By April 1862, the Confederacy faced the prospect of its armies disintegrating in the face of potential Union offensives in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. This disintegration would result from the mustering out of nearly 148 regiments of twelve-month volunteers, whose enlistments were to expire prior to the summer of 1862. To prevent the wholesale destruction of its forces, the Confederate Congress passed the first of three conscription acts to retain these twelve-month volunteers in service and to call into service more of its white male population to defend the fledgling country.
The idea of conscription was not a new concept in American military history. A number of states employed conscription to fill their quotas in the Continental Line during the American Revolution. The rise of Napoleon in France brought about the idea of “Levee en massee,” which is roughly translated as the “mass uprising,” which means that everyone will fight and serve as a soldier for their country, and in the case of the Confederacy, included all white males. This concept of universal military service has continued and evolved as a part of modern revolutionary movements led by leaders such as Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh.
The new Conscription Act mirrored the age restrictions of most state militia laws by drafting all white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five years of age. Existing companies of men were given the option of reenlisting for three years or for the duration of the war, and were also given the opportunity to reorganize and elect their own officers. Those who were conscripted could avoid military service by hiring “substitutes,” who would serve in their place. A number of exemptions were put into place to exclude individuals who were officials, ministers of the gospel, and employed in certain trades from participation in combat.
Our “First Wednesdays” document highlights the passage of the First Confederate Conscription Act in April 1862. Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed the act into law on 16 April 1862. The document is from the John Thomas Conrad Manuscript Collection at the State Archives. John Thomas Conrad served as a First Lieutenant in the “Yadkin Boys,” Company F, Twenty Eighth North Carolina Troops, which served as a part of Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch’s brigade. Conrad served with the Twenty-Eighth North Carolina Troops in its engagements at Hanover Courthouse, Virginia on 27 May 1862 through to his hospitalization for fever after the regiment’s participation in the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia on 9 August 1862. He was sent home and was eventually dropped from the rolls of the regiment by August 1863. Roughly a year later, he reenlisted in the First Regiment of North Carolina Cavalry (Ninth Regiment North Carolina State Troops) and survived the war.