We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War. By James W. Geary. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991. Pp. xviii, 264.)


            Throughout American history, military mobilization has been an issue for the federal government. Prior to 1863, the ranks of the U.S. Army swelled with volunteer civilian-soldiers in a time of war. Even with volunteerism adding to the military’s numbers, at times, the federal government attempted to employ forms of conscription when desperate for additional soldiers. With the coming of the Civil War, both the Confederate and Union administrations looked for ways to coerce citizens to enlist, including the implementation of the first national drafts in 1862 and 1863, respectively. James W. Geary attempts to provide a comprehensive examination of the Union draft and its impact on the Northern home front. By doing so, Geary hopes to explore if the Civil War truly was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” as many Americans have perceived it, while exploring the logistics and organization that went into the first national drafts in American history.

            According to Geary, the steps toward a Union draft were similar to Lincoln’s “approach to emancipation” (p. xvi). Geary believes that the establishment of the federal draft was both a revolutionary and evolutionary process. Neither Lincoln nor the members of Congress had a long-term plan for conscription. Instead they attempted to find short-term solutions that “emphasized placing men into the Union army in the least objectionable way possible and with minimal impact on Northern industry” (p. xvi). As a result, Geary argues that the Union draft appeared harsher than it was. It did not disproportionately burden individual men, but it did place tremendous load on communities.

            Initially, the Lincoln administration relied entirely on volunteers to fill the ranks. Union volunteers gave way to draftees only after the enlistments had slowed, particularly after Union setbacks in Virginia, and after the Confederacy had imposed a federal draft. Yet, the Lincoln administration attempted to keep the recruitment burden on the states through the creation of state militias and the use of draft lotteries held and run by the individual states. In addition, many states offered enlistment bounties in an attempt to coerce men into joining the Union forces. The lack of uniformity, however, forced the federal government’s hand resulting in the establishment of a national draft system.

            After Congress passed the Enrollment Act in March 1863, all men aged twenty to forty-five became eligible for the draft. This act, Geary emphasizes, was an attempt at reigniting volunteer enlistments. Although all men between twenty and forty-five were eligible, only congressional districts that did not meet the quota for volunteers would then implement a draft lottery. Then, if drafted, the men would receive a medical and hardship examination. If he passed the draftee would have ten days to hire a substitute, to pay a three-hundred-dollar commutation fee, or to join the army. Geary shows that the ability to hire substitutes and the three-hundred-dollar commutation fee allowed the majority of all men drafted to stay home. Draftees only made up 5.54 percent of the over two million soldiers who fought for the Union.

            Geary notes that the commutation fee prevented a discrimination against the poorer population through the draft system. The fee kept prices for substitutes low, making it easier for less wealthy men to hire substitutes as well. In addition, communities created clubs for local men that provided draft insurance. If anyone in one of these clubs were drafted, the club would pay the commutation fee for them. Communities also continued to promote volunteer enlistment through the use of enlistment bonuses and tried to fill their quotas in order to remain draft-free.

            Even once the government eliminated the commutation fee, due to a lack of men joining the armies, the majority of draftees from all classes hired substitutes, primarily teenagers and immigrants who were ineligible for the draft. Yet, Geary makes sure to eliminate the idea of the draft turning the Civil War into a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” as men ranging from all economic backgrounds joined the Union forces. Therefore, throughout the war, the Union armies were fairly representative of the Northern population.

            An interesting examination that fills a historiographical hole, We Need Men excellently tracks the evolution of the draft and its impact on the Northern home front. Although many in the North protested the draft and claimed it held a bias against the poorer population, Geary shows that it impacted all social classes. Although a strong study, it would have been interesting to see some comparison between the Union and Confederate draft systems, though this may be difficult depending on how much source material remains for the Confederate drafts. Geary provides an excellent study that both addresses a historiographical hole and provides a base for future studies on the Union draft.


