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Interpreting the Evidence

Draft Wheel, c. 1861

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 - 1877)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Civil War

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Draft Wheel, c. 1861 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
A draft wheel used in Provost Marshall's office to draft soldiers during the Civil War, circa 1861. The wheel was used to randomly select names of men to be drafted into the Army.
Historical Context
The Confederate States imposed the first military draft in American history on April 16, 1862. Barely one year later, the Union passed its own conscription laws. Both sides raised more animosity for their respective causes than troops.

The draft had exceptions. If you paid $300, you were excused from duty. Or you could hire a substitute to serve in your place. Many people bribed medical doctors to diagnose them as unfit for duty due to physical impairments. These exceptions, which were used in both the Federal and Confederate Armies, favored the rich. Accusations of class discrimination were abundant and obviously correct. In 1863, there were even riots in New York protecting the draft. Since substitution was completely legal, although not necessarily just, some famous people in American history survived the war by paying substitutes. Grover Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller, and George Templeton Strong all avoided combat.

The Federal Army considered men between the ages of twenty and forty-five eligible for service. The Confederate Army expected men ages seventeen through fifty to report for duty. In the end, the draft caused much discontent among civilians and military men. In the Federal Army, of the 249,259 men drafted, less than 6% (under 15,000) served.

Essential Question
How does war change a society?
Check for Understanding
Describe the object in the photograph and evaluate the impact of this item on local communities.
Historical Challenges
What other American wars relied on a military draft?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: If 1,289 men have already been drafted, and the military needs 200 more men, what percentage of the available men would be called to service?
Science: What communication devices were available during the Civil War?
English Writing Arts: Write a persuasive journal entry supporting or discrediting a military draft.