ALBERT B. MOORE
Chapter XVI: Did Conscription Fail?
[final chapter of "Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy"]
The enforcement of the conscript laws was attended by difficulties that inhered in a system of compulsory service among a proud and free people. Conscription was not only contrary to the spirit of the people but to the genius of the Confederate political system. It seemed unnatural that the new government, just set up as the agent of the sovereign States, should exercise such compelling and far-reaching authority over the people, independently of the States. Public leaders generally recognized the necessity of conscription, and their influence and the hard facts of war gradually reconciled the public to it; but there was always strong opposition to it. Leaders who never became reconciled to it, and conflicts with State authorities in the enforcement of it seriously impaired its efficiency.
The system had many imperfections. Substitution was a serious mistake, and class exemptions provided altogether too easy a means for evading service. A judicious selective system, supported by a policy of executive detail, would have effected much greater economy in the disposition of men. The machinery of conscription was not fully set up in all of the States until the latter part of 1863, and then it was too cumbrous and its processes too elaborate. The official personnel of the system was often inefficient. The generals who superintended the work before Preston seem to have had only a secondary interest in the work, at least they did not push it aggressively; and complaints persisted throughout the war that the enrolling officers were ignorant, incompetent, and corrupt. Finally, conscription would have been less odious if it had been made the exclusive policy of raising armies at the outset. It might then have been regarded as a scientific way of allocating the man power of the country and distributing fairly the burdens of war. But the volunteer system was tried the first year, and after conscription was adopted volunteering was still allowed. This made conscription appear to be a device for coercing derelicts, hence the taint that attached to the conscript.
In the absence of complete records it is impossible to place a satisfactory estimate upon the value of conscription. A system of recruitment that enabled the Confederacy to maintain itself against tremendous odds for so long a time deserves a more sympathetic consideration than it has customarily had. It rendered a distinct service by systematizing and centralizing the military system. Of more importance, it saved the Confederacy in the summer of 1862 by keeping the seasoned tweve-month's troops in the army and by stimulating extensive volunteering. Many of the volunteers might have gone into the service of their own volition later, but the conscription act gave them to the service just at the moment when they were absolutely necessary to check the onrush of the enemy. The powerful armies built up in the summer and fall of 1862 were the backbone of the Confederate military system that distinguished itself on the bloody battlefields of 1863 and 1864.
It is impossible to say how many men passed through the channels of conscription. Superintendent Preston's final report, February 1865, showed that 177,121 men, east of the Mississippi, had been disposed of by the conscription service. The report was confessedly incomplete. It did not include the men put into service by General Pillow in 1863 from Alabama, Mississippi, and West Tennessee, nor the State reserves that probably totaled 50,000 or more; and the number of exempts and details was probably understated 40,000 to 50,000. It does not seem extravagant to conclude that the conscription service was probably directly responsible for the assignment of 300,000 men in the Cis-Mississippi area. According to the Richmond authorities, leading newspapers, and some of the old veterans, themselves, conscription was chiefly responsible for most of the volunteering. Men of conscript age were urged by recruiting officers to volunteer so as to avoid the odium of conscription, and to get the bounty and the privilege of selecting the arm of service and the unit with which to serve. Secretary Seddon estimated that 100,000 men were added to the armies in 1863, and that three-fourths of them volunteered but the Bureau of Conscription did not receive credit for them. Superintendent Preston claimed that most of the volunteers joined the service to avoid the odium of conscription, and therefore the conscription service should be accredited with them.
If conscription is to be accredited with having directly or indirectly put most of the men in the service after the first year of the war, it would be possible to place a fair estimate upon it, if the total enrollment in the Confederate armies were known. But the question of total enrollment has been one of controversial discussion since the Civil War, and we seem to be no nearer a common agreement than at the outset. The question will continue to be a matter of speculation until more complete records are unearthed. The number actually enrolled probably lies between the usual Southern estimate of 600,000 and the Northern estimate of 1,100,000. When the final count is made the enrollment, including the State reserves and other local defense troops, will probably total 850,000 to 900,000. If to this number the exempts and details are added it will be seen that most of the military population was reached and allocated, if temporarily and improperly in many instances. While the figures upon which this deduction is made are conjectural, they do not seem extravagant, in view of such testimony as we have, and they will serve to emphasize a fact generally accepted, that, as things go in war, the South gave very liberally of its military population.
