On this day in 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the Second Conscription Act (the first having been passed April 16), which raised the top age of those white men eligible for the draft from 35 to 45. It also added a special exemption for the owners of twenty or more slaves. This provision came to be known as the Twenty-Slave Law and it was controversial in much of the Confederacy, where it served to exacerbate certain social rifts and led to claims by drafted soldiers that they were fighting a “rich man’s war.”
Was this actually true, though? Was it a rich man’s war?
According to Joe Glatthaar, author of our entry on the Army of Northern Virginia, slightly more than one in eight soldiers owned slaves, but more than 37 percent either owned slaves themselves or they lived with their families, and their families owned slaves. In other words, these soldiers had an investment in slavery that potentially influenced their decision to fight. A soldier recalled a joke made by an Irish-born private in the 12th Georgia Infantry: “A short time ago he bought a negro, he says, to have something to fight for.”
Some folks have objected to this line of argument, suggesting that if 37 percent of Lee‘s men had a connection to slavery, then 63 percent did not. The point, though, is not that there weren’t more poor soldiers, but that the wealthy were overrepresented according to their numbers in the general population.
This insight is corroborated by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, author of our entry on Virginia soldiers who fought for the Confederacy:
… the Civil War in Virginia was a rich man’s fight. Several recent studies have used quantitative evidence to demonstrate that wealthy men were overrepresented in the armed forces. Contrary to the notion that poor men did all the fighting, both aggregate data and individual sampling reveal that wealthy counties sent more men than poor counties did and that wealthy individuals were found at all levels of the service in greater proportion than within the population.
Certainly not what I learned in school, but then, I was raised by commie pinkos …
A version of this post was originally published on October 11, 2011.
IMAGES: Captain Alexander Dixon Payne of Co. H, 4th Virginia Cavalry (Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress); Private James B. McCutchan of Co. D. 5th Virginia Infantry (Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress)