On April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress in Richmond passed the first of three conscription acts. It called most white men between ages eighteen and thirty-five to military service for three years.
Later amendments created exceptions, including the owners of twenty slaves, a few occupations and an option to send a paid substitute. Subsequent acts took away the substitutes, reduced the number of slaves to fifteen and exempted overseers, railroad workers, millers, farmers, shoemakers and government workers.
Quartermaster Clerk William H. Hill recorded in his diary on April 21:
“Monday. Cloudy and cool, commenced raining at 3 p.m….This forced enlistment is for 3 years or the war and all who have served 1 year are credited with it and will only have 2 years to serve if the war lasts that long.
“I think it will last much longer or at least during the period of A. Lincoln. The soldiers are very much disappointed…and some even say they will disregard it and go home when their present enlistment expires, which is the middle of May…
“But I hope that when they think of the great necessity for all of us to remain in service and appreciate the motives that induced Congress to pass the Act, that they will submit quietly and do their duty as soldiers fighting in a just and righteous cause.”
They really had no choice but to soldier on, as any refusal to obey the law would have been regarded as desertion, grounds for imprisonment or even execution.
Private Wilborn P. Smith of the Pettus Guards is quoted by Jess N. McLean writing his brother Clay: “Our hopes are all blasted! Congress, that corrupt body of men, have passed a law taking away all our liberties….A great many haven’t much choice now between the C.S.A. and the North.”
Attala Minutemen Private Nimrod Newton Nash disagreed, writing to his wife: “Our wise Congress has past a conscript bill at last; now we are all in for the war…”
Conscription was the norm for European armies. Taking only volunteers in 1861 for the Rebel and Union armies was unusual, and the Union also turned to conscription by July, 1862. Gen. Lee had supported conscription almost from the onset of the war, according to historian Gary W. Gallagher in his 2001 book Lee & His Army In Confederate History.
After all, in 1777, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia had resorted to conscription during the American Revolution.
In research for his 1997 book The Confederate War, Gallagher found a wave of desertions in the spring of 1862 “that probably represented anger at implementation of the Conscription Act…After this initial wave rates dropped off until the final months of the war.”
Yet McLean found just four of the 13th listed as deserters or Away Without Leave through the end of June: Two from the Alamutcha Infantry, one from the Lauderdale Zouaves, and one from the Pettus Guards.