Grover Cleveland at age twenty-five had been elected to Buffalo’s Second Ward; at twenty-seven he was appointed assistant district attorney of Erie County (Buffalo) and prepped for a long career in New York machine politics. As Lincoln targeted Democrats in New York with his conscription act of March 1, 1863, Cleveland was swept up in it — but already had a substitute to serve in his stead.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org
Grover Finds a Substitute
“[Said an editorial in the Buffalo Courier]: “Mr. Cleveland is one of the most promising young members of the bar, is a thoroughly read lawyer, and possesses talent of a high order.”
[Cleveland’s job of district attorney] paid half what he earned in private practice . . . should Grover be conscripted was an unthinkable prospect and unanswerable question – until Abraham Lincoln took up a pen to sign into law the Conscription Act of March 3, 1863.
Its provisions allowed draft eligible men to buy their way out of serving by paying $300 for “commutation,” or by furnishing a substitute. When the conscription procedure began with the drawings of names in May, Grover’s was chosen on the first day.
But he was ready: He had found a substitute in the person of a Great Lakes seaman named George Brinske, also known as Benninsky. Had Grover wished, as assistant district attorney he could have found an almost limitless roster of substitutes among discharged convicts or friendless men accused of a crime who would have gladly chosen army life over imprisonment.
Satisfied with the financial arrangement offered him ($150), Benninsky was sworn into the army at Fort Porter on July 6, 1863. Serving with the Seventy-sixth New York Regiment on the Rappahannock River in Virginia, he injured his back (not in combat) and served as an orderly in a military hospital in Washington, DC, for the remainder of the war.
When another local election loomed in 1865, [Grover] offered himself to Buffalo voters as the Democratic candidate for Erie County district attorney. His declaration has promptly hailed by the [Buffalo] Courier . . . “he is a young man . . . who, by his unaided exertions, has gained a high position at the bar, and whose character is above reproach.”
(An Honest President: the Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland, H. Paul Jeffers, HarperCollins, 2000, excerpts pp. 28- 31)