While it is generally reported that black recruits in the occupied Sea Islands of South Carolina flocked to the Union standard, the truth is that many ran from Northern State agents sent to enlist them for their State quota of troops. While many enlisted voluntarily, it was due to generous enlistment bounties offered, much of which stuck to the recruiter’s hands, and the possibility of being forced into service or shot for refusal. During the war the Northern States paid nearly $300,000,000 in bounties for recruits to fill the blue ranks.
The writers below were ardent antislavery New England men at Port Royal, both Harvard men just out of college. Their 1864 observations are telling.
Capturing Sea Island Volunteers
“The next group of letters returns to the subject of Negro recruitment. By this time various Northern States, in despair of finding enough men at home to make out the number of recruits required of them by the general Government, were getting hold of Southern Negroes for the purpose, and their agents had appeared in the Department of the South, competing for freedmen with offers of large bounties. At the same time, General Foster made up his mind that all able-bodied Negroes who refused to volunteer, even under these [bounties], should be forced into the service. If the conscription methods of the Government up to this time had not been brutal, certainly no one can deny that adjective to the present operations.
Aug. 9. Lieutenant-Colonel Rice, agent for Massachusetts, has come. After looking about a little, he does not think the prospect of getting recruits very brilliant, but his agents are at work in Beaufort streets, and may pick up a few men. He intends to send native scouts on to the main to beat up recruits; $35 a man is offered for all they will bring in.
Colonel Rice intended to come down here to-day, but had to go and see General [John G.] Foster and Colonel [Milton] Littlefield, Superintendent of Recruiting. (He, Colonel L., calls it recruiting to conscript all he can lay hands on.) There is to be, not a draft, but a wholesale conscription, enforced here. Lieutenant-Colonel Strong of the First South [Carolina Colored Volunteers] (Thirty-third USCT) enrolled all colored men last month.
It is possible, if the men can be made to understand this, that a few can be induced to volunteer, but I hardly think than many will be secured, either by enlistment or draft.
Sept 23. They are carrying out the draft with excessive severity, not to say horrible cruelty. Last night three [black] men were shot, — one killed, one wounded fatally, it is thought, and the other disappeared over the boat’s side and has not been seen since, — shot as they were trying to escape the guard sent to capture all men who have not been exempted by the military surgeons. The draft here is mere conscription, — every able-bodied man is compelled to serve, — and many not fit for military service are forced to work in the quartermaster’s department.
Oct. 12. You ask more about the draft. The severity of the means employed to enforce it is certainly not to be justified, nor do the authorities attempt to do so, — after the act is done. The draft is carried on by military, not civil, powers. We have no civil laws, courts, officers, etc. The only [lawful] agents to be employed are necessarily soldiers, and the only coercion is necessarily that of guns and arbitrary arrests.
The Massachusetts recruiting agents, of course, have nothing to do with enforcing the draft. But their presence seems to have increased its activity and their bounty money contributes to its success.
(Letters From Port Royal: Written at the Time of the Civil War, Elizabeth Ware Pearson, editor, W.B. Clarke Company, 1906, excerpts pp. 281-284)