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Civil War 150: A Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight

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With the second anniversary of the war looming, the initial enthusiasm of enlistees was in decline. As the death rate rose, the Union needed to find a new way to recruit soldiers. On March 3, 1863, the Union officially signed the Enrollment Act.

"Union soldiers sharing their rations with the Confederates." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1888.


All Union men between the ages of 20 and 45, as well as all immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship, were required to sign up to fight. Each recruiting district had quotas to meet, and those districts where numbers fell short would draft soldiers by lottery.

When names were selected from the lottery, men had three options: fight; find someone to take their place; or pay a $300 commutation fee to escape that round of drafting. Of the more than 750,000 drafted in 1863 and 1864, only about 46,000 actually saw battle. The remaining 85% avoided the war by literally running away, finding someone else to take their place or paying the commutation fee.

 GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator - view more at
GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator

Those with financial means could pay the commutation fee or use bribes to escape fighting. Those with disabilities were dismissed, and others paid off their doctors to claim that they had disabilities. These circumstances prompted many to believe that the Civil War was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” In July, tensions reached a highpoint during the New York draft riots where African Americans, resented for causing the war, were targeted with brutal violence.

The draft reflected a shift in the perception of the war from a patriotic duty to a burden. Unfortunately, the war would require more than two grueling years and four separate drafts before the end was in sight.

Connie Golding earned a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University.