Landmark Object: The Civil War Draft Wheel

As part of the Political History collections at the National Museum of American History, the Draft Wheel is an object that demonstrates the very beginning of conscription in the United States. It functioned as part of a procedure to select men for military service. The names of men eligible for the draft were written on slips of paper and dropped into a hole on the side of the wheel. The hole was covered and the wheel was turned. An official pulled out names to fill the ranks of the Union army.

Conscription was first used during the Civil War (1861-1865) to fuel the war effort and has remained a part of civil service ever since. Established in the South in 1862 for men between ages 18 and 35 and one year later in the North for men between ages 20 and 45, the soldiers were obliged to three years of military service. Most of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were volunteers or draftees unable to pay a substitute to go in their stead.

The lower class was particularly against the system of substitution, in which draftees had the possibility to pay a substitute to fight the war in their stead. The anger with the system provoked four days of riots in New York in 1863. Freed blacks were unfairly targeted as the cause of the war and several were beaten to death or lynched by the mobs; a black orphanage and church were set on fire. When the Emancipation Proclamation was made in the North, it included a provision opening enlistment in the military to African American men. More than 185,000 African American volunteers took up the call and fought to liberate those still held in slavery.

The wheel was transferred from the War Department to the Smithsonian Institution in 1919. It is six feet in diameter and 25 inches deep with one axle. The wheel itself weights 104 pounds and is completely made of wood. The draft wheel is currently on display as the landmark object of the museum’s East Wing on the third floor.