The next episode of “Dickinson” has arrived on Apple TV+, and while it marked a monumental shift in Emily and Sue’s relationship, it also presented some pretty damning information about Austin Dickinson. So, was he actually a draft dodger in real life?
Let’s first recap how we got here. In last week’s episode, Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) received his draft card for the Civil War. Naturally, he’s pretty shaken up about it. Not only is he seeing all the death it’s bringing, but he also has a son now — one he genuinely wants to be a good father to. So no, he really doesn’t want to go to war.
Well, as one helpful friend points out this week, he really doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to. Austin’s rich, so he could just pay someone to show up in his place and claim his name. The going rate is about $500, which Austin has easy access to. It’s a big internal struggle but in the end, Austin decides to do exactly that.
So now, considering how historically accurate “Dickinson” has been up to this point, it raises the question: was Austin Dickinson actually a draft dodger?
In fact, he was. “Dickinson” even got the fact that it was an Irishman that Austin paid to take his place correct. And actually, the way he went about doing it was perfectly legal at the time, and it even had a formal name: Substitution.
Substitution involved paying someone else to fight for you, usually for about $500 dollars. This worked great for rich men who didn’t want to fight, but caused problems for the U.S. military thanks to the rise of what were called “bounty jumpers”: People who enlisted to collect the substitution payment, then deserted and found someone else looking to pay for a substitution.
But Substitution was one of two ways that men could get out of fighting in the Civil War. The other method was commutation, which would’ve been cheaper for Austin, as the fee was only $300. Still, either method was really only available to the rich. While an exact comparison is difficult to make since currency at the time was pegged to the gold standard, most estimates show $300 would equate to a little over $9,000 today, while $500 equates to almost $17,000.
We realize that might not sound like a princely sum, though that’s still a lot of money to have lying around even today. But once you factor in the actual purchasing power of that money — meaning, what you can actually buy with it — it’s a considerable amount. For instance, according to US Census bureau data, an unimproved acre of land in Massachusetts in 1860 was worth an average of approximately $100. Suffice to say, a casual browse on Zillow will show how much pricier things are now.
Even for someone who isn’t poor, that $500 would be literally life-changing money in the 1860s.
So, while Austin Dickinson may not have been exactly proud of what he did, what he did wasn’t illegal, at least for a few months. But it also wasn’t very popular, inspiring the slogan “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”
In fact, in July of 1863, right around the time Austin would have been wrestling with whether or not to pay someone to fight for him, riots broke out in New York City over the new draft laws.
The riots were inspired in part by anger over the ability of wealthy people to avoid the draft. But New York City’s economic interests were also largely aligned with slavery at that time. And there was also the fact that Black people weren’t subject to the draft, because they weren’t even considered citizens, thanks to the 1957 Dred Scott decision.
The uprising soon devolved into nativist and racist mob violence as both native born and immigrant whites used the chaos to attack Black people, Black neighborhoods and Black-owned businesses. At least 119 people were killed, and today it’s considered one of the worst incidents of civil unrest and racist violence in U.S. history.
But that was far from the only unrest inspired by the draft laws. And in early 1864, congress made it harder for people to buy substitutes and eventually the practice was abolished.
“Dickinson” episode 7 is now streaming on Apple TV+.