Note: This is the first in a series of drop-in posts about the national draft and its impact on Maine.
Was Ambrose Burnside a Confederate secret agent?
No, but his pugnacious refusal to cancel the bloody December 13, 1862 charges at Fredericksburg almost accomplished in the Army of the Potomac camps what Robert E. Lee could not quite achieve on the battlefield: destroy a Union army.
After Fredericksburg, Union soldiers died in droves from disease in the Stafford County camps or deserted en masse in winter 1863. Every deserter who reached home, plus countless letters read by flickering lamp light that long and cold winter, portrayed army life as a fate worse than death.
Do not join the army, soldiers implored their younger brothers and friends.
The volunteers flowing into the Union ranks dwindled to a trickle, and from Maine to Missouri, authorities knew what was coming: a national draft.
Maine Adjutant General John L. Hodsdon wrote aloud what many people whispered, that a draft was necessary. “It is admitted on all hands that in the absence of its influence upon the community to stimulate volunteering, great fears might well be entertained for the maintenance of our armies in the field at all times up to the point of desirable efficiency,” he commented.
A bit long winded, but to the point: Without a draft to scare volunteers into uniform, Union armies would be hollowed out, unable to successfully fight the Confederacy.
Innocuously designated S. No. 511, a conscription law wound its way through Congress that winter. Maine senators Lot M. Morrill and William P. Fessenden spoke frequently as S. No. 511 underwent multiple amendments. Fessenden focused particularly on how a proposed $250 exemption fee would reduce the number of men swept into the army by a draft.
Yet without a draft, particular Union armies were only one bloody battle away from destruction.
What if the Army of the Potomac could not have replaced its 23,000 casualties incurred at Gettysburg? And this loss atop the demobilization of multiple nine-month regiments?
Intended “for enrolling and calling out the national forces,” S. No. 511 generated emotional debate in the 37th Congress, winding down its Third Session in winter ’63. Rising in the Senate Chamber on Monday, February 16 (his 51st birthday), Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson explained why a draft was “now pressed upon … the country.
“The young men of the Republic for more than twenty months have been thronging to the field to uphold the cause of their periled country,” Wilson stated. “Those noble regiments of volunteers … are now thinned and wasted by the diseases of the camp and the storms of battle.”
For America to survive, for the Constitution to reign supreme, “we must fill the broken and thinned ranks of our wasted battalions,” he said.
“Talking compromise or peace” with the Jeff Davis administration was “insane folly” and “moral treason” because “these rebel leaders” had “hands … red with the blood of patriotism,” Wilson said.
The Army needed more men to defeat the Confederacy, “not new regiments and new officers,” but “new bayonets in the war-wasted ranks of the veteran regiments,” he believed.
“Volunteers we cannot obtain, and everything forbids … calling out the militia,” Wilson said. “The needs of the nation demand that … we should fill the regiments now in the field … by enrolling and drafting the population of the country under the constitutional authority ‘to raise and support armies.’”
Congress would ultimately pass the “Enrollment Act” in February 1863; President Abraham Lincoln would sign it on March 3.
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Sources: The Government Draft, Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine, 1863, Stevens & Sayward, Augusta, 1863, p. 8; Congressional Globe, House of Representatives, 25th Congress, 2nd Sessions, Library of Congress, 1838, pp. 330-331
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.