September 1864

Illinois feels a draft

In September 1864 Illinois for the first time experienced involuntary conscription of men for military service. As in other states, conscription in Illinois brought resistance, some of it violent. For all the sound and fury, by the end of most military operations in April 1865 the draft brought a relatively small number of Illinoisans into military service.


The need
The spring and summer of 1861 saw huge numbers of men in the loyal states volunteer for service in the army and the navy. Strong patriotic feelings and the belief that the war would not be a long one led many men to volunteer when, in other circumstances they might not have. As the summer wore on patriotism held strong but the Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, in July 1861 and other Union losses dimmed hopes of a short war. Volunteers became much more difficult to find.


Conscription laws
One result of the falling off of enlistments was the July 1862 passage by Congress of a Militia Act that, among other things, provided for the enrollment of men of military age and for a draft of men into service if quotas set by the War Department were not met through voluntary enlistment. In Illinois the use of monetary enlistment incentives known as bounties and the stigma may connected with forced service by a draft led to voluntary enlistments that actually exceeded the state’s quota. (For more on the 1862 recruitment process see the August 2012 monthly feature on this website.)


Similar efforts in some states proved less successful and in March 1863 Congress passed a Conscription Act. It required the continued enrollment of most men aged twenty to forty-five years. Exemptions were allowed to men who were not citizens of the United States or could prove physical or mental disability. The law included other means of avoiding service, including hiring a substitute to serve in one’s place or paying a $300 cash commutation fee (this highly controversial avenue of avoidance was abolished in February 1864).


Reaction to the new law was swift and, in a highly politicized atmosphere, very often unfavorable. Those feelings became clear in the summer of 1863 when federal officials in Illinois carried out the initial enrollment. Rather than requiring men of military age to register themselves, as is the case today, each enrollment officer made a door-to-door round of his district. Perhaps most officers received at least some verbal abuse, while others experienced physical intimidation and even actual violence. In parts of the state armed military escorts were required to provide for the safety of enrollment officers. Assistant Provost Marshal General James Oaks, the army officer who oversaw the draft operation in Illinois, blamed the violence on bands of army deserters and the whipping up of antiwar sentiment by what he believed to be disloyal newspapers.


Other means of avoiding enrollment came in less dangerous forms. One was resistance by removal. Newspapers reported large numbers of men boarding railway trains out of Illinois and of families suddenly headed for new homes in states west of the Mississippi River. Home-based means of evading enrollment included the refusal by families and neighbors to provide information about the presence of draft-age men and, in some cases, actually hiding potential draftees.


Once a draft was actually enacted other means of evasion came to the fore. Many men sought medical exemption. Thousands in Illinois successfully sought removal from the rolls due to physical disability. Many able-bodied men were caught feigning disability in an attempt to be exempted. A Springfield reporter, for example, noted in December 1863 that the provost marshal’s office was thronged with men seeking physical exams and that “every imaginable excuse is offered” for exemption. On examination one man claiming chronic swelling of the legs was found to be wearing three pair of heavy wool stockings.


The wheel of fortune
Illinois continued to fill its enlistment quotas until the summer of 1864. The failure to find volunteers enough to fill Lincoln’s July 18, 1864, demand for new troops forced the first actual draft in Illinois.

Names from the rolls were placed on individual cards, and within each sub-district placed into envelopes. On the day officially set for the lottery the cards were placed into a large box or rotating drum. After rotating the container several times an official, who had been blindfolded, began to remove the cards and announce who would be called to service. Twice as many names were drawn as were necessary to fill the quota, to allow for a loss to medical exemptions and evaders who refused to report.

A man’s name being chosen in the draft lottery did not necessarily mean that he would ever see military service. Many hired other men to serve in their place, as allowed by law. Prices for substitutes soon rose, reportedly reaching over $1,000 in some places. Many counties, believing the need for enforced conscription within their borders to be shameful, provided funds of ever larger monetary incentives to encourage voluntary enlistments.

The numbers in Illinois
Provost Marshal General Oaks, responsible for managing the draft in Illinois, issued his final report to the War Department in August 1865. Of the 32,279 men called to service by conscription: 9,840 failed to report; almost 3,900 were discharged without an exam; over 9,000 were discharged after an examination. The number of men actually held to service was 8,945. Of those 5,404 hired substitutes, leaving 3,541 to serve personally.

Illinois Adjutant General Isham Haynie on January 1, 1866, reported to Governor Richard J. Oglesby that during the war the War Department quotas for troops from Illinois totaled 231,488. Thus, roughly 96.1% of the Illinoisan who served their country during the war were volunteers (even if encouragement by the use of large money incentives was required). Only about 3.9% of those men were brought to service through the draft.

Interested in learning more?
A fine outline of the operation of the draft in Illinois and the often violent reaction against it is: Robert E. Sterling, “Civil War Draft Resistance in Illinois,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 64:3 (Autumn 1971), 244-66, which can be read at: “”.

Much information on the operation of the draft can be found in Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series III, especially the August 9, 1865, report of Gen. James Oakes, the army’s assistant provost marshal general for Illinois, in Official Records Series III, volume 5, pp. 803-42, which can be accessed at: “;cc=moawar;view=toc;subview=short;idno=waro0126”