The opinion has prevailed that the net results of conscription did not compensate for the opposition it aroused and for the trouble it produced among leaders. This, of course, and the failure properly to distribute men between the various war necessities stands to its discredit. The evidence is convincing that it utterly failed during the last six or eight months of the war. Its failure was due to the loss of a large portion of the South, the belief that the war was hopelessly lost, and to the fact that the Government's power of compulsion had completely broken down. There is no ground for assuming that any other system could have at this time produced material results. The chief task was to return deserters, but the conscription service failed to do it, according to Superintendent Preston's own avowal, in the grand total of 100,000 or more.
It has been assumed that conscripts did not make good soldiers, and that most deserters were conscripts. This assumption ignores the significant fact, pointed out by the Mobile Register and Advertiser, that many men who waited to be conscripted were not moral slackers, but they waited because of their private obligations and the necessities of their dependents. When they were conscribed they took up their arms in good faith. Vice-President Stephens and some other prominent leaders expressed doubts that conscripts would make good soldiers, and some of the generals were prejudiced against them. But long before the war was over the generals pleaded for conscripts; and the glory of the Confederate arms in 1863 and 1864 was established in large part by the valor of men who had directly or indirectly gone into service under the pressure of conscription. Doubtless many of the deserters were conscripts, but there was much said in the winter of 1864-1865 about men deserting who had cheerfully and bravely fought from the beginning. Truth of the matter is, the hardships of camp life, privations of the homefolks, and the loss of confidence in the chances for victory induced many men to desert, regardless of how they got into the army. If volunteers lacked zeal because conscription drove them to volunteer, and deserted, it is reasonable to suppose that in most cases they would not have volunteered but for conscription.
The alternatives to Confederate conscription were conscription by the States and volunteering. There were many persons who endorsed the principle of conscription but believed it would be more effective and more compatible with the Confederate political system if done by the States. State conscription probably would have been more agreeable to the average man, and might have secured more recruits, if the State authorities had kept on good terms with the Richmond Government. Even if the States had conscribed their quotas promptly, State conscription would still have been open to the objection that it would have made difficult the problem of coordinating the forces and establishing a central control over them. As to volunteering, it was made the exclusive method of recruitment the first year of the war, but did not secure enough men to meet the demands of 1862. Besides, it was open to men throughout the war who were zealous to get into the ranks. It ought to be said in fairness, however, that conscription took some of the glory out of volunteering, and it probably blunted the edge of public opinion which otherwise might have driven many men to volunteer. It is a significant commentary on volunteering that three States resorted to conscription to furnish their quotas before Confederate conscription was adopted; and the States generally fell back on conscription to raise their local defense troops in 1863 and 1864. As regards the relative value of systems of recruitment, much weight should be given to the opinions of the Richmond authorities. Their faith in conscription remained unshaken to the end.
Over against the friction, confusion, and dereliction depicted in this narrative stands out in bold relief the fact of general sacrifices unsurpassed in the annals of military history. Nor is conscription a contradiction of the cheerfulness with which the sacrifices were made. There is much truth in Lord Charnwood's observation that the general patriotism of the people is not to be judged so much by the failure of the purely voluntary system as by the success of the system which succeeded it. The dereliction of many sets in a brighter light the heroic devotion of the masses. The unsurpassed sacrifice and heroism of the Southern armies and civilian population -- the proudest and most sacred tradition of the South -- stands unassailed.
[I have not copied all the footnotes, some of which are quite long and the bulk of which are citations from the "Official Records." But I have included these three, which are pertinent to some of the topics discussed on the message board.]
1. President Davis told the Mississippi legislature that there was no more reason to expect voluntary service in the army than voluntary labor upon the public roads or the voluntary payment of taxes. Savannah Republican, January 14, 1863.
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