Author Interview--John M. Sacher (Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature John M. Sacher to talk about his new book, Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers, published by the Louisiana State University Press in November 2021.

John M. Sacher is associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida. He received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University. He has also published A Perfect War of Politics: Parties, Politicians, and Democracy in Louisiana, 1824–1861.

To start, John, how did you come to write a book about conscription?

JMS: Back in the 1990s, Bill Cooper, my dissertation director at LSU, offered me a copy of the 1996 reprint of Albert Burton Moore’s 1924 book on conscription.  I believe that there was an unwritten rule that a grad student never turned down a free book, so I took it.  At the time, I had no interest in conscription, and the book sat on my shelf for several years before I read it.  When I did read it, I quickly came to some important conclusions—(1) the topic needed an update.  How many Civil War subjects go 80 (at the time, by the time I finished more than 95) years without a new study?  (2) Conscription was not the dry bureaucratic topic I envisioned.  Civil War scholars so often decry the dichotomy between home front and the military/political side of the war.  Conscription is a place where those areas truly intersect as some men are moved from their homes to the army and others—based on political and military decisions--are allowed to remain home.) (3) I realized that too many studies have used conscription in support of their arguments without a full understanding of the topic.  Simply put, they discuss conscription as a single entity when in reality the law changed repeatedly over the course of the war.  So, when a work contends that “conscription proves xxx,” it often comes without any sense of whether they are referring to the April 1862 act or any of the major revisions in the law that occurred subsequently.  Given all that, I was sure that the study needed a new work.  Putting that work together, however, took longer than expected.

What do you argue in Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers?

JMS: I do not consider my book to be argument driven.  However, in my explanation of the evolution of conscription, I certainly challenge the common assumption that it was the most hated law in the Confederacy and a key factor in Confederate defeat.  Many scholars who argue that internal divisions doomed the Confederacy offer conscription as a main plank in their argument.  And, at first glance, the policy seems to support their contentions.  Some argue that even the need for conscription shows that southerners did not actively support the Confederacy.  Others argue federal conscription challenged states’ rights.  And, perhaps most commonly,  they argue that policies such as substitution and the Twenty Negro Law exacerbated the schism between slaveholder and non-slaveholders thereby weakening the war effort.

My examination of conscription challenges all of those conclusions.  I found that Confederates accepted conscription as the best way to mobilize southern manpower to achieve independence.  They, however, debated how to make it “fair”—how to balance family/community, state, and national/military requirements.  Confederates professed loyalties at all three of these levels, and they recognized that the war required material and ideological sacrifice.  For some Confederates at some points, conscription worked in tandem with these loyalties, but for others, conscription emphasized national loyalty to the detriment of the family and community.  Confederate politicians recognized this problem, and they spent three years trying to refine conscription policy to ensure that an army remained in the field and that the correct men remained at home to provide food and other services for both civilians and soldiers.  Ultimately, of course, the numbers did not add up, and they failed in this balancing act.  Nevertheless, understanding their debate over and the evolution and implementation of conscription policy offers a valuable lens to understanding competing Confederate loyalties and how the nascent nation’s political leaders struggled to find the right balance between home front and battlefront.    

You are providing some important correctives and it seemed a big piece you argued against was the impact and opposition based on the "Twenty Negro Law." How did historians get this one so wrong? Did some historians get too carried away with class or race as factors that they did not look at the evidence properly?

JMS: The Twenty Negro Law and substitution are two policies that have been repeatedly misunderstood.   If historians are looking for class-based arguments, these policies, at first glance, seem to 100% support such arguments with no wiggle room for doubt.  Both policies sound incredibly offensive to modern ears.  What better evidence that the draft was class-biased than the fact that you could escape it by either paying someone to take your place or by owning twenty enslaved persons? 

The Twenty Negro Law also comes complete with the perfect sound bite from Senator James Phelan--“Never did a law meet with more universal odium than the exemption of slave owners.”  You’re hard pressed to find a work on Confederate dissent which doesn’t use this quote.  So, it seems like an open and shut case.

