Abraham Lincoln Finds His Substitute Soldier

This week in history: How the practice of substitute soldiers found its way to the White House
Abraham Lincoln Finds His Substitute Soldier
Marker acknowledging the role played by John Summerfield Staples as a "representative recruit" for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. (Courtesy of the Monroe Historical Association)
Dustin Bass
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By the start of 1863, America had been embroiled in its Civil War for nearly two years. As the deaths and casualties mounted on each side, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, was a watershed moment. Months later, another watershed moment took place. Congress passed the nation’s first conscription law with the Enrollment Act of 1863 (the Confederacy had passed a similar law in April of 1862), which required all able-bodied men between the ages of 20 and 45 to enroll in the draft.

There was, however, a caveat. One could “furnish an acceptable substitute to take his place in the draft” or pay $300 “for the procuration of such substitute.” Among those who could not afford such a luxury, it created a firestorm, especially in New York City. When the Army conducted the first of its four drafts in July of 1863, they were met with violent opposition, which lasted several days and would become known as the New York City Draft Riots of 1863.
Engraving of rioters attacking a building during the New York anti-draft riots of 1863. (Public Domain)
Engraving of rioters attacking a building during the New York anti-draft riots of 1863. (Public Domain)
During this period, the Union Army was making inroads against the Confederacy, having begun successful sieges at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana, in May and taking them in July. The victories secured the Mississippi River for the Union. Just as those sieges were ending, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania erupted.

A Young Pennsylvanian

One 17-year-old Pennsylvanian from Stroud Township by the name of John Summerfield Staples was enlisted on Nov. 3, 1862, with the 176th Company of the Pennsylvania Infantry four months before the federal conscription law was passed.
Photo of John Summerfield Staples, a young man from Stroudsburg, Pa., who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. (Courtesy of Monroe Historical Association)
Photo of John Summerfield Staples, a young man from Stroudsburg, Pa., who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. (Courtesy of Monroe Historical Association)

Interestingly, the 176th was raised by Pennsylvania’s State Militia Draft of 1862 and was organized in Philadelphia. It would be difficult, however, to view his enlistment in the Union Army as completely voluntary as he was a substitute soldier for a man by the name of Robert Barry. It is also difficult to know the circumstances behind Barry’s reasons for using a substitute, but the use of substitutes in military conflict was not an uncommon practice.

Shortly after Staples’s arrival, the 176th left Philadelphia for Washington, then to Suffolk, Virginia, then to New Bern and Morehead City, North Carolina, and eventually South Carolina where it would maneuver between Saint Helena Island, Port Royal Island, Beaufort, and Hilton Head Island. The 176th never saw combat and was primarily used to build fortifications around the Charleston, South Carolina harbor. The members of this state militia signed up for nine months of service. Staples, however, would serve only six months and be discharged on May 5 due to health reasons, most likely typhoid. He was one of many who suffered from disease while serving in the 176th―44 would die of various illnesses.

Meeting the President

After recovering at home in Pennsylvania, Staples ventured back to Washington in 1864 to assist his father, John Long Staples, a carpenter and a minister. While in the nation’s capital, the two men were approached by Noble D. Larner, who was the president of the 3rd Ward Draft Club. (Larner would later be one of the organizers for erecting the statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of City Hall in Washington on April 15, 1868―the oldest memorial to Lincoln.) At this time, Lincoln had requested Larner find him a “representative recruit.” The commander-in-chief did not need a substitute soldier, but, according to a contemporary Illinois historian, Lincoln wished to “be represented in the ranks, where a combatant in the field of courage, might in person, strike actual blows in behalf of the Union.”

During this week in history, on Oct. 1, 1864, Staples met with Lincoln, who paid him $500 to represent him in the Union Army. It was the first and last time a president conducted such an action, and the act itself has nearly been lost to history. Staples did not “strike actual blows” in the final months of the Civil War. He was stationed relatively close to the president in Alexandria, Virginia, where he worked as a clerk for the provost general as well as a prison guard. Staples would remain in service to the Union Army until Sept. 12, 1865.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Illinois. (Rogerd/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Illinois. (Rogerd/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Staples’s Headstones

Rev. Edwin Sawyer Walker, a minister, historian, and one who was instrumental in erecting the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois, noted of Staples that “The man who thus represented in his person, the martyred President, … and whose body now lies in the cemetery at Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, is entitled to enrollment among the heroes of the war for the Union.”

Staples died on Jan. 11, 1888. His original headstone, which read “Substitute for Abraham Lincoln,” now resides at the Monroe County Historical Association’s Stroud Mansion in Stroudsburg. A revised headstone now resides at Staples grave that reads “Representative Recruit for President Abraham Lincoln.”

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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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