The business of war is profitable, that’s what they say. That could be true for those companies manufacturing guns, vehicles, and all those other necessary war supplies. As for the soldiers, you’ve probably seen the meme about marrying them just because of their Tricare. Who would’ve thought that during the American Civil War, it was the men who profited off the war? Known as bounty jumpers, they would enlist, receive the money, and the desert only to reenlist elsewhere and receive another payment. Here’s how they exploited the system and got away with it.
The Bounty Jumpers
In the American Civil War era, the system was not as organized and solid yet, and not everything was tracked yet either through personal records or CCTVs. One of its flaws was that it was okay to pay someone to enlist in your place, and this was permitted both on the Union and Confederate sides. The logic being was that allowing these men to pay others to enlist in the place would result in more soldiers enlisting.
The Conscription Act of 1863, sponsored by Senator Henry Wilson, “provided an exemption for those who could pay a $300 fee,” and many people criticized it, arguing that it punished the poor and interfered with the states’ rights. The maximum fees differed depending on the area: in the Northern area was where the $300 allowed, roughly $9000 in today’s money. Other areas in the south offered a bit lower fees from $50 up to $100.
Thus, bounty jumpers started to hop out. They would enlist themselves for other people, take the bounty, desert, and then enlist elsewhere. They were a bigger problem for the Union than for the Confederates. New York City was among the popular to-go place for anyone seeking someone to serve in their place. At one time, they estimated up to 3,000 professional bounty jumpers were operating in the city.
Punishable by Death
Bounty jumping was an enticing business, especially for those whose incomes and livelihoods were disrupted by the ongoing war, although that wouldn’t justify them committing a crime, of course. And just like any other crime, it was punishable by law. Desertion was a problem at that time for both the Confederacy and the Union, so desertion became a serious offense punishable by death. Even so, executions for that reason were rarely carried out. They needed soldiers, and it would be easier to send them back to the battlefield than to execute them.
For bounty jumpers, however, it was a different story. They needed to set an example and discourage those who were planning or already doing it, so those caught were usually tortured and executed.
It is not known how many were caught or punished. However, one group of five paid the ultimate price after enlisting with the 118th Pennsylvania Regiment and deserting shortly afterward. The five were captured and, despite making appeals for clemency to President Lincoln, they were executed. One of those caught was James Develin, who, in 1865, made the grave mistake of abandoning his wife for another woman. In retaliation, his wife snitched him out, he was executed at Governor’s Island.
Efforts to catch these bounty jumpers were also made with the help of New- York-based detective Lafayette Baker, who managed to catch 183 of these jumpers in a single day by setting up a fake recruitment office and waiting for them to enlist. It was a method that proved to be effective.
End of Bounty System
It was not until 1863 that both the Union and Confederate armies realized that the bounty system was not doing them good. Having to fund and deal with the bounty jumping enlistees was causing more problems than solving their shortage of men. Soon, paying someone to enlist in your place was made illegal, and the bounty jumpers were no more.
In 1865, J.B. Murphy wrote a song about a bounty jumper titled Bounty Jumper’s Lament that talked about a bounty jumper who was caught,
In my prison cell I stand, thinking of you, Mary Ann
And the gay old times we’ve had in days before
When my sock was lined with tin, and I thought it was no sin
For to jump a bounty every week or more