Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft

Larry Holzwarth - March 12, 2019

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
Jefferson Davis and the Confederate States imposed the first national draft on the North American continent. Wikimedia

6. The Confederate States were the first to institute a draft during the Civil War

In early 1862 the Confederate States of America, recognizing the considerably smaller population within its domains, acted to make military service compulsory for able-bodied males between the ages of 18 to 35. Initially the term of service was for three years, and it was permissible to hire a substitute to evade the requirement to serve. Free blacks and slaves were not permitted to serve in the Confederate Army, either through conscription or voluntary service, though many officers had slaves in the military encampments, to act as cooks and servants for their owners. The Confederate states also extended the enlistments of those already serving in the Army to three years. Most had been serving one year terms.

By the end of the war, beginning in early 1864, the age at which a Confederate male was drafted into the Army was extended to 50, and the terms of services were for the duration of the war. At the beginning the draft exempted certain professions and situations, and abuses of the selective service system in the South were prevalent throughout the war. Exemptions for medical reasons could be readily purchased from Southern doctors and as the war went on the reasons for which a draftee could avoid military service were gradually eliminated by the Confederate government. In the spring of 1865 all exemptions were eliminated, and all able-bodied men between the ages of 17 and 50 were subject to compulsory service, under the control of regional commanders.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
Confederate troops in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in late autumn of 1862. National Archives

7. Resistance to the draft in the Confederacy was strong throughout the war

During the Civil War southern society was dominated by a wealthy aristocracy which controlled the government and industry. In response to the continuous calls for more troops by Lee and his generals, this society established safeguards to protect itself and its sons from conscription, an effort which only intensified as southern military fortunes were reduced. Laws were enacted through which overseers of slave labor were exempted from the draft, and further laws which required one overseer for every twenty laborers further favored the wealthy, who could assign the positions to their sons and other relatives, thus protecting them from mandatory military service. As Confederate armies shrank due to casualties, fewer men were available to replace those lost.

By the summer of 1863 both enlistments and those eligible for the draft were in numbers far below the rate of men being lost to the southern armies from combat casualties, illness, accidents, and desertions. The Confederate armies required those who had lost a limb to remain in the service, as home guards or in logistics roles, freeing the able bodied for service in the front lines. The draft in the Confederate States of America was a failure throughout the war, and as it clearly favored the wealthy of southern society was a divisive source within the less affluent communities. Among rich planters, conscription bore a social stigma which was considered worse than a crime.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
Citizens and immigrants within the Confederacy stoutly resisted the draft throughout the war. Wikimedia

8. Confederate States established their own draft laws

In the early days of the Confederacy the congress called for the states to provide troops for the forming armies, with quotas established for each state. The governors of the states created quotas of their own by region or county, and authorized commanders to conscript men in the areas of their authority in order to obtained the desired number of men. Initially enlistments surged, but by the time of news of Confederate defeats and the high number of casualties reached the Deep South they had already subsided. Conscription became the main method of obtaining troops in the eyes of the government, and an evil to be resisted as strongly as the hated Yankees for most of the South.

Men were induced by the states to volunteer for 90 days of service in the state units, which once assigned under the command of the Confederate Army were subject to its enlistment regulations, which made all enlistments for a period of three years, or the end of the war, whichever came first. All enlistments were later extended through the end of the war. Thus a man who volunteered to serve for ninety days in April of 1861 could find himself still in uniform, or rather the tatters of one, in April 1865, should he have been fortunate enough to survive. Many who entered the army voluntarily prior to April 1862 found themselves conscripted rather than discharged at the end of their agreed upon terms of service.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
The Supreme Court has agreed that the authority to make military service compulsory resides within the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8. National Archives

9. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to conscript armed forces

Article 1, Section 8 gives the Congress the authority to perform a wide variety of services necessary for the running of the government and the defense of the nation. Among them are the authority to levy taxes, borrow money, create post offices and to build the roads connecting them. Another power specifically mentioned is the authority to “raise and support armies”, as well as the authority for Congress, “to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions”. It was from Article 1 Section 8 that Congress claimed the authority to authorize conscription of troops in the United States.

