Timeline: Conscription in the United States, 1620-Present

Does the U.S. still have the draft? Were there actually draft riots in America? Did half of George Washington's army really quit?

A timeline of the history of military conscription, often referred to as "the draft," in the United States. Complete and comprehensive, the chronology includes detailed overviews of conscription practices in the eras of various major and minor American military and wartime actions from the Colonial period to present day. Includes current information on Selective Service postponements, deferrals, and exemptions.

Timeline of Conscription in the U.S. – Colonial Era to Present

Colonial Era (1620-1774)
  • In times of need, each colony calls to arms all adult male citizens who group together to form colonial militias.
Revolutionary War Era (1774-1789)
  • A regular army is raised by offering enlisted men cash bonuses and a promise of free western land after the war is over. This system, however, does not attract enough men and enlistments often run out before battles are over.
  • General George Washington is forced to call on state militias, made up of poorly trained and led citizens who often leave service at inopportune times to return home and tend to their farms.
  • Once he becomes president, Washington tries to remedy the inadequacy of the nation's military system by proposing legislation that men be registered for service and assigned to military units for training.
  • Congress passes neither this nor similar such legislation later proposed by Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.
War of 1812 (1812-1815)
  • A regular army is authorized by Congress. Recruitment efforts include thirteen-month enlistment periods, a sixteen-dollar sign-up bonus and the promise of three months' pay and one hundred sixty acres of land upon discharge.
  • Despite these enticements, the army is never effectively recruited and Congress authorizes President James Monroe to call up one hundred thousand state militia.
  • Some states refuse to order any men to be sent out and the soldiers who do serve are largely untrained and frequently unwilling to face the enemy.
Mexican War (1846-1848)
  • The one-year enlistment period of large numbers of American troops under General Winfield Scott expires just as he is moving into Mexico City. Military action must wait until replacement troops arrive.
U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)

The Confederate Army enlists volunteer troops for one-year stints while troops for the North enlist for periods of three or nine months. Again, this often means loss of precious manpower at inopportune moments. Eventually, each side turns to conscription as a means of keeping its armies in place after enlistment periods end.

  • North
    • In March 1863, the Northern Army begins its Civil War conscription when Congress gives President Lincoln the authority to require draft registration by all able-bodied men between the ages of twenty and forty-five, regardless of their marital status or profession.
    • To avoid military service, however, substitute soldiers are permitted to be hired and for a $300 fee, draft exemptions can be bought, proving the system to be unfair and unpopular.
    • Many northern businessmen whose livelihoods benefit from southern slavery resist service and the Governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, himself declares the conscription act unconstitutional.
    • On July 13, 1863, an angry mob sets off the four-day New York City Draft Riots by seizing the 2nd Avenue Armory and interrupting the selection of registrants' names.
    • Abolitionists' homes, conscription offices and city buildings are burned, shops are looted, and blacks, along with anyone refusing to join the marauders, are tortured. About one thousand people die. New York troops are called back from Gettysburg to quell the riot and Gov. Seymour finally urges compliance with the draft.

    • In 1864, the Northern draft is amended to allow buyouts by conscientious objectors only.

  • South
    • The Confederacy passes its conscription law in April 1862. Three years of military service is required from all white men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, excepting those legally exempted. Exemptions are numerous, leading to widespread non-compliance of the draft; substitutes are allowed to be hired at any set price.
    • Poor morale and insufficient numbers of troops result. Later, the age limit for draftees is amended to include men between seventeen and fifty, and in 1865 the Confederate Army begins to conscript slaves.
Spanish-American War (1898)
  • Congress declares that all males between eighteen and forty-five are subject to military duty.
1917 (May)
  • Congress passes the Selective Service Act, establishing local, district, state, and territorial civilian boards to register, classify, examine, and either induct and ship out or defer men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty for service in World War I.
  • There is much opposition to this draft: during the first drawing, 50,000 men apply for exemptions and over 250,000 fail to register at all. In one round-up held in New York City in 1918 to catch those who failed to report, 16,000 men are arrested.
  • After the war's end, efforts to set up standard military training and service are defeated in Congress.
  • The National Defense Act establishes a system of voluntary recruitment.


1940 (November)
  • Congress enacts the Selective Training and Service Act. All males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five are ordered to register for the draft and the first national lottery is held. Draftees are shipped to army induction centers in the country's first peacetime draft.
  • Later, as World War II progresses,the draft age is lowered to eighteen and men are called to service not by lottery number but by age, with the oldest going first.
  • Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress gives the president power to send draftees any where in the world, removing the distinctions between draftees, regulars, National Guard and Reservists, and creating one army made up of all.

1947 (January)
  • President Harry S. Truman recommends to Congress that the 1940 Selective Training and Service Act expire and that the level of required military forces be maintained by means of voluntary enlistments.
1948 (March)
  • In the wake of the escalating Cold War, President Truman asks that the draft be reinstated as the level of military forces falls below necessary numbers. The new Selective Service Act provides for the drafting of men between nineteen and twenty-six for twelve months of active service.
  • The Korean War draft, which exempts World War II veterans, calls up men between the ages of eighteen-and-a-half and thirty-five for terms of duty averaging two years.
1951 (June)
  • The Universal Military Training and Service Act is passed, requiring males between eighteenand twenty-six to register.
  • Congress enacts the Reserve Forces Act, compelling every man who is drafted or enlisted to an eight-year obligation to military service. After a term of active duty is completed, one is assigned to standby reserve and can be called back to active duty upon a declaration of war or national emergency.
  • Opposition to the war in Vietnam leads to calls for draft reform and/or the complete elimination of Selective Service. For the first time since the Civil War, anti-draft demonstrations, particularly on college campuses and at induction centers, surface and proliferate.
  • In its U.S. v. Seeger decision, the Supreme Court broadens the definition of conscientious objection to include religious beliefs nontraditional and non-theistic in nature.
  • In response to anti-war sentiment, President Lyndon Johnson appoints a special study commission to recommend changes in the Selective Service structure.
  • During this period, the number of conscientious objectors recognized by Selective Service grows two-and-a-half times and thousands of young men either destroy their draft cards or leave the country to avoid the draft.
  • President Nixon orders the "nineteen-year-old draft": if a young man is not drafted at age nineteen, he will be exempt from future military service except in the event of war or national emergency.
  • Deferrals are allowed for hardship cases, certain occupations, conscientious objectors, clergymen, and high school and college students. Student deferments are a loaded issue, and one year later Nixon will argue in favor of ending them.
  • President Nixon orders a "random selection" lottery system for selecting men to serve in the war in Vietnam, changing the previous system of drafting according to age.
  • In U.S. v. Welsh, the Supreme Court adds sincerely held ethical and moral beliefs to the definition of allowable grounds for conscientious draft objection.
  • The 1967 Selective Service Act, extended through an act of Congress in 1971, expires, ending the authority to induct draft registrants.
  • The Selective Service System again becomes active, following the passage of legislation to reinstate draft registration without authorizing induction.
  • At this time, the U.S. operates under an all-volunteer armed forces policy. All male citizens between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, however, are required to register for the draft and are liable for training and service until the age of thirty-five.
  • In the event of a draft, men registered with Selective Service will be called according to a random lottery and/or year of birth.
  • Postponements, deferrals, and exemptions are still available for a variety of circumstances, including education status (high school and college enrollees receive postponements), conscientious objection, hardship (family support), ministerial obligations, and holding some type of elected office.
  • Veterans and those who are surviving sons or brothers of parents who died in military service are exempt from the draft.

Excerpted from American History Teacher's Book of Lists.

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