In all honesty, I approached the provisions with that same viewpoint.  However, when one looks in depth at the Twenty Negro Law, one realizes that fewer than 10% of the plantations in the South took advantage of it.  Also, Congress passed the law for reasons of slave control and food production, and their debates recognized that the law might be perceived as class legislation.  In an effort to avoid this class bias, Congress eventually tightened up who could take advantage of it (mainly, women plantation owners or owners serving in the army), whom it could exempt (only men serving as overseers prior to the onset of conscription), and what the plantation owner would have to do (provide food at fixed cost to soldiers’ families). 

Now, of course, it still could be (and undoubtedly was) perceived as class legislation by some.  But, it is hardly a smoking guy proving internal dissension in the Confederacy.  In fact, its revisions do much more to demonstrate a government trying to balance the needs of the home front and the army and one that responded to the concerns of its citizens.

Conscription was not the first choice for the new Confederacy (or of course the US for that matter), but when enacted and the initial year-long volunteers had to stay for the duration, how much did that cause resentment or anger?

JMS: The act itself caused less resentment than one might expect.  For one thing, the Confederacy was desperate in April 1862.  Fewer than 100,000 soldiers had enlisted for the war, so the army was on the verge of disappearing in the summer of 1862.  This low number of soldiers, however, probably reflected a lack of awareness of how long the war would last rather than a lack of commitment to the nation.  Something had to be done. 

However, if anyone was justifiably angered by the April 1862 conscription act, it was the 200,000+ 12-month men in the army.  They had volunteered in the summer of 1861 and fully expected to return home to their families in the summer of 1862.  Instead, they had their terms extended two more years (and ultimately to the end of the war.)  This certainly challenged their notion of fairness.  And, the supposed boon that they could elect new officers probably caused as much additional anger as relief.  In Mark Weitz’s excellent work on desertion, he sees an increase in desertion as a result of this measure. 

Ultimately, however, we must remember that these 12-month men were those that volunteered to fight for the Confederacy prior to Bull Run, when the Confederacy barely existed.  They were committed Confederates, so it’s not too surprising that the overwhelming majority of them gritted their teeth and stayed in the army.  They often chose to celebrate the fact that laggards at home now had to join them more than the resented their own forced retention in the army.

Your last two answers already mention the issue of substitutions, your discussion of the topic was rather enlightening, especially how inflation raised the cost for substitutes. How contentious was the issue of substitutes and who could really afford to pay somebody to fight for them?

JMS: Substitution is a great example of the need to understand both the evolution and complexity of conscription.  It is included in the original legislation without much thought.  It was a traditional part of military culture.  Ideally, it could men who get better serve the cause at home out of the army, while providing a privately funded bounty to get men not subject to conscription into the army.  Defenders of the policy in the summer of 1862 observed that it was better to have a strong 38-year-old serve, than a 28-year-old who was ill, an overseer, or a pacifist. 

In reality, it often proved rather less than that ideal.  As your question implies, within a year, costs had sky-rocketed making substitutes unobtainable for most Confederates.  The cost rose both because of Confederate inflation and because the supply of potential substitutes shrank as the age range for conscription expanded (for example, that strong 38-year-old got drafted himself) and as foreigners were prohibited from being accepted.

On the home front, some principals (the term for men who supplied substitutes) lived up to the ideal—they helped provided vital services on the home front.  However, many principals were censured for speculating on the needs of soldiers’ families rather than helping them out.  

How many men fell into any of these categories is open for debate.  Shockingly, the army kept very poor records on the number of substitutes enrolled and whether they remained enrolled (substitutes had a reputation for deserting at the first chance they got, though there is not much hard evidence to support such a contention.) 

Ultimately, substitution serves an example where the Confederacy listened to complaints.  In the 1863-64 session, Congress ended the practice and enrolled principals into the army.