The Confederate Sequestration Act

By Hamilton, Daniel W. | Civil War History, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Confederate Sequestration Act


Hamilton, Daniel W., Civil War History


On October 11, 1861, the Richmond Enquirer reported that a Confederate court had confiscated Monticello. Weeks before, the Confederate Congress had passed the Sequestration Act, authorizing the seizure of Northern property in direct retaliation for the First Confiscation Act. A captain in the U.S. Navy, Uriah P. Levy of Pennsylvania, owned Thomas Jefferson's former estate. Two Virginians, George Carr and Joel Wheeler of Charlottesville, managed Monticello as Levy's agents. As a U.S. citizen, Levy had been designated an "alien enemy." Consequently, under the terms of the Act, all of his property located within the borders of the Confederacy was subject to permanent, uncompensated seizure and sale for the benefit of Confederate citizens who had lost property to the Union. (1)

The Confederate courts charged with administration of the law quickly seized the Monticello estate, "comprising 360 acres of land ... assessed at $20 per acre," along with "a house and other improvements assessed at $2,500." In addition to Monticello, the courts confiscated other property Levy owned in Albemarle County, including 960 acres of land as well as "ten slaves, 8 horses, sixteen head of cattle, seventy-eight sheep, thirty hogs and a lot of household and kitchen furniture." (2) In its speed and efficiency, the confiscation of Monticello was typical. Rarely, however, did the Confederate government confiscate Northern property at so little cost to its own citizens.

In the South there was near ideological consensus on the legal basis for seizing Union property. The United States was an enemy belligerent whose property was, at international law, subject to permanent confiscation during war. (3) Through the resort to international law, the Confederacy was able not only to assert its sovereignty but also to craft a far more rigorous and effective Act much more quickly than its Northern counterpart. U.S. citizens were, at Confederate law, foreigners, and were not accorded the protections of domestic Confederate constitutional law. U.S. citizens were not traitors, and in fact owed no legal allegiance to the Confederate States of America. (4) As a result, all of the agonizing self-scrutiny over the constitutional rights of the enemy that so dominated the Northern confiscation debates was mostly absent in the South.

The classification of the Union as a foreign country had important institutional consequences. The whole legal apparatus for confiscation in the North--individual hearings determining the loyalty of property owners--was not conceptually applicable within the Confederacy. This made for a more vigorous confiscation regime. Property was confiscated by Confederate courts simply if it could be shown that such property belonged to an alien enemy. By 1865 the Confederate judiciary had seized and sold millions of dollars worth of Northern property located all over the South. (5)

In discussing sequestration, we must draw a line between legislative and military confiscation. There is an important literature on the treatment of civilian property by the Northern and Southern military during the Civil War. (6) This work focuses on the treatment of property by armies on the move, and the attempt on the part of government to regulate the treatment of civilians. The taking of "contraband" is governed by the laws of war, a largely self-contained set of doctrines and principles based in domestic and international law, which balances the strategic needs of the military with a desire to protect noncombatants. This is distinct from confiscation pursued by a legislature, not to help win a battle or campaign, but as policy. Military confiscation is recognized as the seizure and use, and even destruction, of another's property as part of military strategy. (7) Under nineteenth-century law, the seizure of property by the military was normally temporary. Title to the property did not transfer from its owner, and the authority of the military to seize property ended with the restoration of peace.

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