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Our patriotic duty: Uncle Sam calling
James W. Geary's op-ed column on the Union's first conscription act (Civil War sesquicentennial): THE NATIONAL DRAFT ARRIVES IN THE NORTH

 The Militia Act provided the authority to accept blacks into Union military service.
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Date published: 3/3/2013


--The 37th Congress has been rivaled by few in American history for its legislative accomplishments. Laws for land-grant agricultural colleges, a transcontinental railroad, and a federal income tax were just a few of its initiatives that would leave an indelible mark. It also enacted a variety of military measures in its efforts to raise, organize, and maintain Union forces in the field. Foremost among these was the Enrollment Act that Abraham Lincoln signed into law on March 3, 1863.

This legislation was not the first conscription measure to appear during the Civil War. That distinction belongs to the Confederacy, which enacted a law on April 16, 1862. The Enrollment Act, understandably, was more national in its scope. Not only did it clearly centralize authority for raising troops with the federal government, but it would prove invaluable as a guide for 20th-century policymakers regarding pitfalls to avoid in developing a national conscription system.

The American spirit of voluntarism prevailed during the war's first year as men rushed to the colors to serve in local units with friends and neighbors. So great was initial enthusiasm that more men volunteered than the government could accommodate. They continued to offer their services during the war's early months but, before the war entered its second year, reality settled in on the home front, placing a damper on enlistment.

In letters home, soldiers told loved ones and friends of the high incidence of disease, shoddy equipment, sheer boredom, and incompetent officers. There were complaints of irregular pay periods, which weighed heavily on soldiers who worried over the welfare of loved ones left behind.

Another issue was uncertainty about whether the North was winning the war. Even more devastating to voluntarism was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's inexplicable General Order 33, issued on April 3, 1862, which closed all recruiting offices. By the time they reopened on June 6, terrible damage had been done to morale at home and in the field.


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James W. Geary is professor emeritus at Kent State University, a Vietnam veteran, and author of "We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War."