Recruiting for War: ‘Bounty Brokers’ in New York City

Learn more about the bounty brokers who caused trouble for the detectives in ‘Copper’ from the series historical adviser, Daniel Czitrom.

Doman is interrogated.

Detectives Corcoran and O’Brien interrogate Tim Doman.

Detective Corcoran is under great pressure to find who is responsible for the kidnapping and murder of many young Five Points men. He discovers that the culprits Tim Doman, and later Brogan McGrath, are “bounty brokers,” men who receive a payment for every new recruit they provide for the Union army.

Raising the manpower to sustain a drawn out, bloody war had become increasingly difficult. The violent Draft Riots of July 1863 had been sparked by President Lincoln’s announcement of the first draft in U.S. history. The so-called “substitute” provision allowed a man to buy his way out of the draft if he could pay $300 for another to take his place. This “class legislation” enraged many poor and working class New Yorkers, as $300 represented roughly a year’s wages. To help maintain social peace after the Draft Riots, the city created a Volunteer Committee. Its goal was to fill as much of the city’s draft quota as possible through the recruitment of volunteers and substitutes, each of whom received a bounty payment of up to $700. The money was provided by a city bond issue and contributions from wealthy New Yorkers eager to avoid a replay of the Draft Riots.

Harper's Weekly Cartoon portraying a volunteer broker trying to pass an old man as a healthy recruit.  (via http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c32935)

This political cartoon shows a volunteer broker trying to pass an old man as a worthy recruit.
Harper’s Weekly, ‘The Recruiting Business’, 1864

The Volunteer Committee (dominated by the rising Tammany power William M. Tweed) relied heavily upon an informal network of bounty brokers who received large profits from a share of the bounties. Some New York brokers made small fortunes of between $50,000 and $200,000, and they were often ruthless in their efforts. Men were sometimes drugged or kidnapped from ships and saloons. The naïve were often persuaded that they were signing up for civilian employment. Immigrants could be enlisted before even landing at Castle Garden. By 1865 the system based on the profit motive rather than patriotism had become so corrupt that Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, chief detective of the US Secret Service, was sent to investigate the situation, concluding that a “vast machinery of bounty-swindling” existed in the city. By the war’s end the Volunteer Committee had raised nearly 100,000 men to meet draft calls, saving many New Yorkers from enforced service in a war they did not want to fight.