The men who entered the Union military as substitutes from 1863 onwards are among the most neglected and maligned groups associated with the American Civil War. History–and many historians–have overwhelmingly focused on the negative aspects of their service, highlighting their lesser ideological commitment, disciplinary issues, and propensity to desert. This was undoubtedly true of many of them. Yet it was also the case that many did not act in that way. Indeed, their participation was crucial in seeing the Union cause through to victory.

Detailed analysis of the practical experiences of substitutes and draftees is one of the great neglected areas of Civil War history, and is something that requires significant further work. We continue to focus almost all of our efforts on understanding the ideologies and motivations of early-war volunteers who we perceive–both consciously and subconsciously–as “morally superior” men. In contrast, late war volunteers are often cast as morally deficient “skulkers”, who by extension are not worthy of detailed consideration. The opprobrium they often receive is all the more curious given the reality that the majority of military-aged men in the North chose not to enlist in military service at all.

'Wanted A Substitute' A Wartime Sheet Music Cover (Library of Congress)
“Wanted A Substitute” A Wartime Sheet Music Cover (Library of Congress)

I have long struggled with the regular dismissal of these men’s service, often founded solely on an arbitrary judgement based on how, why and when they joined the military. To my mind, their stories are equally deserving of attention–and just as interesting–as those of the 1861 and 1862 volunteers. Without a significant effort to understand their backgrounds, motivations and experience, any analysis of the Civil War soldier lies incomplete.

Over the years, I have encountered large numbers of working-class substitutes in the widow’s pension files (and written many micro-histories of them on this site and in my books). Many were flawed men, many were not. With most, a consistent narrative emerges– a tale of relatively poor individuals seeking to improve the financial futures of themselves and their families. For what it’s worth, and contrary to popular perception, this was a major motivator for many working-class early war volunteers as well. The topic of substitutes is one I hope to carry out significantly more work on in the future, but for this latest Widows in the Atlantic World post, I want to take a look at a single family story. It clearly demonstrates that many substitutes were more than just money-grabbing ne’er do-wells. It revolves around the son of Mary Ryan, an Irish woman who received her American military pension in Compton County, southeastern Quebec.

Instructions for drafted men from the 3rd Congressional District of Vermont (Burlington Daily Times 25 July 1863)

In July 1863, the name of 31-year-old merchant Christopher F. Douglas was drawn in Vermont’s 11th Sub District Draft. Christopher was a notable figure in his home town of Stowe, where he operated as a dry-goods merchant. An apparently loyal Union man, that summer he had been active as a local militia enrolling-officer. Nevertheless, heading to the front was not part of his plans. When his number came up, he and his wife Loneza were caring for their two-year-old daughter, Mary, and Christopher’s business was beginning to take off. This was reflected in the value of his personal estate, which would leap from $600 to $25,000 in the decade between 1860 and 1870. Though he likely supported the war effort, these factors contributed towards Christopher’s decision to hire a substitute. As historian J. Matthew Gallman has ably demonstrated, such a step was seen as a perfectly acceptable decision in Northern wartime society, and would not have impacted Christopher’s standing as a good and patriotic citizen. (1)

Christoper F. Douglas listed among the drafted men from Stowe in July 1863 (Burlington Daily Times 15 July 1863)

The man Christopher paid to take his place was James Ryan, a 20-year-old emigrant from Drogheda in Ireland. James, an illiterate laborer, was described as being 5 feet 3 inches tall, with blue eyes, dark hair and a fair complexion. On 19th August 1863 he officially took Christopher’s place in the army, and was duly assigned to Company I of the 3rd Vermont Infantry. His parents Laurence Ryan and Mary Smith had been married on Shrove Tuesday, 1841, in that part of Drogheda which lies in Co. Meath. A little over a year later, James was born. Initially, the family’s prospects had appeared bright, at least in comparison with many others in Ireland. Laurence had secured a job as an engine driver on the Dublin Railway, a position that offered some financial stability. All that changed in 1845. That summer, Laurence lost his life to a workplace accident, and around the same time Mary suffered a mishap or illness that would hinder her ability to earn a living for the remainder of her life. In the blink of an eye, the prospects of the young woman and her son had become desperate. (2)

Mary had little option but to submit herself and her toddler to a life “on the parish”- making them reliant on whatever poor relief they could garner in Drogheda. So the situation remained until James was of “sufficient age and strength” to earn enough for their support. Sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s, mother and son decided that their best option was for James to make for North America. Whether James had managed to save the requisite funds or was supported through assisted emigration is unclear. Either way, they were only able to secure a single passage– Mary would have to wait for her son to earn enough to send for her. When he departed across the Atlantic, he did so in the full knowledge that his future actions would determine the fate of both their lives. (3)

Drogheda’s North Quay in the 19th century, an area that would have been familiar to both Mary and James (National Library of Ireland)