Not all agreed that Congress had the authority to conscript. When President Madison attempted to initiate a draft during the War of 1812 many in Congress rose to oppose them, among them Daniel Webster. “Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government?” he argued. “Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No sir it is not…” Webster claimed, arguing that the draft proposed by Madison gave the government the authority to, “take children from their parents, and take parents from their children”. Webster argued further that a draft would, “trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty”. In 1814 Webster prevailed. In 1863 Congress authorized a draft.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
Draft evaders in New York gather to claim exemption from compulsory service, a problem which plagued draft boards on both sides of the conflict. National Archives

10. The Civil War Military Draft Act was implemented to ensure the states met their enlistment quotas.

In March 1863 Congress established the draft in the United States, when it passed a law which made it mandatory for male citizens between the ages of 20 and 45 to register for the draft. Immigrants within the age limits were also required to register if they had applied for citizenship, or else when they did apply. Quotas, which had previously been supplied by the states under the control of the individual governors, were shifted to Congressional districts, and enforced by federal agents. The law was instantly controversial, opposed by many Democrats in Congress and by legal scholars. It also allowed draftees to provide substitutes if they were called up.

The draft boards also offered the commutation of a draftee who could not provide a substitute by allowing him to pay a fee of $300. The fee was established by the draft boards in part to control the prices which could be charged by substitutes. The Union draft officials quickly encountered difficulties similar to those plaguing their Southern brethren. Opposition to the draft was intense and most strongly protested by immigrants in the larger cities, none more so than in New York City, where riots broke out in 1863, less than two weeks after the Union victory at Gettysburg. Troops from the Union Army there were shifted away from pursuit of the retreating Confederate Army to help quell the riots.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
The 1863 New York draft riots of 1863 were the bloodiest insurrection in American history, other than the Civil War itself. Wikimedia

11. The draft riots in New York City in July 1863

With the exception of the Civil War itself, the Draft Riots which rocked New York City from July 13-16, 1863, were the largest insurrection in American history. The majority of the rioters were Irish immigrants or of Irish descent, who resented the presence of free blacks in their neighborhoods competing for jobs and the perceived disparities of the draft, which saw many of them called to service while those able to afford substitution or commutation were not. The city was so out-of-control on July 16 that the regional military commander later said that he should have declared martial law, but did not because he did not have sufficient forces on hand to enforce it.

New York was a hotbed of pro-Confederacy sentiment in the early days of the Civil War, due to its business ties with the Southern cotton market. The blockade led to unemployment of many Irish immigrants, which coupled with the influx of freed blacks following the Emancipation Proclamation made many too poor to avoid the draft. The riots coincided with the drawing of draft numbers in the city. By the time police and federal troops suppressed the riots 119 people were dead, though some sources list the death toll as 120. Because so many recently arrived blacks fled the riots and the city, never to return, the true death toll of the riots was probably much higher.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
Americans did not flock to recruiting stations in 1917, and a draft was needed to meet projected manpower levels. Wikimedia

12. The conscript army of 1917

When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, the immediate goal of the US Army was to raise an initial force of one million men. Despite the public perception of a burst of patriotism, reflected in the song Over There, in the early days of the war few Yanks were coming. In the first six weeks following the American declaration of war fewer than 75,000 came forward to volunteer for service in the trenches of France. President Wilson was forced to implement a draft to meet American manning goals, and Congress responded with the Selective Service Act of 1917. Wisely, the drafters of the Act studied those of the Civil War, in an attempt to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors.

Under the Selective Service Act males between the ages of 21 and 30 were required to register with local draft boards. Substitutes and commutations were expressly addressed by the Act, which prohibited both practices as well as the voluntary substitutes, such as one brother offering to fill in for the other. For the first time in American history conscription was a qualified success. About 2 million draftees were provided to the military, part of the 4.8 million men who served in the uniformed services during the First World War, and desertion and draft dodging rates were both lower than in the Civil War. The troops which actually saw combat were about half draftees and half volunteers.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
During WW1 many qualified pilots, though needed by the Army Air Corps, were exempted from the draft. US Army

13. The Selective Service categories evolved during World War One

Selective Service means just that; though all within the age limits must register for the draft, not all will be selected to serve. The draft boards and medical advisory committees determined into which one of five categories a registrant was entered. The act introduced the concept of hardship exemptions, dependent on the registrant’s family situation; exempted those enrolled in divinity schools or practicing ministers and priests, and somewhat strangely also exempted commissioned officers of the United States Army, Navy, and Marines. But an unmarried registrant with no dependent children who did not meet any of the exemption requirements could count on receiving a taxpayer funded trip to France.

Although aviation was in its infancy – even commercial aviation – all licensed pilots who were employed as such were exempt from the draft. Many served in the capacity of volunteers, and others served as civilian instructors for Army pilots during the war, training the young pilots who went to France, though many of the earliest American pilots received their training from the combat experienced British and French. The Selective Service Act of 1917 included all races, though the army and navy remained segregated. Over a half-million immigrants were drafted, many of them functionally illiterate in the language of the army in which they served, and the army responded with ethnically devolved units to counter the problem of the language barrier.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
A World War I era draft registration card, which many resisted filling out as required by law. Wikimedia

14. Opposition to the draft during World War One

As with all of America’s iterations of conscription, that of the First World War met with opposition both socially and politically. Conscientious objectors were punished by the military for non-compliance with the law, often in the army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1918 the army created military tribunals to consider the cases of conscientious objectors and others who were opposed to the draft. The tribunals found over 500 to be insincere in their objections and those convicted were for a wide variety of crimes. At least 17 were sentenced to death, though most sentences were commuted after the war. The Selective Service Act granted conscientious objector status to members of the Amish, Quaker, Mennonite, and Church of the Brethren congregations only.

