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Substitute Soldiers

At the beginning of the American Civil War the Confederacy appeared to be confident that the conflict would not last very long. The terms of enlistment for volunteers was only for one year. As the war progressed and the end of the first year was near it became apparent that they needed additional troops. On April 16, 1862, the Confederacy passed the Conscription Act. This became the first effective general military draft in America. A provision of this act permitted draftees to find substitutes to serve in their place. [1] The Conscription Act was not the first military draft in America.

As early as 1776, Congress established annual quotas for the number of soldiers each state sent to fight in the continental army. Unfortunately, by April 1777, the Continental Congress received reports that recruiting officers were utilizing practices such as taking recruits from jurisdictions other than their own to fill their quotas.

Resolved, That it be recommended to the executive powers of each of the

United States, to enquire (sic) into the conduct of all officers on the recruiting

service within them respectively; to remove all such as belong to the batallions (sic)

of their respective quotas, who have neglected their duty, or abused the trust

reposed in them, and shall be found within their respective jurisdiction; and to

fill up all vacancies which may happen by such removals; to transmit to Congress

all such testimony as shall be taken against any officer or officers, who may have

marched or removed from the State to whose batallions (sic) he or they belong, and

against any officer or officers belonging to the quota of another state, who may have been guilty of neglect or misbehavior (sic) in the State where the enquiry shall be made. [2]

Other resolutions proposed that same day established guidelines for exemptions from service for “religious scruples or particular priviliges (sic)“ and a provision that permitted anyone who was able-bodied to have another person as a substitute for their service. [3] The Continental Congress also presented an alternative to volunteer recruits utilizing a plan to draw from members from militia units.

Resolved that the states be severally required to Compleat (sic) said quotas by drafts from the Militia to Serve in the Continental Army until the last day of December next Inclusive unlease sooner discharged, on the Estimates (sic) of deficiency transmitted them by the Commander in Chief. [4]

Each state was to establish their own system to fulfill the quota mandate. [5] In Massachusetts for example, the plan was to levy every seventh man in the state ages sixteen and above from each town. The legislature empowered the commissioned officers of each militia company to fulfill this mandate however gave no specifics as to complete the task.

The Commissioned Officers aforesaid, are hereby impowered to muster their

Companies from time to time, in such manner as they shall judge will best serve

to compleat (sic) the voluntary Inlistment (sic) of a Number of able bodied men,

equal to the Number of one Seventh Part of all the Male Inhabitants of each

Town and Plantation of Sixteen Years old and upwards without any Exceptions,

Save the People called Quakers. (sic) [6]

Just as each state was to decide how to fulfill their quota they also determined the guidelines for who could be chosen as a draftee or their substitute. In 1777 Virginia’s laws determined that draftees could only be men without a wife or children and at the time of the draft would be assessed that they were fit for service. [7] These laws also allowed draftees to free slaves and send them as substitutes provided that they possessed a certificate of freedom. [8] Also, Quakers and Mennonites who were drafted could avoid service if they could provide a substitute to take their place. [9] The practice of providing a substitute did not always prove to be beneficial. A letter from a recruiting officer in New Haven Connecticut documents his frustration with this practice.

“…Mr. Isaac Brockitt of your Company and a Draughted (sic) Man, advises me he is

unable to do the Duty assigned him…I have Six & Seven in one Day Constantly,

to wright a few lines for, before I can get rid of them, and might send them back,

generally, to their Officers…and I must do the Same in this Case. Able bodied Men

are Called for, & such might be had, but where a Man is unable in body, & yet able

in purse, the Law will Justify you in Draughting (sic) such…but to Draught a poor man, and also one who is unable to do any Service…is but putting a burden on the Public…on these Principles you must follow your former Orders, for I can give no farther Directions…” [10]

General George Washington had his own opinions regarding the most effective way of filling the ranks of the Continental Army. He realized that voluntary enlistments were not the best way of building troop numbers. In a letter to Congress he noted that monetary inducements were not enticing men to join. He conceded that the practice drafting from the militia was of procuring substitutes for military service was “a disagreeable alternative” but “an unavoidable one”. [11] His criticism of the draft substitution provision was not of those who paid for substitutes, but rather that men were making great sums of money to substitute for short spans of time rather than serve in the army. [12]

Substitutes made more money serving for shorter periods of time than soldiers who enlisted. This worked to impede recruiting of soldiers to fill Continental battalions. George Washington wrote to William Livingston:

