George Washington Walling
A City In Crisis The Conscription Act
The U.S. Congress passed the Conscription Act in March of 1863. The Civil War had been going on for almost two years with no end in sight. The Union Army lacked new recruits to join the fight but also needed to control the vast number of deserters who were leaving the battlefields illegally. The new law, called the "Act for Enrolling and Calling Out the National Forces," created a national Provost Marshal Bureau. The bureau was empowered to draft those who had not volunteered, and to keep them in the army once they were enlisted under threat of criminal penalties.
Government agents conducted a census of all able-bodied, male citizens of the United States and set up a lottery in each congressional district. The new soldiers were drawn from this pool of men but there were still several ways to avoid military service. Drafted men could pay three hundred dollars, or they could provide an "acceptablesubstitute," if someone else would take their place.
The new law met with a great deal of opposition in New York City. To begin with, the federal government's involvement in state and local politics was not welcomed by many New Yorkers. The exemption fee seemed to favor the wealthy while leaving the poor to do battle. Most harmful in the end was the way the law escalated racial tensions in the city. New York was a Northern city with longstanding commercial ties to Southern slavery, leaving it very sensitive to racial issues.
New York City was the national press capital for both the abolitionist (those who opposed slavery) and anti-abolitionist causes. In 1863 only whites were considered citizens of the United States and susceptible to the draft. The tension between blacks and whites grew dangerous when poor, lower-class whites felt the federal government was giving privileges to blacks while they themselves were called to risk life and livelihood in the war effort. By mid-July, New York City itself would be a battleground.
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