The Civil War Confiscation Acts: Failing to Reconstruct the South

The Civil War Confiscation Acts: Failing to Reconstruct the South

The Civil War Confiscation Acts: Failing to Reconstruct the South

The Civil War Confiscation Acts: Failing to Reconstruct the South

Synopsis

This book is the first full account in more than 20 years oftwo significant, but relatively understudied, laws passedduring the Civil War. The Confiscation Acts (1861-62) weredesigned to sanction slave holding states by authorizing the Federal Government to seize rebel properties (including land and other assets held in Northern and border states)and grant freedom to slaves who fought with or worked forthe Confederate military.Abraham Lincoln objected to the Acts for fear they mightpush border states, particularly Missouri and Kentucky, intosecession. The Acts were eventually rendered moot by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.John Syrett examines the political contexts of the Acts,especially the debates in Congress, and demonstrates howthe failure of the confiscation acts during the war presagedthe political and structural shortcomings of Reconstructionafter the war.

Excerpt

In the summer of 1861, as slaves entered Union lines and the North faltered on the battlefield, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, the text of which can be found in the appendix to this book. Proposed by Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, the first act meant to confiscate property, primarily slaves, used to aid the Confederacy. Although the act freed few if any slaves, in part because the administration did not press the military to enforce it, the measure reflected the frustration of many in the North over how to conduct the war. This concern increased when Lincoln, worried about the allegiance of the border states, rescinded General John C. Frémont’s emancipation edict in Missouri in the fall of 1861. Three months later Trumbull introduced the Second Confiscation Act into the Senate. Following lengthy debates that mirrored the increasing division over the administration’s war against the South, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act (see the appendix) in the summer of 1862. It was intended to confiscate all property, including slaves and land, from supporters of the Confederacy. the money realized from the sale of confiscated property was supposed to defray the costs of war. in addition, confiscation’s supporters expected that the land taken from the rebels would be distributed to freedmen and poor whites after the fighting ended. Many Republicans in Congress, but not Lincoln, hoped the measure would also destroy the planter class and submit the South to a thorough Reconstruction.

The First and Second Confiscation Acts were not effective, however. They were not well written, and they suffered from a number of significant compromises. As a result, the actual prospect that private property would be taken permanently from rebels did not last much beyond 1862. Lincoln and Attorney General Edward Bates also insured the acts were not vigorously implemented, although the president did use the second act to support his own executive emancipation. Nonetheless, the acts were important. the debates in Congress over their enactment help explain how the North, by the summer of 1862, came to support a harsh war against the South, the abolition of slavery and the arming of the freedmen, all of which seemed unlikely a year earlier. the confiscation acts and their weak enforcement also illuminate the reasons the North did not embrace a radical Reconstruction of the South or provide freed slaves the forty acres and a mule that became part of the mythology surrounding the post-

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