“while the pernicious practice of hiring substitutes for the Militia prevails for what

Man will engage to serve during the war, for a Bounty of twenty dollars, when he

can get twice as much for serving one month in the Militia” [13]

Further, as a part of a statement to Congress dated March 9, 1779, William Duer, a delegate from New York, also criticized the practice:

Of this Nature I considerd (sic) the Laws of Pensilvania (sic) allowing the Commutation

of personal Service, in the Militia, by the Hire of Substitutes . . . Consequences

naturally tended to impede the Recruiting Service for the Confederal Army, and to

Encourage Desertions from the Quotas of other States, by tempting the Soldiers

to follow the profitable Trade of a Militia-Substitute. [14]

Hiring a substitute was expensive and consequently financially prohibitive for most people. John Parke Custis, in a letter to George Washington, commented on the then recently enacted Virginia statutes regarding the draft.

This Law has been of much Service to the Clergy in general, and to some

particular Wemen (sic) who might have kept the hated Epithet of old Maid, the

young Men finding a Wife to be much easier & cheaper got, then a Substitute, are

alludeing (sic.) the Law by marrying --- [15]

A survey of Virginia pensioner applications noted some payments made to substitutes by draftees. Each draftee appeared to have determined how much they paid their substitute. For example, Isaac Nickle gave Thomas Buchinal a mare worth $50 (equivalent to $1,213.90 in 2019) for 3 months of service, Thomas Graves paid Lewis Prince $250 (equivalent to $6,069.48 in 2019) for 18 months of service, and John Dupuy paid a man named Estis $400 (equivalent to $9,711.17 in 2019) for one year of service. [16]

It may be beneficial to look at who were these substitute soldiers. On occasion, sons or younger brothers acted as substitutes for their fathers or older siblings. The minimum age of a draftee was sixteen years old however there does not seem to have been a minimum age for substitutes. In her book, Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution, Caroline Cox, reveals her research on how boys as young as eleven years old took part in the conflict. From her investigation of various pension applications she uncovered stories of people such as Obadiah Benge. He was “bartered” by his step-father John Fielder to substitute for James Green. Fielder was paid a horse, bridle, and saddle for Obadiah’s service. Cox also noted that there were occasions where these “Boy Soldiers” joined units with family members and friends. [17]

Procuring a substitute who was not a family member or friend was a costly endeavor. John R. Van Atta, in his journal article “Conscription in Revolutionary Virginia: The Case of Culpeper County 1780-1781” compared the net worth of officers, common soldiers, and substitutes. In 1780 Culpeper County’s Classes consisted of 106 recruits. Ninety-nine of this number were draftees and of those draftees forty-six secured substitutes. [18] Van Atta reviewed the tax records Culpeper County and discovered that most substitutes were of low social or economic status. Records from 1782 also showed that draftees without substitutes were found to be poorer than those who had substitutes. Overall, sixty-eight percent of the total number of draftees owned no Culpeper County land. [19]

Washington’s general orders of January 12, 1777 permitted free African-Americans to be recruited. This general order opened the door for African-Americans to take part in the conflict. Later that year New Jersey's Militia Act of May 1777 permitted masters to enlist slaves as substitutes. [20] Other states eventually made similar provisions.

Lewis Hinton, from Lancaster County Virginia served as a substitute in the Navy for his William Hinton of Virginia served in the Navy. After his health suffered a decline, he was permitted to leave the Navy if he could provide a substitute. His slave, Lewis Hinton, acted as substitute for William for approximately three to four years on board a ship named Dragon. [21] Rolling Jones from York County Virginia enlisted in the army while he was inebriated. When he became sober Jones enrolled his slave Tim Jones as his substitute. [22] Beriah Brown, sheriff of North Kingston, Rhode Island, enrolled his slave Joseph Brown as a substitute for his son Christopher. [23] Oliver Cromwell Cudjo of New Jersey was a substitute for Benjamin Coe and Samuel Sutphen, also from New Jersey was a substitute for Casper Berger. [24]

Trying to uncover the various ways that draftees found their substitutes could prove to be daunting. Pension records are one source. Unfortunately, pension records are a limited resource given that all veterans did not immediately receive pensions. Consequently veterans needed to “live long enough”

to apply. Initially only those who were made invalid through service could receive a pension, widows were not eligible until 1780, provisions were made for all veterans who served at least six months in 1792, and members of the militia were not eligible to receive a pension until much later. Also,not everyone applied for a pension on the federal and or state level and a fire destroyed many of the early applications in 1800 then again in 1814. Fortunately, partial records from select years can be found in the Records of Congress. [25]

There is one case that was documented where an individual was accused of selling substitutes. At a General Court Martial on April 28, 1778, Captain Isaac Morrison of the First New Jersey Battalion was tried for selling substitutes. Morrison’s defense was that his actions “arose from a desire of promoting the good of the service”. The court decided that Morrison was guilty of the charges. However, because his actions were not motivated by self-interest the court decided that his actions did not merit censure. [26] General Washington weighed in on this particular case and commented on utilizing substitutes.

