An odd fact that rarely ever gets more than cursory attention in the standard textbooks on the War Between the States is that in spite of the North’s four to one population advantage over the South, they had to resort to various and often illegal methods in order to maintain hardly more than a two to one advantage on the battlefields.
--Ken Bachand, Columbia, South Carolina
Never had the nation seen armies of the size raised during the Civil War. The grand total in the Mexican War had not exceeded 112,000 men; the largest field army numbered 11,000. These figures can be compared to more than 2 million Union enlistments and Union field armies of more than 100,000 men.
The building of this vast force was a haphazard process. Lincoln did not call Congress into special session until the war was 11 weeks old, thereby delaying essential military legislation by precisely that period of time. . . . the President called on the states to supply 75,000 militia immediately after Fort Sumter surrendered, and on May 3, without legal sanction, he authorized the enlistment of 82,000 additional soldiers and seamen, promising to seek Congressional approval later. In his July 4 message to the special session, Lincoln asked for 400,000 more volunteers. All this occurred before any battle had been fought; Lincoln obviously could not have expected a quick, easy victory.
There were three types of army service: volunteer, regular, and state militia. Militia supplied most of the men for the Revolution and the War of 1812, volunteers for the Mexican and Civil Wars, although after 1862 for many the alternative to volunteering was the draft. Raising volunteer troops was very much of a state affair. The Federal government gave each state a quota of men to furnish and relied on state officials to enlist and organize the troops. According to the act of July 22, 1861, the governors chose regimental officers up to and including colonel. Instantly military commissions became a fruitful source of patronage. Instead of sending recruits to fill out the depleted ranks of veteran regiments, new regiments were created so as to multiply the number of offices. The President nominated candidates for the rank of general, and he came under heavy pressure from governors and congressmen who pleaded the cause of political associates from their respective states. One entry in the diary of Illinois' Senator Browning offers a glimpse of the way things were done. "At night went to Trumbulls rooms to meet the Illinois delegation and agree upon the Brig: Genl for our state. Pope and Hurlbut being already appointed we thought we would be entitled to seven more." Officers' promotions as well as their appointments often depended more on political claims than military ability.
Lincoln had political reasons of his own for selecting general officers, and the results were sometimes astonishing. For instance, between the relief of George B. McClellan in November 1862 and the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as lieutenant general in March 1864, the ranking field generals in the Union army were Nathaniel P. Banks and Benjamin F. Butler. Both were Massachusetts politicians, devoid of military training, whose martial accomplishments had ranged from disasters to fiascos. In 1863, about a year after he had come to Washington to be general in chief, Henry Halleck wrote Grant, "I sincerely wish I was with you again in the West. I am utterly sick of this political Hell." And a year later he told William T. Sherman, " . . . It seems a little better than murder to give important commands to men such as Banks, Butler, McClernand, Sigel, and Lew. Wallace, and yet it seems impossible to prevent it." The common soldier paid with blood for the bungling of these misfits. It is usually said that such was the price Lincoln had to pay to attract support for the Union cause, an explanation that, if true, sheds much light on the nature of Northern politics. If false, it raises interesting questions about the President's judgment or priorities.
The burst of volunteering during the early months of the war did not outlast the realization that the war was not after all to be a one-battle affair with little risk and much glory. An element of compulsion was required. In July 1862 Congress empowered Lincoln to call on the states for 300,000 nine-month militia and if necessary to fill up the quotas by conscription. This law was not satisfactory, and so Congress, stimulated by a series of major defeats in Virginia, passed the Enrollment Act of March 3, 1863. All men between 20 and 45 years of age were to be enrolled. The physically unfit, convicted felons, aliens, certain government officials, and men who were the sole support of aged parents or of orphaned children were excused from service. Those not exempted could escape by hiring a substitute or by paying a commutation fee of $300, which amounted to a year's wages for many Northern workers. Commutation was defended — by the President and others —as necessary to keep down the price of substitutes, since no one would hire a substitute for more than $300 if he could use that amount to purchase his exemption. This ingenious argument finessed the charge that the substitute clause itself discriminated against the poor. Congress bowed to public protests and eliminated commutation in July 1864. Substitution survived, and the price of substitutes greatly increased. With their options narrowed, some hard-pressed eligibles took out draft insurance, a wartime creation of commercial inventiveness by which the insuring company undertook to supply a substitute should the policyholder be called up. Some sunshine patriots would grasp at any straw. In Philadelphia several hundred innocents answered an advertisement promising an infallible escape from the draft for $1. They received for their money a dazzlingly simple solution: "Enlist."
