“Pressed”, drafted, and conscripted – a quick note

Posted on March 15, 2012 by

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Yesterday, I posted a piece about Thomas C. Suter, and his change from gray (Confederate service) to blue (Union service). I also posted a link to the piece on Western Maryland’s Historical Library’s Facebook page, as a response to their having posted the brief newspaper clip.

In response, Tom Clemens, Professor of History at Hagerstown Community College, commented:

The Confederacy did adopt a Conscription Act in April of 1862 which was used to draft men into service, but had no jurisdiction over Marylanders. In fact, some Marylanders already serving in the Confederate Army brought a court case to the Confederate courts claiming they were exempt from this act. Therefore I doubt that anyone who resided in MD was “pressed” into Confederate service. It is possible that Suter moved to VA after the 1860 census, and volunteered due to peer pressure, but he could not have been “drafted,” “pressed” or “conscripted” until April of 1862 as there was no legal authority to do so.

He certainly might have claimed to have been forced into service, if I were captured and facing prison I might have taken the same tack, but that does not make it true.

With all due respect to Professor Clemens…

I’m aware of the three Confederate conscription acts (and the expanding age limits with the passage of each act), and that the first was not enforced until the spring of 1862, yet, there’s more to the words “pressed”, drafted, and conscripted than the logic of the timing of the acts, especially to those who lived in the time.

Since the Confederacy did not begin to enforce the first conscription until the spring of 1862, why were there people, in 1861, saying that they were “pressed” and/or drafted into the service of the Confederacy? I’ve mentioned in previous posts that some Virginia militiamen (from the central Shenandoah Valley) considered themselves “draftees”, even before the first Confederate conscription. They don’t explain why, but, if they were in a pre-war militia unit that was called into the service of the Commonwealth, it certainly makes sense that they might consider themselves non-volunteers at that point, as their original terms of enlistment in militia units had just been expanded without their consent.

Now, consider the Suter brothers, who I mentioned in yesterday’s post…

Thomas “enlisted” on May 20 (in the Wise Artillery), and Charles “enlisted” on May 11 (in the 2nd Virginia Infantry). So, we’re not dealing with militia, but regular Virginia units. Still, what circumstances found both of these Maryland men in Virginia (Harpers Ferry)?

Recalling Professor Clemens’ remarks…

I doubt that anyone who resided in MD was “pressed” into Confederate service. It is possible that Suter moved to VA after the 1860 census, and volunteered due to peer pressure, but he could not have been “drafted,” “pressed” or “conscripted” until April of 1862 as there was no legal authority to do so.

Let’s consider the situation more thoroughly… outside the box, perhaps… and not limit ourselves to the timing of the first conscription act. I’ll get around to the “legal authority” part later.

We don’t know if the brothers moved to Harpers Ferry, or to another location within either Jefferson or Berkeley County. They were both cabinet makers, so… did they have enough business dealings across the state line as to find themselves in an awkward and unwanted situation, that they ended-up being “pressed” into Virginia’s service?

In those two sentences, we’ve just covered two of several different paths/possibilities. This is where we can only begin to speculate, and what more is there to do in the absence of details?

Several times in this blog, over the past few years, I’ve said, in the absence of details, we can only begin to consider a range of possibilities, and it is no different for the Suter brothers.

However, actually, all the details aren’t missing…

While we can’t explain how these two Marylanders (both were listed living with their parents in Hagerstown, in the 1860 census) ended up on the muster rolls of Virginia units in Harpers Ferry, we can see from their service records in the Confederate army that something was “out of whack” with their connection to these units.

It appears particularly troublesome when we look at Charles’ record… being AWOL before he was even listed as “enlisted”, and then arrested, and “mustered-in” by the end of June, 1861. Whether he feigned illness or not, he wasn’t in the field with the unit very long after being mustered-in, and was soon listed as “absent sick”, and received a discharge by November. Nine months later, Charles enlisted in the 7th Maryland (Union) Infantry, and, in less than three weeks of enlisting, began his climb through the ranks to 1st lieutenant. We have nothing to show for certain, but Charles appears to be a rather solid Unionist who simply found himself in rather undesirable circumstances in May, 1861.

Thomas is a little more difficult to figure out, and really, this is where another comment from Professor Clemens comes to mind…

He certainly might have claimed to have been forced into service, if I were captured and facing prison I might have taken the same tack, but that does not make it true.

While I do wonder if there might be a possibility that Thomas enlisted of his own free will, in May, 1861, I also wonder if he really “flipped” so easily because he faced a POW camp. Quite honestly, based on what I’ve seen transcribing multiple unit rosters over the years, that would be rather unusual, so early on in the war. To me, actually, taking the oath may have just been the aftermath of coming in to the first opportunity to break away. Apparently, he kept his nose clean long enough to land a 34 day furlough… but did he plan things that way, in order to get away from the Confederate army? There’s nothing to say one way or the other, but, I believe, by looking at his brother, it might… just maybe… give us a hint of another range of factors that were present for Thomas, in February, 1862.  I do know that, for a captured Confederate to take the oath in March, 1862… something, certainly, could have been at work… and while a desire to stay out of pow camp may have been one consideration, there are more factors present that suggest other possibilities.

So, what about the “legal authority”?

Frankly, circumstances in Jefferson and Berkeley County, in 1861, were such that it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see two Maryland men in odd enough circumstances in Virginia to find themselves unwillingly in the ranks of Confederate units. All we need to do is turn to David Hunter Strother’s accounts, and… since the story about Thomas C. Suter comes out of the Hagerstown newspaper… I’ve seen that very newspaper mention the unlawful activities that took place, just right across the Potomac.

Oh well… looks like this became a little longer than a “quick note”.

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