The Heroic Draft Dodgers of the American Civil War
In the wake of the American Civil War, one’s status as a veteran could bring significant social and economic benefits. Indeed, the Grand Army of the Republic would become an extremely influential interest group and helped fuel the early creation of an American welfare state for veterans. “Do it for the veterans” became a common plea delivered to politicians of the time.
Yet, it was also the case that actively avoiding military service—what we might call today “draft dodging”—during the war was not an impediment to popularity. Mark Twain was a bona fide “perpetrator” who fled his home state in order to avoid military service. Other celebrated authors of the period—namely Henry Adams and William Dean Howells—conveniently managed to obtain jobs outside the United States during the duration of the war. Novelist Henry James claimed to have suffered a vague nonspecific injury that kept him out of military service.
Moreover, two later US presidents avoided service during the war, namely Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland. Their political careers apparently didn’t suffer much from their lack of military experience.
Perhaps the lack of general disdain for those who never wore a federal uniform can be found in the fact that avoiding enlistment was not exactly unheard of during the war. That’s not to say the regime was incapable of finding hundreds of thousands of willing recruits and volunteers. Many happily signed up.
Yet not all of America’s young men bought into the propaganda.
Riots and Attacks on Draft Agents
The first national draft in the Union began with the militia law of July 1862, which allowed for a draft if states did not meet their quotas of three-year volunteers.1 A draftee could obtain a “commutation” with the payment of $300, or hire a substitute at the same price.
Riots against these impositions soon flared up.
The New York draft riot is the most commonly cited example—because it was so deadly. But scattered draft riots occurred in other cities and towns throughout the US.
Many draft riots were highly targeted, seeking to prevent draft agents from carrying out their duties. In Boston in 1863, for example, working-class Irish Americans—many of them women who feared economic ruin if their wage-earning men were sent off to war—attacked the local draft agents.
Midwesterners were in many cases similarly opposed to conscription.
One example was the riot of November 1862 in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin. The local newspaper—a paper unsympathetic to the rioters—describes how the local draft commissioner and district attorney was assaulted as he tried to conduct a draft in the county:
Mr. Pors then spoke to [the crowd of men and women] in a mild manner, requesting them to stand back a little and they could all see that the draft was conducted properly. At this was a rush forward. Many of them were armed with clubs, many had huge stones in their hands, and others had various implements. The first thing done was to demolish the draft box with a club, and they seized hold of Mr. Pors, and rather trampled upon him, the women vieing [sic] with the men i
Article from Mises Wire