Book Review: Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers

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by John M. Sacher

Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 268. Notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 0807176214

Finding Soldiers for the Confederacy

John M. Sacher’s long-awaited study is the first full-blown work on Confederate conscription in nearly a hundred years, and is now the standard work on the subject. It stresses the amount of discussion and comprehensive agreement, rather than vast disapproval, branded responses inside the Confederacy, and sheds substantial light on nation-building efforts in the slave-holding states. In April 1862, pressed on all fronts, the Confederacy faced a dangerous military situation. As strong Union forces in the East were threatening Richmond, more Union troops were threatening the important railroad junction at Corinth, Mississippi, while in the Gulf of Mexico, Union naval forces were concentrated at the mouth of the Mississippi River, threatening New Orleans, the South’s largest city. Union troops outnumbered Confederate forces by 3.5- to-1, and many of the original volunteers of 1861 had signed up for one year of service and were approaching the end of their enlistments.

Responding to the looming manpower crisis, the Confederate Congress passed a national conscription law, the first to go into effect in U. S. history. This touched off a struggle for healthy white men, both for the army and on the home front, where they were needed to oversee the masses of enslaved laborers, and to help produce food and munitions for the front lines, a struggle that lasted until the end of the war.

Conscription law elicited strong responses from Southerners wanting to devise the best way to guarantee what they perceived as shared sacrifice. Most who bristled at the compulsory draft did so believing it did not align with their vision of the Confederacy. As Sacher reveals, white Southerners’ wish to safeguard their families, support their home towns, and guarantee the perpetuation of bondage of their slaves fashioned their response to enlistment in the army.

For four years, the C.S.A. attempted to secure victory on the battle fields while concurrently encouraging their dream of singular freedom for whites and states' rights. While they were unsuccessful in securing that objective, Sacher demonstrates that Southerners’ responses to conscription did not determine their devotion to the Confederate cause. Instead, the application of the draft prompted an examination of the costs, physical and ideological, of the Confederacy’s insatiable desire for more soldiers.

This valuable book examines the largely forgotten failures of the successive conscription laws, with their many loopholes for the rich and those with important civil posts or specialized occupations, in their efforts to find enough troops desperately needed by the armies. These efforts to raise troops through conscription did replenish the ranks, but the draft was unpopular, widely evaded, and even resisted with violence.

Readers may not agree with all of Sacher’s conclusions, but he certainly invites new debate on one factor in the Confederacy’s unsuccessful effort to win the war. Sacher cites the opposition voiced by common citizens, soldiers, and even officers to the exemptions embodied in the various acts, notably substitution and the “Twenty Negro Law”, which promoted the idea that it was a “rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight”. In addition, the centralizing tendencies that conscription required, caused clashes between Jefferson Davis and various governors, such as Georgia’s Joseph Brown, over erosion of state rights, contrary to the decentralized ideal of a the Southern Confederacy. Sacher concurs with historian James McPherson’s conclusion that Conscription was the most unpopular act of the Confederate government.

Confederate Conscription And The Struggle For Southern Soldiers is an excellent work, interesting and a fast read, and is especially recommended for individuals interested in the often overlooked subject of the draft in the Civil War.

 

Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include, Lincoln Comes to Gettysburg, Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War, The Summer of ’63: Vicksburg and Tullahoma, Crosshairs on the Capital: Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington, Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee's Army after Appomattox, Voices of the Army of the Potomac, The Record of Murders and Outrages, Gettysburg 1963, and No Common Ground.

 

 

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Note: Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers is also available in e-editions.
 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

www.nymas.org

Reviewer: David Marshall   


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