Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.

As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own, and his children's liberty.

Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and Let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.

- Abraham Lincoln, January 27, 1838
  Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Looking back at Lincoln: On March 3, 1863

On this day in 1863, President Lincoln signed the controversial Conscription Act; requiring the enrollment of every male citizen, and any male immigrant who had filed for citizenship between the age of twenty and forty-five. Each congressional district was expected to supply a quota of soldiers for the Union army -- either volunteers or draftees.

Both the Union and the Confederacy made use of a military draft during the Civil War. Both sides suffered unprecedented losses and an ongoing shortage of soldiers (the Union actually didn't resort to a federal draft until a year after the Confederacy began their own conscription.)

Many states attempted to avoid drafting their citizens by offering volunteers a considerable amount of money to enlist. Immigrants were met at Ellis Island with offers of 'military employment,' and many joined up right off the boat. Volunteers received a bounty of $100 from the federal government with additional state bounties, sometimes adding up to a sizable amount of money.

Along with the draft began a controversial practice of allowing men to hire substitutes to serve in their stead; citizens could buy an exemption from fighting (from current and future drafts) for $300.

The idea of paying for substitutes goes back to feudal days, and certainly had a long tradition in European warfare (as well as the American Revolution,) and well before it was put into practice in the Civil War. Congress eventually repealed the use of a commutation fee in July 1864.

Those without the means to buy substitutes resented those who could afford it. At the same time, many immigrants felt threatened by the the great influx of African Americans, newly emancipated and flooding into Northern cities. Because this was a Civil War, there were some people in Northern cities who held Southern sympathies, yet found themselves drafted to fight for the Union. And the infrastructure in Northern cities was already taxed to its limits (sewers were even overflowing, and disease was rampant) as the overcrowded cities struggled to keep up with the rapidly growing population.

"Municipal services failed to keep pace with the rise in population," wrote William K. Klingaman in Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861-1865. Nearly two-thirds of New York City lacked sewers; many of the sewer lines that existed were so poorly constructed that they frequently were clogged with filth. Epidemics regularly swept through the tenements, giving New York the highest death rate of any city in the civilized world. Merchants sold milk from diseased cattle and coffee tainted with street sweepings and sawdust," wrote Lincoln chronicler William K. Klingaman (Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861-1865, p. 262.) But the most important problem in mid-July was the absence of security personnel combined with the presence of angry draft dodgers. The result was an incendiary situation.

All of this caused a growing anger in the cities, and a distrust of federal government. Eventually the hostilities - with conscription as a finally tipping point- boiled over. By summer of 1863, New York erupted into one of the most violent riots in American history:

The most serious reaction to the Conscription Act took place in New York, a city with significant southern sympathy. The Irish population of New York, many living in cramped, disease-ridden tenements, feared competition from black workers. It was largely opposed to abolition and hostile to a conscription law that exempted the rich. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Enrollment Act, both in 1863, New York's Irish opposed both the practice of substitution and commutation at the expense of the working class and participation in a war to free the slaves. In a July 4 speech New York's Democratic governor, Horatio Seymour, openly condemned the conscription law, declared the bill unconstitutional and suggested that conscription was enforced along partisan lines, claiming that Democrats were being drafted at a greater rate than Republicans.

On July 11, 1863 the first names for induction into the army were called. The next day, New York erupted into some the most violent riots in American history. The office of the provost marshal—charged with enforcing the draft—was burned, railroad lines were destroyed, and telegraph lines cut. Signaled out for attacks were the rich and African Americans, together the chief targets of the mob violence. Mobs attacked those who appeared rich as "$300 men." Rioters burned the Colored Orphanage Asylum and businesses that employed blacks. Some blacks were lynched and scores were beaten. For nearly a week the city raged, overpowering local police. Ultimately five Union regiments, along with police, militia, and even cadets from West Point, subdued the rioters. Over one hundred people died in the rioting, thousands were wounded, and thousands of African Americans fled New York.

While New York saw the most violent draft riot, it was far from an isolated event. Draft riots took place, among other places, in Newark and Albany, as well as in rural counties in Indiana and Illinois. Still, there was, overall, a remarkable degree of compliance with draft legislation, if only because the legislation was structured so that a draft was a measure of last resort. The lack of resistance to the conscription legislation is important to the extent that it shows the widespread participation in the Civil War by nearly a million white soldiers and nearly 180,000 black soldiers.

(View map of draft riots in New York City)

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