Threat of conscription brought into being a new kind of businessman, the substitute and bounty broker. For a fee, the man anxious to avoid military duty and the exempt man willing to serve as substitute for a price would be brought together. Far more extensive was the business of bounty brokerage. Communities unable to produce their quotas of volunteers faced the prospect of having their unwilling young men drafted, so they offered bounties to induce others to volunteer. Rich towns naturally had a great advantage over poor ones in attracting recruits. Rallies were held to raise bounty money, real estate taxes were increased, bonds were issued, and often the services of the broker were required. The latter "bought" prospective recruits for a comparatively small sum and sold them to desperate towns, often at enormous prices. The broker might acquire gangs of men by the use of lies, drugs, beatings, and kidnappings. Brokers swarmed about army recruiting offices and physically prevented men who wanted to join up from doing so until they paid over a portion of the bounty. They secured the release of men from jails and poorhouses on condition that they enlist. They "doctored" physical wrecks and doddering oldsters so that they would pass the medical examination. They sent runners into Canada for recruits who promptly returned home after signing up and getting their cut of the bounty money.
Thousands of men engaged in the practice of enlisting, collecting their bounties, deserting, enlisting again, and so on; these were the "bounty jumpers." One industrious individual reportedly enlisted 100 times. Another claimed to have made $20,000 by joining up 15 times; he may well have done so, because the combination of Federal, state, and local bounties could come to more than $1000 per enlistment. Occasionally bounty jumpers were executed for desertion, but the main risk in the profession seems to have been leaping from moving trains.
The total amount paid in bounties has been estimated at $750 million, or nearly one-fourth of all Northern wartime expenditures. Commutation was paid by 86,724 men, and substitutes were hired by 117,986. To these must be added roughly 250,000 deserters (estimates range from 197,000 to 278,000) and 200,000 others who absconded after being drafted but before being sworn in, bringing the total who escaped service by one means or another to nearly 655,000. Even this figure does not tell the full story; an unknown number fled to escape enrollment by draft officials.
The main effect of the draft was to stimulate volunteering by compelling the individual either to join up and collect a large bounty, be conscripted and get little or no bounty, or run away. The draft was used four times under the Enrollment Act of 1863. Of 776,829 men called up, 21 percent failed to report, 11 percent were dismissed for unknown reasons, 41 percent were exempted, and 27 percent were held to service, of whom 42 percent commuted and 35 percent furnished substitutes. Only 46,347 were actually enlisted — 6 percent of those originally called. Ineffectual though it was, the draft sometimes met with violent resistance. Opponents accused the system of discriminating in favor of the wealthy and the Republicans, both because more Democrats were poor and because the provost marshal's bureaucracy was allegedly a Republican political machine and saw to it that Democrats had a better chance of being drafted. The biggest draft riot occurred in New York City in July 1863, but there were similar outbreaks in other towns and cities.
The history and statistics of Union recruiting show that approximately one-third of the men in blue joined up without compulsion or extraordinary inducements. The others seemingly did so to collect bounties and escape the draft, were drafted or, especially in the case of aliens and blacks, were often tricked or coerced into enlisting. All things considered, it is easy to understand why the North, with four times the South's military manpower, was scarcely able to achieve a two to one battlefield superiority.
(From Ludwell H. Johnson, North Against South: The American Iliad, 1848–1877, pp. 89–93)