Buy Your Way Out Of War Duty

scandalscivilwarOne of the most interesting aspects of American culture, for me, is the current obsession with the military. In this modern age to say anything even remotely non-supportive of the military or a military action is considered unpatriotic and sacrilegious.

But, even an amateur student of American history can figure out that has not always been the norm.

Possibly the most egregious violation of civil rights and liberties in the United States concerning war duty occurred during the Civil War. Riots and violence broke out on multiple occasions in the North over the practice of paying a commutation fee of $300 to avoid active duty. This approach kept wealthy men like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and even future president Grover Cleveland out of harm’s way.

But whereas the payment was pocket change for the wealthy, it was a significant sum for the average man to fork over — and the practice effectively separated the North into two classes of people. As the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot and Union noted in an editorial,

The odious $300 exemption clause which throws the whole burden upon the poor, while exempting the rich, should certainly be repealed; and we think the clause permitting substitutes to be taken is of the same character, and liable to even greater objections.

Besides the obvious non-democratic method of soldier selection, the concept created an army built more on profit than patriotism. Scandals Of The Civil War reports that 137 soldiers deserted an Army of the Potomac detachment of 625 men. The men had been sent to reinforce a New Hampshire regiment, but 86 of them joined the Confederacy while 36 soldiers simply headed back home.

Source: Scandals of the Civil War by Douglas Lee Gibboney.

Categories: American History, Civil War History

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