Part two of a series
A jail sentence was threatened for members of the Houston County Military Committee after they ignored the first three draft calls. As the Civil War dragged on longer than anticipated, the United States was finally forced to initiate its first military draft in March of 1863, almost a year after the Confederacy’s first conscription. The county quota had been 687 with 319 already enlisted, leaving a balance of 368. The third call added another 234, making a grand total of 602 required, and greatly due to the previous noncompliance, was to be filled in only 20 days.
Many county men had enlisted out of state. Seeking to lower the draft quota, an emissary went to Madison, Wis., and ascertained that 60 county men were already serving in Wisconsin units.
County quotas were apportioned to townships, according to their number of eligible men. Townships and villages, especially wealthy ones, offered bounties – money paid to one who would enlist and therefore reduce the draft quota. The sole purpose of the La Crescent Relief Club was to raise funds to pay enlistment bounties and thus avoid any need for a draft. La Crescent offered $250 for enlisting. In 1863, that amount would have the purchasing power of about $5,000 in 2021. State draft records show no men being drafted from La Crescent.
Houston Township offered first $100 if married or $50 if single to someone who would enlist and also to ones who were drafted. Later, it was increased to $200 and eventually $300 for those who had contributed to the draft fund.
Black Hammer was the rare, maybe the only, mostly rural township, that offered a bounty. The $300 went to both volunteers and draftees. There were reports that Spring Grove offered a $500 bounty. If that had been the case, everyone likely to be drafted would have probably moved to Spring Grove.
Caledonia had difficulty maintaining a balance of bounty funds. Pledges were too often not honored. Fifteen Caledonia men, whose bounty agreement could not be fulfilled, were allowed to go elsewhere. They enlisted in Illinois.
Townships that could not raise bounty funds any other way sometimes levied a tax for the purpose. It was known to cause financial hardships that lasted several years after the war. Townships that did not offer bounties often saw residents cross into another township and leave their home township in further draft distress.
Men, who had not yet enlisted, could after the draft, volunteer with a signing bonus (bounty). Once drafted, a man had four alternatives. He could (1) go off to war, (2) pay $300 commutation fee to the congressional district, (3) pay a substitute to take his place or (4) leave the county, which many did. After the fourth draft call in 1864, the Hokah Chief newspaper noted that 65 draftees had, in the vernacular of the era, “skedaddled.” One resident of La Crescent moved to Winona, then Chicago and finally Germany to escape the draft.
In 1864, a large number of county residents moved to Idaho Territory, the only territory not providing soldiers to the federal government during the Civil War. In early June, a wagon train of 120 ox teams headed west to Idaho. Ironically, they were escorted west from Fort Ridgley, Minn., by a cavalry unit, which included about 50 soldiers from Houston County, going west to fight Indians.
The draft was not popular anywhere; there were riots in New York and Baltimore. In Wisconsin, draft commissioners were often severely beaten and driven out of town until military or civilian forces were brought in to protect them.
At the beginning of the war, the age of enlistment was 20 to 40 years of age. As the need for troops increased, the draft age went from 20 to 45. By the end of the war, Houston County was drafting 18-year-olds. The average age of county enlistment was 37, which indicates that young Minnesota did not have families established long enough to include draft-age males. Not one Civil War veteran was born in Houston County; they had all moved in after birth.
This week’s column is based on the writing of Civil War historian David Klinski of Caledonia.