Confederate Conscript Hunters!

I’ve mentioned them before, but conscript hunters presented a horror of war to Southern Unionists that I believe we cannot come close to understanding.

Conscript hunters had a difficult duty to perform. Not only were they to gather up those who had not yet volunteered for Confederate service and yet were age-eligible (under anyone of the three different conscript acts passed by the Confederate government), they were also tasked with finding and bringing back Confederate deserters; but that doesn’t excuse the zeal of some of these men in doing their work.

Even among non-Southern Unionists, the conscript hunter was no welcome character. In a letter written by John J. Moyer (1855-1940) of Page County, Virginia in 1924, a time was recalled when some might think a conscript officer had a perfect opportunity to recruit men for the Confederate service. In speaking of the “unhappy days of the sixties,” Moyer wrote that

…some of the experiences of the people in and around Luray when it was reported that Shields’ army was coming in this direction from New Market. He says that a number of persons went toward the top of the Massanutten mountains and catching a glimpse of the invading army the Luray and Page people, seeing that they were doubtless outnumbered many times, beat a retreat, those who lived in Luray not even stopping at their homes but pressing hard in the direction of ‘The Pinnacle,’ at that time a friendly knob at the top of the Blue Ridge several miles east of the home of Mrs. Bettie Sours, in the Printz Mill neighborhood. There was a conscript officer sent out by the Confederate army looking for conscripts and this officer was in Luray at that time. He went with the Luray and Page people to the ‘Pinnacle,’ and there tried his hand at he conscription business. The local folk, Mr. Moyer said, didn’t take very kindly to the idea and were getting ready to make quick dispatch of the officer, even having a rope around his neck and being ready to string him up. About this time, Jonathan Rowe [1810-1884], of this county, intervened in behalf of the officer and persuaded the men who were bent upon his destruction to desist.

Page County historian Jacob H. Coffman (1852-1939) also had a story about conscript hunters writing,

Now I know there’s but few living today that remember the days of the Conscript Hunter, as they were called at this time. They were men detailed from army to hunt up and take back to army deserters – that is soldiers who after many applications failed to get a furlough to visit their homes would take what they called ‘French leave’ that meant to run off.

I know a man who had recently been raised to the rank of Lieut. and was in charge of a squad of Conscript Hunters and he was disliked by many for the power he exercised in this office. One night a notice was put up at what was called the Butterwood Gate [near the Jacob C. Kite house and stage stop known as Mt. Hope], called so from the fact that it was hung on a butterwood tree. The notice was nailed up with wooden pegs and as I passed the place the next day I found near the tree, a fine 6-bladed pen knife which must have been used to make the wooden pegs the notice was tacked up with. The notice was to the effect that if the Lieutenant and his men did not leave the county they would be killed. Whether the warning had the desired effect I never learned.

Got any stories of conscript hunters to share?

Take a look also at this story about Chrisley Nicholson and his encounters with Confederate conscription hunters. Nicholson, by the way, was my third great grand uncle.

7 Responses to “Confederate Conscript Hunters!”

  1. I haven’t a record as to the tenacity with which Grandpa Jones might have pursued his career in the Confederate army, but he was known to be a thorough man, so he may have even strayed to the vein of “conscript hunter.”

    • That’s something that I would like to investigate more. I’ve never checked, but it seems as if there might be records on the activities of the conscript hunters, perhaps reports. I wonder if someone knows more about this type of thing.

      On a similar note, I’d also love to find a list of exemptions and why each received the exemption. I think it might help Southern Unionist research a little more.

  2. I just located information that Texas might have some conscription records, including lists of exeptions and reasons for exeption. According to a general description of the information contained in the record for the Adjutant General of Texas State Troops, records for this, as well as numbers of able-bodied men in various areas of the state and AWOL soldiers for state militia units stationed in Texas throughout the war are in the record. A description of the contents of the record can be found at:

    http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/tslac/30021/tsl-30021.html

    These records are maintained by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and are housed in Austin.

    If Texas has them, surely other states do as well.

  3. Mark Hubbs Says:

    I’ve enjoyed this blog. Lots of great information here that is not presented in mainstream histories.

    I have a few question regarding the “mechanics” of conscription. What was the process of conscripting soldiers? I’ve found no period accoundts of how this was accomplished.

    Was a notice or letter sent first indicating when and where they should report, or did the Conscript Hunters simply show up a the door step and require immediate removal from the home?

    Was any time provided to gather belongings?

    I’ve heard of conscript “Camps of Instruction” were they were taken before being assigned to units. Was this the norm?

    Thanks for any light you can shed on these questions.

    Mark Hubbs
    Huntsville, AL

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for commenting.

      There were three different Confederate conscription acts, each one widening the age range for eligibility for military service. I think we see one impact that he had by the number of men who enlisted just prior to the enforcement. It was a social tool in that many men didn’t want to be embarrased by the arrival of conscript patrols to force them away from the home. Enlisting prior to being carried off by the conscript hunters also was the one way Southerners could guarantee they wouldn’t get placed in a unit not of their choosing, among other men they did not know.

      Otherwise, enforcement of conscription is an interesting study in itself and highly resented by the common Southerner… thus the idea of the rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight. Conscript patrols were typically hated bodies of men. Many of thee patrols resulted to some hard tactics to grab those men who were eligible (but had yet to enlist), take them, and place them in the local jail (sometimes) until a number of men were assembled to be sent off to the conscription terminus (different places in different states, but Camp Lee was a popular site in Virginia). At that point, they were placed in different units. Now, this is just one example and I’m primarily in the know about Virginia units, so I can’t vouch completely for what happened in other Southern states. I’m currently reading a good book about dissention in Georgia, which reflects more social class turmoil than what I am familiar with in Virginia.

      Another part of the conscription picture were exemptions, through which many a able-bodied man was able to avoid active duty or any military duty at all. Militia and reserve units were also a haven for those who were not fully supportive of the Confederacy and/or were simply trying to find a way to stay at home and look after that which was far more important… their families.

      Time to gather belonging? I doubt it. Most of the incidents I have read about were rather brutal. I know of one in which a wife used a frying pan to ward off the conscript men, but to no avail… they took her husband…

      I would imagine there were “Camps of Instruction” for conscripts who were finally wrangled into the army, but how long those camps actually were, I can’t say. I doubt they spent a great deal of time training as the main thrust was to get men in the ranks asap.

      I can recommend a few books if you would like to learn more.

  4. JW Williams Says:

    I have just read an article entitle “Civil war and Reconstruction in Alabama” which put a whole new light on the people. their feelings as to the war and conscription of soldiers. Most interesting. About the most honest and direct history I have seen. My problem is locating the soldiers after leaving their Camp Of Instruction. One record I found stated rec’d food at their Camp for a total of one day….so weren’t there long. Another listed !st Al Conscripts….altho I have noticed other units stating had added soldiers from the conscript camps.

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