The Confederate government instituted few policies that were more controversial than conscription. Initially passed on April 16, 1862, the first of three conscription acts required that all able bodied white males between the ages of 18 and 35 serve in the Confederate military forces for three years or until the end of the war. The unprecedented nature of conscription—there had never been a national draft in America before 1862—roused public debate about its necessity and constitutionality. Most Southerners hated conscription. They believed it demeaned patriotism by pressuring men to serve instead of relying on their willingness to volunteer. Even more demeaning were the exemptions to the act, which allowed the wealthy to avoid conscription by hiring substitutes and kept those employed in professions deemed essential for the operation of the economy and government out of military service.
One of the most resented of these exemptions was a provision in the second Conscription Act (October 1862) that exempted planters who owned twenty or more slaves from the draft. The exemption also applied to overseers employed in managing plantations with over twenty slaves. Soon known among the press and public as the “Twenty Negro Law,” the exemption provoked outrage among poor and middle class whites, most of whom owned no slaves or certainly fewer than the twenty slaves required by the law.