To Field an Army: A Brief History of the Military Draft

To Field an Army: A Brief History of the Military Draft

Throughout history, civilians—willingly or not—have been called upon to take up arms for their countries. It’s always the young who are taken first.

In an effort to bolster the dwindling number of volunteers—only 300,000 had come forward by 1916—the Military Service Act became law in Canada on July 6, 1917. Violence erupted in the streets of Quebec City, and four people were killed when soldiers opened fire on protesters. The conscription crisis in Ireland contributed to that country’s drive for independence. Poet William Butler Yeats wrote acidly to a member of Parliament, “It seems to me a strangely wanton thing that England, for the sake of 50,000 Irish soldiers, is prepared to hollow another trench between the countries and fill it with blood.”

By the summer of 1914, the German national identity already had been forged through the general unification of the country, which had been accomplished largely through the efforts of Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck. Kaiser Wilhelm II encouraged German nationalism and openly sought his country’s “place in the sun.” Before that time, the German Army had been largely under the control of one directing mind, that of General Helmut von Moltke. In short order, the German Army had become the most perfect fighting machine in the world. No higher compliment could have been paid to Germany’s military system than the fact that it was copied by the very nation—France—that suffered the most from its success. The German model was copied later by all nations, none more sedulously than Japan.

Conscription Post-World War I

During the interwar years, the Treaty of Versailles specifically restricted the German Army, or Reichswehr, to a maximum strength of 100,000 men. In an overt repudiation of the treaty, Adolf Hitler reinstituted conscription in 1935. Every German male aged 18 to 45 was subject to being called up, and in time of war even women were targeted for “special service.” Many of those who initially had been considered unfit for frontline military service because of age, wounds, or physical impairment eventually found themselves in uniform as the tide of war turned decisively against Germany and battlefield losses became catastrophic.

Every major European military power, with the notable exception of Great Britain, continued some form of conscription following World War I. In the spring of 1939, the British Parliament passed the Conscription Act to prepare for the looming conflict by establishing military training and mobilization programs. On September 3, the date that Great Britain declared war on Germany, another law was enacted and provided for the call-up of males between the ages of 18 and 41. Women were also eligible for the draft and participated in noncombat roles. A further measure, the Emergency Powers Defence Act, placed the civilian population and industry on a war footing. The legal scope of conscription in Great Britain even extended to those, such as coal miners, who had engaged in work previously deemed essential to the war effort.

In the Soviet Union, nearly 30 million men and women were drafted into the ranks of the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War, as World War II came to be known in Russia. At the time the war began, slightly fewer than five million soldiers were under arms. By then, the Soviets had already fought a brief but bloody war with Finland and had begun the war as an ally of Nazi Germany. Soon, nearly six times as many men and women would be enlisted to fight for the Motherland.

Japan began to introduce conscription little more than a decade after the nation turned decidedly toward the West in the 1850s. Although the institution had been initiated for security reasons, the armed forces rapidly became the modern embodiment of the samurai, or warrior class, and served to bring the nation together during the expansionist years of the 20th century. Between 1918 and 1940, the size of the Japanese military steadily increased, and on the eve of its surprise war with the United States, Japan’s armed strength was in excess of five million men.

Since World War II, many nations, including Germany, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Norway, South Korea, Egypt, Israel, and the People’s Republic of China have maintained compulsory military service for males who have reached a minimum age of 18, although the end of the Cold War has sparked debate over the continuation of such policies. Other countries, including the United States, rely on volunteer armed forces but maintain a system of registration to facilitate a call-up in the event of a national emergency.

The American Draft

Perhaps no nation has been more profoundly affected by military conscription, popularly known as “the draft,” than the United States. During the colonial period, a standing army was not organized; however, adult males were subject to the call of their particular state governments to form militia units in response to any immediate outside threat. With the coming of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army was made up largely of such state militias, complemented by men who had been enticed to enlist by such incentives as tracts of land on the western frontier and cash bonuses. Inevitably, however, short enlistment periods frequently expired prior to decisive battles. Desertion was a problem as well, since many of the recruits were farmers who were compelled to return to their fields on a seasonal basis.

The commander of the Continental Army, George Washington, was forced to cope with the constant difficulty of maintaining an effective force to battle the British. Later, as president of the United States, he sought to improve the country’s military posture. Approved by the Second Continental Congress and signed into law by Washington on May 8, 1792, the National Conscription Act stated that “every able-bodied white male citizen of the age of 18 years and under the age of 45 be enrolled in the militia. Every citizen so enrolled shall within six months thereafter provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt and not less than twenty-four cartridges.” The act further stipulated that “if any person, officer or soldier called out into the service of the United States be wounded or disabled while in actual service, he shall be taken care of and provided for at the public expense.”

Subsequent draft measures proposed by Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison received little support from Congress, but the outbreak of the War of 1812 prompted the legislative body to authorize the raising of a regular army. In exchange for 13 months of service, recruits were offered a cash bonus of $16 upon enlistment, along with a 160-acre tract of land and three months’ pay upon discharge. Still, these incentives were not nearly enough to field an army to fight the British, and once again the lion’s share of the nation’s defense fell on the state militias. Congress eventually empowered President James Monroe to call 100,000 militiamen into service.

The Enrollment Act of Conscription

Less than a century after the Declaration of Independence, the United States was wracked by the Civil War. In the wake of the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter, a wave of patriotic fervor swept across both North and South. It soon became apparent that the war would be a protracted and costly one in terms of lives and treasure, and the Union and Confederate governments resorted to conscription. On April 16, 1862, the Confederacy adopted the first of three conscription acts, making men aged 18 to 35 subject to service. That September, during the same month that the war’s bloodiest single day of combat was fought at Antietam, the Confederate Congress extended the eligible draft age to 45.

Following the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, theoretically freeing slaves in those states that were then in open rebellion against the United States. The Proclamation was to take effect on January 1, 1863. Two months later, Lincoln announced the Enrollment Act of Conscription, and violence erupted in major cities across the North. Those who were well-to-do could avoid the draft, either through paying $300 for an exemption or hiring a substitute. Such inequities placed the burden of fighting the war, which was now ostensibly for the freedom of slaves, heavily on the shoulders of the newly arrived immigrant population, fostering increased resentment among the working classes and the less affluent.

A Violent Response

Overt, violent resistance to the draft broke out in New York City on July 13, 1863. Two days earlier, the city had begun the first drawing of military conscripts on the so-called “lottery wheel.” Restless crowds packed into the 9th District office at 677 Third Avenue to hear the unlucky conscripts’ names called aloud by Provost Marshal Charles Jenkins. The first was “William Jones, 46th Street, corner [of] Tenth Avenue.” As the day progressed, several hundred more names were announced, with no appreciable trouble. A second round of drafting would begin two days later, on Monday, the 13th.

Matters worsened, however, over the weekend. Saloons did a thriving business as workers gathered to denounce the draft in general and Abraham Lincoln in particular. A shadowy “gentleman” from Virginia named John Andrews was seen delivering inflammatory speeches throughout the various lower-class wards clustered around Five Points, the notorious New York City slum. People began warning openly that there would be “a Negro hanging from very lamppost of New York” the next day.