“The Recruiting Business”

January 23, 1864

artist unknown

“The Recruiting Business”

Civil War, Enlistment; Wars, American Civil War;

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Volunteer-Broker (to Barber) " Look a-here - I want you to trim up this old chap with a flaxen wig and a light mustache, so as to make him look like twenty; and as I shall probably clear three hundred dollars on him, I sha'n't mind giving you fifty for the job."

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon exposes the corruption existing under the policy of allowing paid substitutes to serve in place of military draftees during the Civil War.

When the Civil War began in 1861, both sides assumed they would win a quick victory, and had more volunteers than they could readily accommodate. As the war went on, both sides suffered from manpower shortages and resorted to military drafts to fill the ranks; the Confederacy in April 1862, and the Union in March 1863. Both measures were unpopular. The Union policy spawned draft riots in cities across the North in the summer of 1863, with the worst being four days of bloody civil disorder in New York City in early July.

The Union draft age of 20-45 was broken into two classes: 1) single men 20-45 and married men 20-35; and 2) married men over 35. Those in the latter group were rarely conscripted. That a man was drafted into the Union military, however, did not mean that he would serve. Some draftees simply did not report for duty. Others were sent back home if their district had already filled its quota. Some men were exempted for various reasons, such as having a physical disability or familial dependents with no other means of support.

Finally, the federal law allowed draftees to pay a commutation fee of $300 to the government, which did not exempt them from future drafts, or to hire a substitute to enroll in their place, which did exempt them from all drafts. The Union conscripted 207,000 men, but 87,000 anted up the commutation fee, while 74,000 hired substitutes, who were mainly those too young for the draft or non-citizen immigrants ineligible for it. This practice led to charges of a “rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” In reality, unskilled workers often had commutation or substitute costs paid by their employers, local governments (funded by property taxes), or partisan political machines, such as New York City’s Tammany Hall.

The Union had set the commutation fee at $300 in order to prevent repetition of the skyrocketing substitution prices—over $1,000—occurring under the Confederacy’s draft policy. (The federal commutation fee was repealed later in 1864.) Yet, the Union’s complex draft law and procedures provided plenty of opportunities for fraud. In this Harper’s Weekly cartoon, a recruitment broker, dressed in the familiar garb of a nineteenth-century “confidence man” (con man), bribes a barber to disguise an elderly man as a young substitute.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Recruiting Business”
July 14, 2024

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