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When 'good father seelos' met 'good father abraham'

By Rev. byron miller, C.Ss.R.

Three hundred dollars. In the mid-1800s, that amount could handily pay the rural physician’s charge of fi ftycents per mile for house calls – a fee often reduced if the doctor’s horse was fed. It could pay the dime haircut and nickel shave to groom a man’s fashionable clipped chin beard without moustache – like that worn by Abraham Lincoln. And by the time of the Civil War, it could pay the $1.25 cost of salt in the North, and the $60 for an exact same amount in the southern states.

With some variation, three hundred dollars is what the Union paid new recruits for enlistment in the Civil War. Three hundred dollars is also what the Union charged for exemption from it.

By early 1863, fewer men in both the North and the South were joining the cause for patriotic reasons, and the enlistment bonuses were losing appeal with the publication of war casualty lists. The Confederate congress had passed the fi rst conscription law in American history on April 16, 1862, making every able-bodied white male citizen between 18 and 35 years of age liable for military service. The law added about 200,000 men to the Confederate army. Clergy and religious were exempted.

On March 3, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Conscription Act for the Union. All able-bodied men between the ages of 20 and 45 were liable to be drafted into military service for a period of three years. Service could be avoided by obtaining a substitute or by paying a $300 commutation fee. Clergy and religious were not exempted.

Approximately 983,000 men received draft notices in the North, of which 200,000 failed to report for duty and an equal number deserted the ranks. So-called bounty jumpers joined the Union army for the enlistment bonus, then deserted to sign on for another bonus elsewhere. Of the almost 100,000 who escaped to Canada during wartime, nearly a third were deserters. However, for those who had the wherewithal, there was a more convenient way to avoid combat than becoming a Canadian resident: Of those who received draft notices, 87,000 paid the $300 commutation fee, and another 74,000 provided substitutes – many of whom were former slaves. Population was an obvious factor in helping to explain why Kansas had only two men pay to avoid military service, and Pennsylvania had 28,171.

There was widespread perception of an unfair system – exacerbated by newspaper headlines that read “$300 or Your Life”– that seemingly permitted the affl uent to buy their way out of duty. The Conscription Act had entrenched the inflammatory notion that it was a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fi ght.

This tension escalated into violent eruptions throughout the North, with the most odious occurrence in New York City. In July 1863, riots broke out when many of the men drawn by the draft lottery were of foreign birth – mostly poor Irish immigrants who could ill afford the price of an exemption. Mobs took control of the city for three days. Draft offi ces and recruiters’ homes were burned. Any well-dressed bystander was labeled a “$300 man” and subject to attack during the rampant looting spree, but the most senseless violence was aimed at the black community. Nearly 20,000 troops, badly needed elsewhere on the battlefront, were dispatched to quell the violence and enforce the draft, but not before the melee claimed 120 lives and injured hundreds more.

Just ten days after Lincoln signed the Conscription Act, the worried provincial of the Redemptorists hurried to Annapolis to discuss an alarming dilemma: What to do about the Redemptorist priests, brothers, and seminarians who were subject to the draft? Father Francis Xavier Seelos, the seminary director at Annapolis, fully agreed with the prevailing ecclesiastical opinion that clergy, religious, and seminarians allowed to fi nish their training, could be of far greater service to their country as chaplains to the troops. The fact that Father Seelos and the other Redemptorists ministered at nearby Camp Parole strengthened the credibility of their argument. Nevertheless, because the consulting Redemptorists feared that seminarians would more likely be pressed into military service than ordained priests, they decided to hasten the ordination of twenty theology students in a ceremony that many believed was the fi rst in American history in which so many had been ordained collectively.

In June 1863 the provincial returned to Annapolis for further deliberations on the draft issue. Father Seelos explained the menacing situation in a letter to his sister in Germany: “If one is chosen in the draft, he has either to go, or to pay $300.00. Because we have so many young members, that would have amounted for us to the gigantic sum of $25,000 or more. I decided then, with the permission of the provincial, to go to Washington with another father and to present personally to the President and other offi cials our situation.” He also wrote, “If I do not succeed in obtaining a release from that unjust injunction, we will rather go to prison than to take up arms.” It was hoped that a direct appeal in Washington would be more effective than sending all the students to Canada – the desperate suggestion made by the provincial.

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