Beating the Draft

During the Civil War, after the initial waves of patriotism passed, a bleaker reality set in and voluntary enlistments were insufficient to feed the war. On April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress passed an act requiring military service for three years from all males aged 18 to 35. The Union passed the Militia Act of 1862, authorizing a militia draft within each state; in 1863, the Enrollment Act went into federal law, to enroll and draft men aged 20 to 45.

But both sides permitted men to hire substitutes to serve in their place. In fact, of the 168,649 men procured for the Union army through the draft, 117,986 were substitutes. And until mid-1864, men of the north didn’t even have to find a substitute; they could avoid service by simply paying $300 “commutation money” directly to the federal government.

When riots broke out in New York City, on the second day of the draft, most of the rioters were working-class. They resented a system where wealthier men could pay $300 – equivalent to $5,746 in 2015 – and side-step the draft. (The rioters also feared that freed slaves would compete with them for jobs, and thus the draft riot quickly became a race riot, with black New Yorkers beaten, lynched and set alight. The mobs even attacked the Colored Orphan Asylum and burnt it to the ground, but not before the police saved the 233 children inside.)

One among the New Yorkers who “opted out” of military service was Grover Cleveland, a future President of the United States, who paid George Beniski, a 32-year-old Polish immigrant, to serve in his place.

In Skaneateles, the most ardent and vocal supporter of the Union cause, George Barrow, held fast to his civilian status and when, representing Skaneateles on the steps of the Onondaga County Courthouse, he drew his own name in the draft lottery, he found someone else to carry his water. But George Barrow was not the only patriot devoted to the cause of self-preservation.

In Syracuse, a “Volunteer Committee” gathered funds and offered enlistees “liberal bounties” so the ranks might be filled with volunteers before the draft became necessary. The committee’s public statements were masterworks of rationalization:

“While we are now again called upon to put our shoulder to the wheel, to fill up the ranks of the army and save the city and county from the impending draft, let it be done in a spirit of patriotism… While we bring out our flags, with inspiring music, let those who have the means to do it give to those who are willing to go such assurances for the maintenance of their families as will enable them to go forth with a stout heart for the conflict.” (Syracuse Courier and Union, December 17, 1862)

After three more years of war, even the flags and music were dispensed with. In the issue of the Skaneateles Democrat (February 2, 1865) which carried an account of the funeral of village hero Lt. Benjamin Porter – “our honored comrade” – there was this report:

“A meeting was held at Lyceum Hall on Wednesday evening of last week to take into consideration measures for clearing the town of Skaneateles from the impending draft. The meeting was organized by appointing Jacob C. DeWitt, Chairman, and Henry T. Webb, Secretary. The Chairman staged the object of the meeting, and said that he could make arrangements with responsible parties to furnish substitutes at the rate of $200 per man. Committees were then appointed for each School District to solicit subscription, and the meeting adjourned to Friday evening.”

On Friday evening:

“The report of the Committees were then heard, when it was found that $3,000 had been subscribed. Mr. DeWitt was requested to confer with the party furnishing substitutes. The meeting then adjourned to Tuesday evening of this week.”

And on Tuesday evening:

“The Committees’ reports were received, when it was found that the total amount subscribed was $4,300… It is earnestly requested that the meeting shall be fully attended, as there are but one or two days remaining in which the work can be done.”

This wasn’t the student rabble chanting “Hell no, we won’t go.” It was the village’s leading citizens, working openly, without a hint of embarrassment, to beat the draft.


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