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Guide to the John A. Coke Papers
(Records of the Confederate army enrolling office for the Third Congressional District of Virginia)

New-York Historical Society
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New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Susan Kriete. Machine readable finding aid created by Susan Kriete.

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on April 16, 2014
Description is in English

Biographical/Historical note

John Archer Coke was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, on July 14, 1842. In the years preceding the Civil War, he attended William and Mary College, graduating in 1860. In March, 1861, he enlisted in the Lee Artillery, an organization formed at Williamsburg, under Captain W.R. Garrett. Initially elected second lieutenant of the unit, Coke was subsequently promoted to captain. In 1862, Captain Coke was re-assigned to duty as enrolling officer for the Third Congressional District of Virginia, with headquarters at Richmond, under command of Col. John C. Shields, commander of the Conscript Department of Virginia (later replaced by General J.L. Kemper).

As enrolling officer, Coke was charged with enforcing the conscription law passed by the Confederate Congress on April 16, 1862. The first conscription law in American history (preceding the Union draft by nearly a year), the Confederate act drafted all white males between 18 and 35 for a three-year term of service. In September 1862, as southern casualties mounted, the conscription age was raised to 45, and by February 1864, the limits were 17 and 50.

Exemptions were provided for certain occupations considered to be vital to the war effort, such as railroad workers, miners, telegraph operators, and druggists. More controversially, the "Twenty-Negro law" allowed the owner or overseer of a plantation with 20 or more slaves to avoid army service. Wealthy southerners were also permitted to hire substitutes to take their place in the army. These exemptions were widely resented as belonging to "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight," and were both eventually abolished in the face of increasing manpower shortages.

Coke remained at his position until Richmond was evacuated, at which point he accompanied General Kemper, with a party of other officers, to Halifax County. Hearing of Lee's surrender, the party attempted to join General Johnston's army. When Johnston also surrendered, Coke returned to Danville, Virginia, and gave his parole to the Federal authorities.

Returning home to Williamsburg, Coke studied law and in September, 1865, opened a law practice in Richmond. In 1867, he married Emma Overbey, with whom he had several children. He died January 27, 1920.