The Economics of US Civil War Conscription

The Economics of US Civil War Conscription

By Timothy J. Perri

American Law and Economics Review, Vol.10:2 (2008)

Abstract: US conscription in the Civil War is analyzed. Conscription was designed to gain federal control of enlistments, leaving state and local governments much of the fiscal and administrative responsibility for raising troops. Due to the hiring of substitutes, the payment of a fee to avoid service (commutation), and community-provided funds, only 2% of those who served were conscripted. Theory suggests that federal pay and local government bonuses increase as the marginal opposition by citizens to the number of reluctant draftees increases, and commutation could have lowered social cost. Instead, commutation was a binding ceiling on the price of substitutes.

Excerpt: In anticipation of the forthcoming (first) draft, rioting occurred in many US cities in 1863. A particularly violent riot occurred over several days in July in New York City, resulting in the deaths of as many as 1,200 individuals. Opponents of the draft focused on the $300 commutation fee, ignoring the possibility of even more expensive substitution absent commutation. Lincoln was perplexed by the opposition to commutation; he believed that substitution would be more expensive than $300, should commutation be abolished.

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