On the Edge of Discovery: Witness to the Civil War Draft

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Alonzo Jefferis in 1870.

Originally posted June 20, 2012

On October 16, 1862 teenager Alonzo Jefferis described a moment significant in county and state history – the draft for the Chester County Militia.

He wrote: “Today is the day appointed by the Governor for the draft; it was to have been some time in August but they could not get every thing ready. I went over to the Court House at noon to see them drafting. They had a round box, like a barrel with a rod running through it, something like a churn. They had the names of all the enrolled persons in this box. Sheriff H… would then turn the box around so as to shuffle the names; while another man blindfolded would put in his hand and draw out one of the names; then Mr. H. would read it, and Mr. Haines would write his notice, while others took the name down for the papers. While I was there they drafted a couple of laborers; a farmer; a lock-tender, a nurseryman, and what I understood him to say, a thresher.”

Alonzo Jefferis was a curious 15 year-old, whose father, banker William W. Jefferis encouraged his son’s engagement in community life.

The Village Record newspaper of October 21, 1862 described the scene Jefferis witnessed with Sheriff Heffelfinger churning the barrel and a blindfolded William McCormick drawing out the names.  In an instant the lives of those chosen were changed forever. Names were drawn township by township. It was reported that Henry Benner of North Coventry was the first Chester County man drafted.

The draft was instituted in Pennsylvania by Governor Curtin in summer 1862 to raise troops to protect the state. Nervous residents who lived along the Mason-Dixon Line appreciated this news.

The draft worked on a system of quotas from each municipality that took into consideration the number of men already serving from that area. Of the eligible men between the ages of 18 and 45, some were exempted on account of their essential positions. Those exempted included ministers, school directors, post masters, US Assessors, locomotive engineers and telegraph operators. Others were exempted on account of disability, such as loss of fingers, limbs or teeth. Still others were conscientious objectors, who registered on account of religious beliefs. Names of all the exempted men and conscientious objectors were published in the newspaper.

The men eligible to the draft could avoid service by paying for a substitute to go in his place. According to the regulations, the substitute then fulfilled the draftee’s duties and could not be drafted. However the draftee’s name could be called for any subsequent drafts.

Paying a substitute was expensive for that time - costing from $100-$500 dollars. A story in the October 28, 1862 Village Record reported that the draft put some men in impossible situations. One unnamed draftee was a laborer who had a deathly sick wife and five small children under the age of nine. In this circumstance, the man’s neighbors pooled their funds to purchase a substitute.

Some substitutes who to tried making a career of collecting the fee and then skipping to the next county to substitute again, soon found themselves in hot water as deserters.

In Chester County 1150 men were drafted for 9 months service. Each man was told to report to the Camp Wayne at the old Agricultural Fair Grounds in West Chester with a blanket and a tin cup. They were sent by rail to Camp Philadelphia for training on October 30, 1862.

To learn more about the draftees and substitutes experiences and how their lives changed, be sure to put October 18, 2012 on your calendar for the opening of “On The Edge of Battle: Chester County and the Civil War.”  Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist