By John M. Sacher
In his new book, Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers, John M. Sacher examines in detail the first national conscription law passed in the United States. Here he touches on one controversial aspect of that law—the purchase of substitutes.
On April 26, 1863, two years into the Civil War, an exasperated Lizzie Neblett, at home with four children under the age of ten and eight months pregnant with a fifth, begged her husband Will to leave the Confederate army and return home. A month earlier, facing the threat of conscription, Will had enlisted in the Twentieth Texas Infantry. While Lizzie wanted Will home, she did not want him to desert. Instead, she urged him to hire a substitute “even if it takes half we have” as “what would the world full of money be to me if you were dead.”
According to the terms of conscription, providing a substitute was a perfectly legal method to leave the army, but Will opposed his wife’s plan. He found substitutes “almost entirely worthless” and reminded his wife that “men of property” such as himself bore a greater responsibility in defending “our families and their safety and liberty.” Lizzie’s annoyance with Will grew, especially as she discovered that her brother John was both actively seeking a substitute and writing his wife more “lover like” letters than Will wrote her. Will objected both to substitution and to this insult. In his view, his service in the army, not his writing skills, showed how much he loved his family. In contrast to his wife, he viewed his brother-in-law’s efforts to provide a substitute as shameful behavior.
The letters between Lizzie and Will demonstrate the complex set of loyalties intertwined in Confederate conscription policy. Loyalty to family, state, and nation was intrinsic to Confederate identity. Conscription, first enacted in April of 1862, prescribed only a single way for adult white southern men to demonstrate that loyalty: service in the army. For some southerners, these loyalties were in tandem—they saw themselves as protecting their families as they served in the army. For others, being compelled to serve hundreds of miles from home while their families struggled to feed themselves, faced the invading Union army, and/or worried about slave insurrection made no sense.
Conscription, of course, did not exist simply to test southerners’ loyalty to the Confederacy. Instead, it tried to solve the possibly unsolvable dilemma of how to put enough southerners in the field to stop the Union army, while still leaving enough men at home to feed civilians and the army and to provide needed services to the community. My book, Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers, analyzes how Confederate political and military leaders tried to resolve this quandary over the course of the war. Often portrayed as the Confederacy’s most hated law, ostensibly threatening states’ rights and individual liberty and favoring rich planters over plain folk, conscription is more accurately dubbed the most debated law in the South.
Confederate Conscription traces the policy’s evolution over three years as southerners argued about how much they were willing to sacrifice—both materially and ideologically—to satisfy the insatiable demand for soldiers. While Will Neblett never secured a substitute, he did survive the war and return home to Lizzie. Their familial struggle is just one small example of the complex impact that conscription had on people across the Confederacy. The policy connected the home front and the battle front, the family and the nation, soldiers and civilians, and had an impact on every household in the South.
John M. Sacher is associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida and author of A Perfect War of Politics: Parties, Politicians, and Democracy in Louisiana, 1824–1861.
Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers serves as the first comprehensive examination of the topic in nearly one hundred years, providing fresh insights into and drawing new conclusions about the southern draft program. As Sacher demonstrates, the implementation of the draft spurred a debate about sacrifice—both physical and ideological—as the Confederacy’s insatiable demand for soldiers only grew in the face of a grueling war.