How Are You, Conscript?
DESCRIPTION: "How are you, conscript? Oh, how are you today? The provost marshal's got you In a very tight spot, they say, Unless you've got three hundred greenbacks To pony up and pay."
EARLIEST DATE: 1977 (Peters-FolkSongsOutOfWisconsin); collected c. 1941 and printed in a broadside of c. 1863
KEYWORDS: soldier money Civilwar
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Peters-FolkSongsOutOfWisconsin, pp. 233-234, "How Are You, Conscript?" (1 fragment, 1 tune)
Wolf-AmericanSongSheets, #377, p. 25, "Conscript, How Are You?" (2 references); compare #910, p. 61, "How Are You? Conscript!! Hop De Doodle Doo" (1 reference)
NOTES [777 words]: Although the text in Peters-FolkSongsOutOfWisconsin does not say so, there is no doubt but that this song refers to the American Civil War draft; Wolf, p. 25, cites two versions of "Conscript How Are You?" "As sung by D. McConahy, the Razor Powder Man." Another listing, on p. 61, credits "How are you? Conscript!! Hop de Doodle Doo" to Don Felix, with an 1863 date, but I cannot be sure whether these are the same song.
Both sides in the Civil War eventually turned to conscription -- the South very early, in 1862 (Boatner, p. 172), the North rather later, in 1863. But both sides offered exceptions -- in the South, e.g., an overseer of a large number of slaves was exempted.
In the North, to which this song clearly refers, the goal was to provide a carrot and stick: If possible, to spur voluntary enlistment rather than bringing in actual draftees (Anders, p. 424) -- as well as to induce the states to produce soldiers in numbers roughly proportionate to their populations (Randall/Donald, p. 314). But this meant that not everyone whose number was called would be forced to join the army. Theoretically, all men from ages 20 to 45 were subject to the draft and to service of up to three years (Randall/Donald, p. 314).
But there were three legal escape routes. One was to be exempted for some cause, usually due to having a dependent with no other means of support or perhaps physical incapacity. The table on p. 604 of McPherson shows that, in several typical districts, between a third and half of those called up were "exempted for cause." (Throw in the one-sixth to one-quarter of the draftees who failed to report, fleeing instead to Canada or the west, and fewer than half those who were called actually made it to the stage of having to decide what to do next.)
That still didn't mean that a man had to join the military. As Catton puts it on p. 206, "built into [the draft law] was a rule that a man with money could not be compelled to go into the army." There were two ways to buy one's way out. One was to hire a substitute -- that is, to induce another man to enlist in your place and pay the cost. This led to a large-scale business in "substitute brokering." It was a very bad business (many substitutes were recent immigrants -- some of them just off the boats -- who were not subject to the draft because they were not citizens; most of the rest were drunks or otherwise worthless). It was expensive, too -- hiring a substitute often took on the order of $1000 in the South (McPherson, p. 603) but at least it finally settled a man's draft status.
A Northern man who did not hire a substitute could still get a deferment by paying a commutation fee of $300 (Anders, p. 424) -- the purpose of this, in fact, was to hold down the price of substitutes (McPherson, p. 603). This did not spare him from future drafts, just kept him out of the army until the next draft call. But with substitutes hard to find, it was better than nothing. It was also exceptionally unfair; $300 was a substantial fraction of a year's earnings for a laborer (Catton, p. 206) -- and more than twice the annual pay of a private who was paid $13 per month (Boatner, p. 624), and that in greenbacks which were usually depreciated.
The result was actual rebellion against the draft laws in some areas of the North (Catton, p. 163), as well as severe draft riots in New York City (Randall/Donald, pp. 315-316). Damage estimates for the riots run from $400,000 up to six times that, and some sources say a thousand people were killed (Catton, p. 207).
To prevent such violence, some governments actually started paying people's commutation fees (McPherson, p. 604). In most areas, those who managed to escape the army vastly exceeded those who were inducted (McPherson, p. 604), and the ones who did join were those with the least clout.
Naturally those on the front lines resented those who stayed behind, and those who volunteered for the armies had a low opinion both of those who avoided the draft and of the draftees and substitutes. This war, even more than most others, was a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight" (McPherson, p. 602).
The rule regarding commutation (although not that regarding substitutes) was so unpopular that it was repealed in 1864 (McPherson, p. 601 n. 22), so this song could only have been written in 1863 or 1864.
The provost marshal, mentioned in the song, was the officer responsible for enforcing the law. All significant Union armies had one, as did the local districts, and the provost marshal was responsible for enrolling those of eligible age (McPherson, p. 600) and for drawing the names for the draft (Boatner, p. 245). - RBW
Last updated in version 3.5
- Anders: Curt Anders, Hearts in Conflict:a One-Volume History of the Civil War, 1994 (I use the 1999 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Boatner: Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary, 1959 (there are many editions of this very popular work; mine is a Knopf hardcover)
- Catton: Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat (being the third volume of The Centennial History of the Civil War), Doubleday, 1965 (I use the 1976 Pocket Books edition)
- McPherson: James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (The Oxford History of the United States: The Civil War Era), Oxford, 1988
- Randall/Donald: J. G. Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction, second edition by David Donald, Heath, 1961
- Wolf: Edwin Wolf 2nd, American Song Sheets, Slip Ballads, and Political Broadsides 1850-1870, Library Company of Philadelphia, 1963
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