Twenty-year-old John Summerfield Staples was strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue with his father when a well-dressed gentleman approached them.
“I am looking for a young man to represent the president in the army as a recruit,” the gentleman explained. “Will you accept?”
“If my father consents,” Staples replied.
His father nodded. It was settled.
Respectable men were sometimes unable or even unwilling to serve in the Union Army. Instead of dodging the draft or enduring the ridicule of their neighbors, such men often hired substitutes to serve in their place. The going rate for such substitutes was $300, which roughly translates to about $5,000 in today’s currency.
Even though he was not subject to the draft, President Abraham Lincoln decided to hire a soldier to serve in his place. The task of finding a suitable substitute fell to Noble D. Larner. Larner was a well-known politician, but lately he had been serving as president of the Third Ward Draft Club, an organization founded to secure substitutes for citizens who had no desire to be drafted.
It was not the first time Staples had been asked to serve as another man’s substitute. A Pennsylvania man had hired him for that purpose two years earlier. It was not a good experience. Within six months, Staples was discharged for “great disability and a broken down constitution, result of typhoid fever of nearly four months continuance.”
Since that time, Staples and his father had been working as carpenters in the Washington, D. C. area. But now Staples had a chance to redeem himself.
Staples and his father went to the White House and met President Lincoln 143 years ago today.
Lincoln shook his substitute’s hand and told him he hoped he would be “one of the fortunate ones.”
Staples was indeed one of the fortunate ones. For the next eleven months, he served in Company D, Second District of Columbia Infantry. Staples received $500 from the president for agreeing to serve as his substitute and another $66.67 bounty from the government under the Act of July 4, 1864.
After the war, Staples found employment as a laborer, but his health was never very good. In July 1882, he applied for a Civil War pension. His application stated that he suffered “with disease of the head, catarrh, disease in one eye producing partial blindness, and partial paralysis of the whole system.” Staples declared that he was “one-half disabled from obtaining subsistence by manual labor by reasoning of injuries…received in the service of the United States.”
His application was rejected.
Six years later, Staples died of a heart attack at the age of 43.
In 1933, some forty-five years after his death, the cemetery where he is buried placed a bronze plaque on the new “John Summerfield Staples Bridge.”
Two years later the bridge was destroyed by a flood and the plaque disappeared.
Today, there is a tablet on the gatepost to the cemetery honoring Lincoln’s substitute.
For more information, see W. Emerson Reck, "President Lincoln's Substitute," in Lincoln Herald, 80(Fall 1978):137-39.