James’s exact destination is unknown, but it seems probable he joined familiar faces who had settled in the vicinity of Sherbrooke, Quebec, where people like his aunt Margaret Smith and longtime family friend John Sheerin made their homes. Still, life did not become much easier. Though he was able to send money back to Ireland, it was sporadic, and he was unable to gather enough together to secure his mother’s passage. As a result, Mary once again found herself reliant on charity in Drogheda, where she was “supported by the Parish as a Pauper”. Then, in 1863, the Enrollment Act came into force, and an unprecedented opportunity presented itself just across the border. (4)

There can be little doubt that James Ryan was as satisfied as Christopher Douglas with the transaction that saw him enter the army in the merchant’s place. The funds Douglas provided him with immediately enabled James to remit sufficient finances for his mother’s emigration. He was still settling into his first weeks of military life by the time Mary made landfall; her new life in Sherbrooke began in December 1863. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that they had an opportunity to meet prior to the commencement of the Overland Campaign in 1864. (5)

The Vermont Brigade monument on The Wilderness battlefield, where James Ryan experienced his first battle. Image taken on the 150th anniversary of the engagement in 2014 (Damian Shiels)

On 5th and 6th May 1864, Private James Ryan went into his first action of the American Civil War in Virginia’s Wilderness. The horrors he and his Vermont Brigade experienced along the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road were indescribable. By battle’s end, they had sustained more than 1200 casualties. James was not one of them. He was among those fortunate survivors who were able to stagger on towards the next major engagement of the campaign, at Spotsylvania Court House. There, on 12th May, he was part of the colossal Union assault that was hurled against the salient in the Confederate line that became known as the Mule Shoe. The Vermont Brigade’s target was an area that is known to history as the “Bloody Angle”. Over the 24 hours that followed, it would become the scene of some of the most intense and protracted fighting of the entire conflict. It seems that James may never have made it that far. His officer later recalled that while “charging on the enemys works”, James was hit, “the bullet entered through his left breast and passed out through his back”. He has no known grave. (5)

The fields over which the Union assault on the Mule Shoe salient took place at Spotsylvania, as dawn breaks on the 150th anniversary of the battle, 12th May 2014 (Damian Shiels)
The fields over which the Union assault on the Mule Shoe salient took place at Spotsylvania, as dawn breaks on the 150th anniversary of the battle, 12th May 2014. James Ryan was killed in action here (Damian Shiels)

As was so often the case, Mary Ryan had to deal concurrently with both the emotional and financial implications of her son’s death. Despite her “feeble condition” she attempted to work, but could only manage one or two days at a time. Soon she was again reliant on charitable support, this time in Sherbrooke. Despite her poverty, she was seen as a woman of good character– one of the “deserving poor”. Within weeks of her son’s death she had begun the process of applying for a pension, citing the “immediate and great need of such assistance as may be due me from the Bounty of the Government in whose service my son lost his life”. Her claim was ultimately successful, and she received payments up until the time of her death on 24th March 1887. She never left Sherbrooke, where she appears to have spent most of her remaining years living alone. (6)

More than 70,000 substitutes served during the American Civil War. Certainly, all were not created equal; some were unreliable opportunists, who fit the “mercenary” mould commonly ascribed to them. But the way in which they performed–and came to be viewed–varied widely. For example, many of those who entered service in advance of the devastating campaigns of Spring 1864 came to be regarded as “old soldiers”, and developed their own esprit-de-corps (see posts here and here). (7)

Sherbrooke, Canada in the 1880s, where Mary Ryan lived out her final years ( City of Sherbrooke Illustrated, P.N. Boucher, Sherbrooke)

It can be reasonably argued that James Ryan’s motivations for entering the Union military were as noble as any of the ardent volunteers of 1861. He was neither a “skulker” or a “shirker”; by the time he enlisted, nobody was under any illusions about the risks attached to the donning of military uniform. Yet he did so willingly, taking his place in the ranks as part of a transactional arrangement that (he hoped) would save his mother from pauperism. Ultimately it did, though unfortunately for them both, the price paid was his death. It is only through the exploration and examination of micro-histories such as theirs that we an begin to add some much needed complexity and balance to how we view these late-war recruits.

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(1) Burlington Daily Times, Lamoille Newsdealer, Burlington Weekly Free Press, 1860 Census, 1870 Census, Draft Registration Records, Gallman 2015: 157; (2) James Ryan Service Record, Roster of Vermont Volunteers: 101, Ryan Pension File; (3) Ryan Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Murdock 1971: 83-90, Ryan Pension File, 1871 Canada Census, 1881 Canada Census;


Burlington Daily Times 15 July 1863.

Burlington Weekly Free Press 5 June 1863.

Lamoille Newsdealer 4 June 1863.

1860 Federal Census, Stowe, Lamoille, Vermont.

1870 Federal Census, Stowe, Lamoille, Vermont.

1871 Census of Canada, Sherbrooke, Quebec.

1881 Census of Canada, Sherbrooke, Quebec.

U.S. Civil War Draft Registration Records, Third Congressional District, Vermont.

Gallman, J. Matthew 2015. Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front.

Murdock, Eugene C. 1971. One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North.