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The Civil War: The Senate's Story

Conscription Act

A persistent challenge during the Civil War was the low number of men volunteering to serve in the Union army. Senator Henry Wilson, chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, sponsored the Conscription Act of 1863, which established the first national draft system and required registration by every male citizen and immigrant who had applied for citizenship between the ages of 20 and 45. The New York Times called the Conscription Act “the condition of victory,” but many people criticized the law because it provided an exemption for those who could pay a $300 fee. Some critics argued that the law punished the poor, while others insisted that it interfered with states’ rights, since state-based militias had fought in previous wars. However, even with such conscription laws, both the Union and Confederate armies continued to rely mostly upon volunteers.

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