Divided by Conscription
By April 1862 the Confederacy was in dire straits in regards to its armies and its ability to fight a war that had become lengthier than had been originally been expected. Fewer and fewer men enlisted to fight, and, to make matters worse, a tremendous number of Confederate soldiers were nearing the end of their year-long enlistment with no intention of re-enlisting. (Hilderman, 19-21) The first week of that month also saw the Battle of Shiloh, the bloodiest and most costly battle at that point in the war, and it was expected that Yorktown would soon fall as well. (Hilderman, 22) With all of this in mind, Jefferson Davis signed into law the Conscription Acts on April 16, 1862 – the first of its kind in American history. The act automatically enlisted every man between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five into the Confederate Army, and extended the enlistment of those already in the army by another two years. Not surprisingly, this bill became a major topic in newspapers in the months that followed, and can be seen as the first major point of contention between the Weekly Raleigh Register and the Raleigh Weekly Standard. On one side, the Register supported the Confederate government in passing the bill as a necessary measure, with the Standard became openly outraged and critical of the act as a violation of states’ rights.
The Weekly Raleigh Register’s support for the Conscription Act manifested in the newspaper’s decision to downplay the significance of the bill in its articles. For example, on April 16, 1862, the day Jefferson Davis signed the bill, the Register only ran a very short article on its second page in regards to the event. In just two short paragraphs the Register reported only that the new bill, conscripting all persons between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, had passed through the Senate, and that it was expected to pass through the House as well. (Item 572) On that same day the Standard ran a lengthy article on what conscription would mean to the people, how it had failed in the past. (Item 570) The Standard even questioned the power of the Confederate national government to pass such a bill. The Standard wrote, “It is compulsory military service, and one of the most tremendous engines of military despotism.”
In articles that followed, the Register supported conscription as a necessary act for the protection of the Confederacy, and by July it began attacking the unsupportive voice of the Standard. Each newspaper published articles about conscription on July 23, 1862. Holden’s Standard published, “The Conscription”, which criticizes conscription as being an unfairly heavy burden on the poor. (Item 569) The article published by the Register that day was entitled “The Conscript Law- Holden’s Physic Working.” This article states that dissatisfaction with the Conscription Act sprung from Holden’s Weekly Standard. (Item 571) It is interesting and important to note that this article also states that dissatisfaction was growing in Forsythe, Yadkin, and Randolph counties, which suggests widespread readership of the Standard beyond the boundaries of just Wake County where the paper was based. These articles and many others like them show that the Standard and the Register stood at odds with one another over the issue of conscription.