Mike Burns                                                                                                                                                        Texas Christian University



We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War.  By James W. Geary.  (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991).


            When the Civil War erupted in 1861, young men on both sides of the Mason Dixon volunteered to champion their respective causes.  Yet, while the majority of Civil War soldiers were volunteers, a small percentage entered the army via conscription.  James W. Geary corrects an imbalance in the present scholarship and examines those coerced to fight for the Union in We Need Men: The Union Draft and the Civil War.  According to Geary, the Union draft, while revolutionary, was a gradual evolutionary process that “appeared harsher than it really was.  Despite contemporary beliefs, the actual draft did not disproportionately fall on the Union men to any great extent, although it placed a tremendous burden on communities” (xvi).

            Geary begins with the Militia Act of 1862.  While the Union relied predominantly on volunteerism at the beginning of the war, early setbacks discouraged the Northern populous forcing many to reconsider the soldier’s profession.  According to Geary, although the Militia Act began as a Congressional measure to facilitate black emancipation in exchange for military service, this legislation, “marked the North’s first step toward national conscription” (22).  Thus, the Act, which, among other things forced young males to register for future military service, signaled a shift toward incorporating the draft into a predominantly volunteer army. 

            The author proceeds to address the details of the 1862 Militia Act.  While many communities responded with outrage, they proceeded to fill their respective quotas.  The Act, relying on state bureaucracies, produced inconsistent results.  Thus, the thirty-seventh Congress passed the Enrollment Act into law on 3 March 1863.  According to Geary, this act, “designed to supersede the Militia Act . . . established the principle of national conscription in the North and demonstrated the Union’s resolve to continue prosecuting the war” (49).  Significantly, government support for the draft led many in the North to advocate the use of black soldiers (52). 

            After examining the details of the different pieces of legislation, Geary proceeds to discuss the impact of the draft on the Union home front.  Though initially vexed, the Northern people eventually came to view conscription, “more as a nuisance than as a threat” (111).  Programs such as the Veteran Volunteers and the Veteran Reserve Corps, which attempted to keep those already enlisted in the army, suggest Washington’s attempts to rely on the draft only when necessary.  According to Geary, the government went to great lengths to make conscription palatable to the home front (115). With Union victories signaling the war’s end in 1864, the Northern population quickly forgot about the draft and conscription became a dormant issue until the First World War. 

            Geary draws several interesting conclusions about the Civil War and the draft in American military history.  Although he concedes that the Union draft contained many problems, Geary proposes that “it was indirectly effective in mobilizing manpower” (173) and “demonstrated the North’s resolve to continue prosecuting the war” (174).  With regards to long term consequences, he proposes that the Union draft served as the harbinger of United States conscription during the twentieth century. More specifically, it allowed the national government the, “right to take its citizens in a time of need . . . [and] left the legacy that the Constitution did indeed empower the federal government to ‘raise and support armies’ through national conscription whenever necessary” (174).

            Although few have written about the Union draft, some of Geary’s arguments run counter to the grain of traditional scholarship.  More specifically, he goes to great lengths to dispel the notion that the Civil War represented a ‘rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.’  Most historians suggest that the three hundred dollar fee which allowed one to purchase a substitute smacked of nineteenth century American classism.  Geary, however, argues that, “commutation did not discriminate against the working class” (144) and suggests that, “men from all social stations were able to take advantage of commutation” (150).  The fee, Geary insists, represented Congressional attempts to place a cap on commutation in order to afford workers the same opportunity to buy substitutes as the upper class (168).  Yet, one should regard this argument with a degree of skepticism.  Although Geary insists that, “Through the use of private resources, community contributions, insurance societies [etc.] . . . most drafted men could escape military service,” it remains a fact that most workers could not purchase exemption as easily as the wealthy (168).  Thus, the draft legislation that permitted substitutes contained classism at its core.  Nevertheless, Geary provides an intellectually stimulating book that will appeal to Civil War historians with diverse interests.


