first African-American Justice, Thurgood Marshall, once said, “The Union survived the civil war, but the Constitution did not.”

Thus, by embarking on secession and war, the Confederates actually brought about a incredible expansion of the power of the U.S. federal government. They precipitated and accelerated the thing they feared. Go figure. The uncontrollable tendency of war to generate unintended consequences is probably the main reason to be very careful about embarking on wars.

Conscription was used by almost all of the states during the American Revolution. How can this be the “first draft in American history”? Do you mean a draft by a national vs. a state govt.?

Was it the Confederate Govt or the individual states that pre-emptively drafted suspected Union supporters and then executed them as deserters?

Federal centralization, I’d argue, was a hallmark of modern wars during the nineteenth century age of nationalism and lasted well into the twentieth century and beyond. In this respect, the Confederacy can be seen as tacking along with the era’s major national trends.

The newspaper cartoon is a little hard to read, but it seems that those being “pressed” into service look like fairly well-to-do men. That’s pretty funny when one considers the recent work of Mark Weitz, David Williams, David Carlson, et al., arguing that the Confederate draft acts ultimately penalized the lower class. It’s even funnier when you notice the character on the far right, who looks like a dirt-poor desperado, and who apparently seems more eager to fight than the grandee who he’s prodding forward at bayonet point. How does this square with early-war beliefs in the Union that the Confederacy was nothing more than a rich man’s conspiracy foisted on common southerners?

So, who REALLY got drafted—yeomen or aristocrats? Did ANYONE get drafted? Was the Confederate army actually made up of little green men from Mars? ; )

My head is spinning…

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