Greetings, Or, Do I Feel A Draught?

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The message reproduced above was sent by what could properly be called the draft board of New Salem, Massachusetts, to inform one James Cook that he had been tapped for eight months’ service in the Continental Army beginning on April 17, 1778. By no means unusual, it is graphic evidence that this method of recruiting an American army was not, as is sometimes said, an innovation of the Civil War, but grew up with the country. Congress issued troop quotas to each of the states, which filled them by volunteers if they could, but otherwise by draft. Then, as now, there were some individuals who either on principle or for less lofty reasons did not wish to serve. Side-stepping the draft (or “draught” as it was more frequently spelled) was considerably easier then, however—mostly because avoidance was legal and even more or less respectable. One could pay a moderately heavy fine in lieu of serving, or find an acceptable substitute to go in one’s place. Often the authorities seem to have been quite lenient, as illustrated by the case of Joseph Depuy, a farmer in the state of New York. When he was drafted and failed to show up, he later explained his behavior as “solely owning to these Reasons, Viz.: He having Last Year Met with the Misfortune of Loosing his Barn by a Flash of Lightning, and with Much Difficulty and Hard Labour got the Timber for a New Barn which at the time of his being ordered out, wanted four Days work of a Carpenter … and said Carpenter Could by No Means Stay Longer with him and if did not imbrace the then oppertunity had Not the Least prospect of Having a Barn this Season and further Says that his Wife was very ill and himself very Subject to the Rheumetism. …” Depuy was fined fifteen pounds; but a note at the end of his court record reads: “The Governor Considering the Case of Joseph Depuy & his late Misfortunes remits the Punishment.”