Texas Christian University                                                                                    Justin S. Solonick



We Need Men: The Union Draft and the Civil War. By James W. Geary. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991. Pp. xi-264.


            In his comprehensive and extensive work, Geary examines Union conscription during the Civil War. The purpose of the book, according to the author, is two-fold: (1) to assess how the draft affected Northern citizens—specifically to determine whether the Civil War draft was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” and (2) to show the Northern conscription system appeared “harsher than it really was.”(xvi)

            The concept of Union volunteerism to the army seemed to change and adapt after the Confederacy adopted a draft system to bolster the number of fighting forces during the war. By August 1862, several states in the Union had already established a system of draft lotteries to meet federal quota demands for troops. Others relied on draft bounties in an effort to provide incentives to serve or allowed the hiring of substitutes. While these efforts did yield more battle troops, the lack of uniformity caused many Americans to demand a national system.

In March 1863, the federal government elected to centralize and normalize conscription. The process adopted by the government divided conscription areas by congressional district. If a district failed to reach the quota number of volunteers, a draft lottery was then initiated. Once conscripted, the potential draftee underwent a series of examinations to determine medical fitness and the existence of hardship. Upon passing these requirements, the draftee had ten days to hire a substitute, pay a three-hundred dollar commutation fee, or join the army. Of the 292,441 names drawn during 1863, about 190,000 men were waived due to medical disability or hardship, 52,000 paid the commutation fee, and about 26,000 provided a substitute. In the end, 9,811 men, or three percent of men became conscripts.

Geary maintains the practice of commutation effectively held down the price of substitutes and allowed poorer Northerners to stay home. The emergence of men’s clubs allowed the group to bear the financial burden of commutation, by collectively paying the fee if a member was drafted. In turn, the government used commutation fees to pay entice volunteer enlistment. Local communities added to the government effort by providing bonuses and encouraging men to volunteer in an effort to remain free of the draft. The system of commutations, however, had some substantial drawbacks. Poorer communities often became a target from which wealthier locales could raise volunteers. Some men accepted bonus money, only to later to desert. The biggest drawback of the system was it typically produced more money than men.

Due to these ill effects, the federal government abolished commutation in July 1864. The move by the government caused the price of substitutes to rise significantly. Despite the price increase, many Northern men of all classes continued to purchase others to fight in their stead, consisting mostly of teenagers and recent immigrants. The author shows this tactic differed by region. For example, men in Massachusetts filled quotas by recruiting foreign mercenaries and Southern blacks, while those in Michigan could not find many substitutes, forcing men from the upper classes to join in the fray.

With the use of statistical data, Geary argues the vast majority of all Northern men, regardless of class, remained civilians.  About one-fourth of all Union draftees paid their commutation fee. Almost sixty percent of professional men and skilled laborers hired substitutes, while about forty percent of farmers and unskilled workers did the same. Geary concludes the draft did not target specific individuals or socio-economic groups, but was “generally more representative of the population than many of its counterparts in the twentieth century.”(170) As for those who illegally absconded, there were 161,244 men who evaded the draft out of 776,829. Geary postulates a northern man had about a one percent chance of being drafted.

Of the almost 2.5 million men, only 5.54 percent were drafted or roughly 46,347. The new draft reflected the new capitalist spirit of America, showing military service had transformed from a duty to a commodity.

The book deserves praise for his use of primary sources and for providing one of the only comprehensive studies of this subject. Despite these great attributes, some fundamental criticisms exist in regard to interpretation. Though conscription in the strict terms may provide a sense of classlessness, one must examine in-depth what groups made up substitutes and those who accepted bonuses—most likely the poor. This “economic conscription” of poor northerners provides a hidden dynamic, rendering the results of this work somewhat questionable. Geary seems to have overzealously framed the statistics to render a predetermined conclusion. If true, the old adages may still apply and show that it was by and large, “just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war.”


Rob Little

Texas Christian University