The General confirms the sentence; at the same time he cannot forbear remarking

that the practice of selling soldiers as substitutes is an abuse of the highest nature

and pregnant with the most pernicious Consequences (sic), though there is every reason

to hope that the present instance that it did not proceed from selfish and pecuniary

motives, yet it is in itself of so dangerous a tendency and so inconsistent with every

rule of Propriety (sic) that it cannot but merit reprehension. Captn. (sic) Morrison is

released from his Arrest. [27]

Armies throughout history have reflected the socio-economic realities of their time and place. The Continental Army was no different. Substitutes or draftees who were unable to secure substitutes were usually those with little or no social status. Some substitutes were forced to serve. Others looked toward the prospect of a better life by serving as a substitute. Whatever the reason or motivation to serve, they contributed the success of the American forces.

Foot Notes

1. Public Laws of the Confederate States of America; First Congress, First Session, Chapter 31, Section 9, page 31, April 16, 1862. Accessed through:

2. Journals of the Continental Congress April 14, 1777 pp.261

3. Ibid. pp 262

4. Letters of Delegates to Congress, Committee at Headquarters to Samuel Huntington, May 16, 1780, Enclosure number 4, Volume 15 pp. 134

5. Journals of the Continental Congress, April 14, 1777 pp 262

6. Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Court by Massachusetts vol. 19 Chapter 803, pp. 781-782

7. Hening, William Walter ed. The statutes at large: being a collection of all the laws of Virginia, from the first session of the legislature, in the year 1619. “An act for speedily recruiting the Virginia regiments on the continental establishment, and for raising additional troops of Volunteers” Volume IX, Ch. 2 pp. 341

8. Ibid. “An act for the more speedily completing the Quota of Troops to be raised in this commonwealth for the continental army, and for other purposes” Chapter IX pp. 275-80

9. Ibid. “An act for speedily recruiting the Virginia Regiments on the continental establishment, and for raising additional troops of Volunteers” pp. 337-349

10. “American Revolution Letter of Continental Army Recruiting Officer Lamenting the Sorry State of Draftees” - Revolutionary War officer’s letter, 1p. legal folio, Branford, June 30, 1780 Accessed through

11. George Washington to a Continental Congress Camp Committee, 29 January 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed October 27, 2019

12. Ibid.

13. George Washington to William Livingston, 1 November 1777 accessed through Founders On-line.

14. Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 12 February 1, 1779 - May 31, 1779, Statement of William Duer, March 9, 1779

15. John Parke Custis to George Washington February 12, 1778 accessed through Founders Online.

16. McAllister, J.T , Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War : McAllister's data, McAllister Pub. Co., Hot Springs VA 1913 pp. 83, 135, 65

17. Cox, Caroline, “Boy Soldiers: Lessons from the American Revolution”, Society for the History of Children and Youth Newsletter, Number 9, Winter 2007

18. Van Atta, John R. “Conscription in Revolutionary Virginia: The Case of Culpeper County 1780-1781” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 92, No. 3 (Jul., 1984), pp. 271 Accessed through

19. Ibid. pp.272

20. Selig, Robert A. “The Revolution’s Black Soldiers” Accessed Through

21. National Archives Pension Application S10831 as cited in Crowder, Jack Darrell, African Americans and American Indians in the Revolutionary War, McFarland and Co. NC 2019

22. Ibid. National Archives Pension Application S18063

23. Ibid. National Archives Pension Application W1543

24. Buck, Elaine and Mills, Beverly If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountain, and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey, Wild River Books, Lambertville, NJ 2018 pp. 160

25. Austin, Jeannette Holland “Revolutionary War 1776-1783: Pensions” Accessed through

26. Writings of Washington Volume II, May 11, 1778, Fitzpatrick, John C. ed., pp. 376

27. Ibid pp. 376

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