“During the perilous and unsettled period through which Delaware passed in 1863,” begins historian J. Thomas Scharf, “there was less disposition to enter the service of the country voluntarily than the preceding year, and it soon became evident that a draft would have to be ordered to fill up the quota.”
The draft bill that passed in early March immediately brought on howls of protest. For one thing, a draftee could buy his way out for a $300 ‘commutation’ fee. Doesn’t sound like much to us. But. A blacksmith of that era, one of the better paid of workmen, made about $555 a year. This commutation loophole was for rich men, and the public understood that immediately. Furthermore a draftee could “furnish an acceptable substitute” for themselves, if they could find one. A rich man could send, for example, an indentured servant. The average Joe had no such option. And finally the draftee was “placed on the same footing as volunteers, including advance pay and bounty.” No financial incentive to respond to the draft.
In early April Lincoln decided to make first draft calls from “states deficient under the last call.” Delaware for its part had sent an unusually large number of men to serve in 1861-2, and actually had a credit at the War Department for 8,743 men. So Delaware’s next draft round wouldn’t occur till July.
Protesters didn’t wait. The Smyrna Times reported in mid-April on a secret organization in Berks County, PA, just over the border from Delaware, “whose main object seems to be the resistance of the draft. They would try the constitutionality of the conscription act, and, failing that, use force.” Its four leaders were arrested on the charge of conspiracy.
In early May Lincoln closed a loophole in the draft bill that initially exempted immigrants without citizenship from serving. The Smyrna Times sniffed at these residents who, having previously stated their intent to become citizens, “now wish to escape the coming draft, and claim to be pure and unadulterated foreigners. The President is after these gentry with a very sharp stick,” said the paper.
“A number of young men of New Castle County of secesh [ed. ‘secessionist’] proclivities are leaving for parts unknown,” reported The Smyrna Times in early June. “Five young men of the Cochran family left Middletown a few days ago for Canada to avoid the enrollment, and do not intend to return until the draft has been concluded.”
In early July, as the required registration time approached, eight men were arrested for ‘attacking the house’ of John Green, enrolling officer for Murderkill Hundred, according to the Weekly Delaware State Journal and Statesman. The paper went on to say that “Samuel Draper, the enrolling officer for Milford Hundred, has been having a speck of trouble in the prosecution of his duties.” He went to the residence of one John Wesley Hall to discuss enrollment. Hall ordered Draper off his farm and threatened violence. As Draper turned to leave, Hall yelled out that if he went further down the “neck” that “he would catch it.” Hall’s wife threw eggs at Draper as he fled. The two were promptly arrested.
Now, it’s true the towns of Delaware never flared into open riots the way New York City did that July, but there were still plenty of pockets of resistance throughout the summer.
“From what we can judge in conversation with people from all parts of the county,” said the Georgetown Messenger in late August, “nearly all who can by any possible means raise $300, will do so. There seems to be a disposition on the part of those called to remain at home.”
Lincoln wasn’t kidding around, though. His suspension of habeas corpus in late September sent shock waves across the Union.
The tone in the newspapers shifted. The ‘secesh proclivities’ might still be there, but they started to disappear from the news. Instead, commentaries mocking draft dodgers moved out into the open. “A number of bachelors, over thirty five, were drafted in Providence,” said The Union [Georgetown, DE] in early November. “On being laughed at for not being married, and thereby escaping the draft, they maliciously replied: ‘Better to serve three years than for life!’”
By December Lincoln was getting the troop enrollments he was after. “The avails of the draft so far as ascertained up to this time,” reported the Delaware State Journal on December 15, “are 60,000 men [nationwide] and $12,000,000 spent.”
Lincoln’s habeas corpus gambit was harsh, and probably unconstitutional. But it gave him the club he needed to browbeat petulant would-be soldiers into his army. Delaware fell in line with the rest. “The proportion of soldiers given by the little Diamond State to uphold the flag of the Republic,” concluded historian Scharf, “was equal to, if not greater than, that of any other State.” It just took some time.