Political opposition to the draft (as well as to American involvement in the war) came from several sources, including radicals, socialists, anarchists, and some labor unions. Political opposition led to legal challenges to the Selective Service Act which reached the Supreme Court in 1918. The opponents to the Selective Service Act presented the argument that the law violated the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which had barred involuntary servitude and slavery in the United States. The Supreme Court ruled in 1918 that the Act was constitutional. The draft ended with the war in 1918, and in 1926 the Army designed a modernized draft process and system, though it did not immediately impose it.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
In 1940 the first peacetime draft in American history began to train troops to face the Germans and the Japanese. US Army

15. The first peacetime draft in American history preceded World War II

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Army and Navy, in a rare event of inter-service cooperation during those years, created the Joint Army-Navy Selective Service Committee. Designed to address the issues of manpower requirements for both of the services then extant (the Marine Corps being part of the Navy) the committee completed its work, but Congress refused to fund nor authorize a peacetime draft, out of fear of the isolationists and the America First movements. In 1940, with the Germans sweeping across France and Britain about to face them alone, Congress relented to public opinion polls which indicated that more than 70% of Americans favored compulsory military training for young men.

The Selective Service Act of 1940 was the first peacetime draft, and it ensured that the United States would have at least a trained core for a wartime army. Men between the ages of 21 and 35 were required to register and the draft itself was decided by a national lottery annually. Service for those drafted was to be for one year. The number of men in training was limited to 900,000. In August 1941 the term of service was extended to two and a half years, and the cap on men in training was raised, though many of the army troops being trained lacked basic equipment such as rifles. In December 1941, all men between the ages of 18 and 64 were required to register with the Selective Service System.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
After an Executive Order restricted enlistment in 1942, the Army Air Corps began to solicit the attention of 17 year old men. US Army

16. Voluntary enlistment was eliminated at the end of 1942

On December 5, 1942, via Executive Order 9279, men 18 to 37 years of age were banned from voluntarily enlisting for the duration of the war. The purpose of the ban was to protect the nation’s manpower pool, while at the same time easing the overtaxing of the various military branches’ training facilities. The draft provided the manpower for all branches until the end of the war, the Army demanding a term of duration plus six months, and the other branches offering different terms, though all were for at least as long as the war would run. From December 1942 until the end of World War II, all enlistees in the armed forces first received an invitation from their draft board.

Near the end of 1942 the national lottery system which had been sufficient for peacetime was discarded in favor of a system of local draft boards. By the end of the war there were more than 6,000 such boards in the United States. The use of local boards allowed those who wanted to enlist, but couldn’t due to the Executive Order, to use their influence if they had any to persuade their local draft board to call them up as quotas needed to be met. Few did, at least according to surviving records. By mid-1943 the military was calling up 200,000 men per month and absorbing them into its training facilities, which were likewise expanding exponentially.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
The German American Bund strongly opposed the implentation of the draft before and during the early days of American involvement during World War II. National Archives

17. Opposition to the draft during the Second World War

Because the changes wrought by Executive Order 9279 meant that the vast majority of the more than 9 million men in uniform in all services at the beginning of 1944 were draftees. This included almost two thirds of the junior officers leading them. There was opposition to the draft, from conscientious objectors (COs) and from racially motivated groups. Elijah Muhammed and his small Nation of Islam organized resistance to the draft among blacks in the urban communities of the north, including New York. Muhammed was eventually sentenced to five years in prison for his efforts to disrupt the workings of the Selective Service System.

There was organized resistance to the draft in the Nisei camps where Japanese-American families were interned when the draft was extended to Japanese-American men in 1943. Over three hundred Japanese-Americans who refused to report to their draft boards were tried and convicted of felonies, and most were sent to military prisons, though they were for the most part released after the war. The America First and American communist party groups which opposed the draft for the most part changed their tune following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. During and following the war about 16,000 Americans went to prison for draft evasion. The draft was suspended in 1946 and the Act which authorized it expired in 1947.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
Black artillerists prepare to fire a 105mm howitzer in Korea in the early stages of the war. US Army

18. The Cold War draft and the Korean War

In 1948 the Selective Service System was reactivated to meet the needs of the military as the Cold War began to unfold. The 1948 Selective Service Act required the registration of all men ages 18 to 26. A call to active duty could result in a term of service for up to 21 months, and five years of reserve service. A system was created for the purpose of drafting medical personnel for active military duty. In 1950 President Truman declared a national emergency after the North Korean invasion of their southern neighbor. During the ensuing Korean War and the American involvement until 1953, over 1.5 million men were drafted into the Armed forces. Additionally many WW2 veterans serving in the reserves were called up.

