John Summerfield Staples, Lincoln’s Representative Recruit

Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

As the American Civil War dragged into its fourth year, U.S. government leaders grew increasingly troubled about the shrinking of the Union army. Several reasons for the reduction in the army’s ranks included the number of combat casualties, incapacitation of troops from wounds and illnesses, desertion and the end of the original three-year enlistment period for 1861 in which recruits played a part. Reenlistments from this group of veterans could be a potential source for trained, experienced soldiers rather than raw recruits, but there was concern about whether they would reenlist through the end of the war. The federal government offered inducements to encourage these veterans, including bonuses, furloughs home, and the right to be known as Veteran Volunteers.

The situation required a revitalization of recruitment and retention efforts. In early 1864 President Abraham Lincoln began calling for communities to fill quotas in order to avoid instituting a draft. A bounty was provided as an incentive for these volunteers, but due to the need for men in both industrial and agricultural pursuits, and the widely reported poor conditions in southern prisoner of war camps, recruits were becoming more difficult to find.

In June 1864 the U.S. War Department mounted a campaign urging all male citizens ineligible for military service to find recruits to serve as their substitutes in the Union forces. Individuals were considered ineligible if they were physically or mentally disabled, were engaged in certain occupations or government positions or had special obligations to their dependents. Since any alternate voluntary recruit program was preferred to a draft, Lincoln decided to name a recruit in order to inspire others to follow his example. He requested that a volunteer be enlisted from his own ward in Washington, D.C.

John Summerfield Staples, circa 1864.

John Summerfield Staples (1845–1888), originally from Monroe County in northeastern Pennsylvania, was spotted walking with his father along Pennsylvania Avenue by the president of the Third Ward Draft Club. Staples had been working as a carpenter with his father in the nation’s capital. Upon being requested to volunteer for military service, the 19-year-old Staples readily agreed and his father consented. Staples became Lincoln’s “representative recruit.” Contemporary accounts indicate that Staples met the president. It was reported that Lincoln received Staples at the Executive Mansion, shook his hand, remarked on his fitness for duty and expressed the hope that he would be safe. Lincoln was then presented with a copy of the official notice that he had supplied a representative recruit.

Although Staples saw no combat action, he served in the 2nd Washington, D.C., Infantry Regiment as a clerk and prison guard for one year and mustered out in September 1865. He was paid between $300 and $800 for his service. His father and brother also volunteered for the same regiment. Despite his youth, Staples had previously volunteered for service in the Union Army. In 1862 he had served in Company C of the drafted 176th Pennsylvania Militia. After serving two months Staples contracted typhoid, was hospitalized for several months and was honorably discharged for medical reasons. He probably saw the opportunity to serve as Lincoln’s representative recruit as a way to redeem himself from his earlier inability to serve out his enlistment. Following the war, Staples returned to Stroudsburg and lived and worked in New York State before returning home. Only 43 years old when he died, Staples is buried in Stroudsburg where his gravestone identifies him as “Representative Recruit for President Abraham Lincoln.”


Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005. Previously she worked for 10 years in the agency’s former Commonwealth Conservation Center.