[CIVIL WAR]. PRESTON, John(1809-1881), Brigadier General, U. S. A. Autograph letter signed to Col. James Chestnut, 6 January 1863. 4 pp., 4to.
"LOW, MEAN AND DIRTY WORK..." ENFORCING THE CONFEDERATE DRAFT LAWS
It's not surprising to see John Preston boiling with anger over "this d----d conscription, which is a grand thing in its principle and policy, but low, mean and dirty work as the Department proposes to execute it." It was a problem that bedeviled both sides during the Civil War, with massive evasion, resistance, corruption and inequality the norm. Wealthy men availed themselves of the time-honored custom of paying a substitute, many of whom made a thriving living collecting bounties, deserting, then offering their patriotic services somewhere else, staying one step ahead of the law. The north at least capped the price of bounties at $300, but in the more laissez-faire South, the open market ruled, causing the cost to climb over $1,000. There the war truly was a "rich man's war but a poor man's fight." But ordinary citizens on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line reacted angrily to conscription. The great anti-draft riot in New York City in 1863 compelled Lincoln to shift heavy guns from Gettysburg to the streets of Manhattan to quell the anarchy. For Southerners--who became desperate enough to consider drafting and arming their remaining slaves in 1865--the coercion of conscription militated against the essence of Confederate faith in limited national powers.
A Virginian who had attended Harvard, Preston served with Beauregard in Charleston and the Manassas campaign, then was named assistant adjutant general in August 1861 and placed in charge of recruitment efforts in Charleston. He ran a conscript depot in Columbia in January 1862 so effectively that Secretary of War Seddon urged Jefferson Davis to name Preston the head of the Bureau of Conscription in Richmond. By December 1863, he was given control over Confederate conscription in the western theatres as well as the east. "He acted with a vigor, initiative, and independence that at times involved him in controversies from which he regularly emerged victorious" (DAB). He fled to England after Appomattox, but returned and remained "completely unreconstructed."