Following the Korean conflict opposition voices in Congress and the national press rose to protest the existence of compulsory military service during peacetime. Changes to the national military posture following the Korean War focused on the use of nuclear weapons, then deliverable only by the Air Force on a reliable basis. Manpower requirements of all services dropped throughout the remainder of the 1950s while the Selective Service System developed a complex pattern of deferments based on the lobbying of congressmen for the benefit of their constituents. But the draft remained in place, and was applied in a new and novel way during the 1960s.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
Burning draft cards was a common form of protest against the Vietnam War and the draft system during the 1960s. Wikimedia

19. The draft and the Vietnam War

During the war in Vietnam, especially during the buildup of American forces which began in 1965, the draft was the primary source of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine personnel which served in theater during the long war. The draft was used to man the Army officially. But it was also used as a threat. Those with a low draft number and unable to obtain deferments often sought refuge from the threat of serving in the jungles and rice paddies by voluntarily enlisting in other branches of the services, where they were less likely to encounter combat, though the Navy and Air Force expanded their operations in Vietnam throughout the 1960s.

The draft and the war it supported grew increasingly unpopular as the decade unfolded and the manner in which the United States prosecuted the war, and falsely reported on its progress to its President and its people led to massive protests. Burning draft cards and fleeing along an underground railroad to Canada became the escape for many. Others escaped the draft by obtaining deferments, using their individual connections to receive medical exemptions. Colleges offered temporary respite from the draft. By the end of the 1960s the protests against the draft reached a crescendo, and as the Americans withdrew from Vietnam, plans for a new American military emerged.

Americans Should Know these 20 Facts About the History of the Draft
The virulent anti-draft movement led to the establishment of an all volunteer US military in the 1970s. Wikimedia

20. The all-volunteer military returned to America in the 1970s

Richard Nixon promised to end the draft during the presidential campaign of 1968, the most tempestuous year of the tempestuous 1960s. After winning the election he allowed himself to be convinced that ending the draft would be viewed as a sign of American weakness, and he took no action to keep his promise. In 1973,under the prodding of the Senate, the last national lottery for the draft to date was held. The US military gave itself over to being all-volunteer, a difficult task given the anti-military attitudes prevalent in the country after the humiliation of Vietnam. Since then a draft has not been held, but the Selective Service System remains in place in the United States.

Since July 1980 it has been the law in the United States that men, (both US citizens and immigrant non-citizens) once they reach the age of 18 must register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of their 18th birthday. Those ineligible for military service for any reason are not exempt from the requirement. Since 1989 a Health Care Personnel Delivery System (HCPDS) has been in place, since health care professionals are the most likely to be drafted in any future conflict, where extensive training on complex systems is required of today’s military. The likelihood of a general draft remains remote, but the US government and military is prepared and retains the authority to exercise one if necessary.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Conscription in the United States: Historical Background”. Jack F. Leach. 1952

“The Confederation Period and the American Historian”. Richard B. Morris, William and Mary Quarterly. 1956

“United States Army 1783-1811”. James Kochan. 2001

“Year of Decision: 1846”. Bernard de Voto. 2000

“The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies”. Library of Congress. 1901

“They Went Into the Fight Cheering! Confederate Conscription in North Carolina”. Walter C. Hilderman III. 2006

“Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy”. Albert Burton Moore. 2012

“The Constitution of the United States, Article 1 Section 8”.

“One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North”. Eugene C. Murdock. 1971

“World War 1: Conscription Laws”. Erin Allen, Library of Congress. September 13, 2016

“When America’s Most Prominent Socialist Was Jailed for Speaking Out Against World War One”. Erick Trickey, Smithsonian.com. June 15, 2018

“Background of Selective Service”. Selective Service System. Online

“Executive Order 9279”. FDR Presidential Library. Online

“The Debate Behind US Intervention in World War II”. Susan Dunn, The Atlantic. July 8, 2013

“The Fifties”. David Halberstam. 1993

“Behind the Protests Against the Vietnam War in 1968”. Daniel S. Levy, TIME Magazine. January 19, 2018

“The Evolution of the All Voluntary Force”. Bernard Rostker, RAND Corporation. Online

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