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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight

In America, the Civil War is known for many “firsts.” This included the first draft of civilians to serve in the military. Both the Confederate (1862) and Union (1863) governments enacted draft laws which were intensely hated everywhere. The intention was to “encourage” volunteering but instead violent riots ensued, as in New York City. Even more hated than the drafts themselves was the unfair and discriminatory way they were administered. Men in richer families could escape service; those in poorer families usually could not. The slogan in the title above was popular at the time.
In 1863, my 2nd great grandfather was a young farmer in Ohio who had just started to cultivate his first farm. He was married and had a brand new baby. He was not against the war but was at a crossroads in his life and wanted to remain out of it.
When facing the Union draft in 1863, young men had a choice of three alternatives.
First, you could do nothing and risk being drafted. This wasn’t a bad choice if you lived in a small state as Federal quotas were based on population. Some states only had to raise one or two regiments; and states could set their own draft exemption rules. In Ohio, where my grandfather lived, the state was required to supply the Union Army with 17 new regiments, so this option was unattractive.
Second, you could just “disappear.” Go out west where no one would be looking for you, like Jeremiah Johnson. This was only attractive to men without families or property.
Third, you could buy your way out of the war. If you were lucky, you may be able to bribe an official with a drink and a little money, but this was a long shot. You could, however, still “opt out” of the war by paying a fee to the government. It was officially called a “commutation fee,” and it would cost you $300. That was a lot of money at a time when annual per capita income was about $500. This fee exempted you from the current year’s draft only.
If you thought the war would be over in a year, you would go in this direction. Some counties and larger towns actually raised local taxes with the purpose of using the revenue to pay commutation fees for their residents. Not a bad deal.
If you thought the war would go longer, you might hire a “substitute” to go in your place which would exempt you for the war’s duration. Hiring a substitute was more expense. It might cost you $500 - $1,000.
My great-great grandfather went with this option and paid $800 for his substitute. If your substitute deserted, however, not only were you out the money but you went back into the draft pool the next time around. My family records are incomplete about what exactly happened to his substitute after 1863, but since grandpa was back in the 1864 draft, I have to assume he hired a deserter.  
Was my ancestor’s decision a prudent one? Yes. In all likelihood, he would have gone to the western theater of war, as most Ohio regiments did. This would have been no picnic in 1863 though (Vicksburg, Stone’s River, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, etc). The end of the story is this. He joined the Ohio National Guard in 1864 and was stationed in Washington D.C. at one of the forts that protected the capital. He served a 100-day conscription and was home by harvest time.
Was my ancestor’s decision an admirable one? I must admit that there will be no value judgment on my part. I’m thankful he stayed alive. I owe my life to him - literally.

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