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1863 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

May 2024
2min read

With Union ranks thinning due to casualties, discharges, and lagging voluntary enlistment, Congress passed the first national conscription act on March 3. The Enrollment Act rendered males between the ages of twenty and fortyfive eligible for compulsory military service. Draftees could avoid taking up arms by paying a three-hundred-dollar commutation fee or hiring a substitute.

The law provoked outrage among supporters of state sovereignty, particularly Horatio Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York, who termed the act a “violation of the supreme constitutional law” and warned of the dire results of any efforts “to exact obedience at the point of the bayonet.” Previously conscription was handled by state and local bodies. The new draft bill established a complex bureaucratic apparatus to enlist new recruits and empowered federal marshals to engage in offensive search-and-seizure tactics to root out evasive conscripts. Draft riots erupted throughout the North. In New York City an attack on a draft office triggered three days of looting and mayhem so ugly that line troops had to be called north from Pennsylvania to restore order.

Congress passed the act primarily to spur voluntary enlistment; many men preferred to volunteer rather than carry the stigma of being drafted. State and local authorities further encouraged volunteering by offering sizable bounties to recruits. This led to the notorious practice of bounty jumping: enlistees would collect their bounties, desert, reenlist, collect an additional bounty, desert, and so on. Out of the quartermillion men who were called upon, some eighty-six thousand paid the commutation fee, while among conscripts, substitutes outnumbered direct draftees by more than two to one.

The Confederate ranger John S. Mosby was a small man with a propensity for getting wounded, but he and his band of guerrillas were the bane of Federal troops in Virginia. On March 9 Mosby’s Rangers mounted their most daring raid to date, converging undetected on the Fairfax courthouse, where the 2d Vermont Brigade was headquartered.

Mosby launched the raid in hopes of capturing the cavalry leader Sir Percy Wyndham, a very proper British mercenary who had once fought under Garibaldi and who had a personal distaste for Mosby’s tactics; to Wyndham, the Southerner was simply a “horse thief.” Wyndham turned out to be in Washington at the time, but in all other respects the raid was a smashing success. Mosby personally roused the sleeping brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton, while his men rounded up officers, soldiers, and horses. The post commander, Colonel Johnstone, escaped by fleeing nude and hiding for a time beneath an outhouse.

In his report to Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, Mosby wrote, “The fruits of this expedition are 1 brigadier general (Stoughton), 2 captains, and 30 men prisoners. We also brought off 58 horses, most of them very fine, belonging to officers; also a considerable number of arms.”

Blame for the Rangers’ easy entrance into the encampment centered on the young and lovely Antonia Ford, an intimate acquaintance of Stoughton. Suspiciously, she held the honorary rank of major in the Rebel army. After her arrest for espionage both Mosby and General Stuart insisted on her innocence. She was released after several months and later married the Federal agent who arrested her.

The raid ruined the career of General Stoughton, whose reputation owed more to his debauchery than to his military prowess. Stoughton had established himself royally at the Fairfax courthouse while his troops, quartered in tents five miles away, grumbled about their commander’s frequent parties and illicit recreations. Of the capture, President Lincoln is reported to have said, “For that I am sorry, for I can make brigadier generals, but I can’t make horses.”

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