Academic journal article Civil War History

"Not Intended to Dispossess Females": Southern Women and Civil War Amnesty

Academic journal article Civil War History

"Not Intended to Dispossess Females": Southern Women and Civil War Amnesty

Article excerpt

"Your petitioner has not done any act inconsistent with the duties of a Southern woman." Mary E. Brown of Greene County, Alabama, wanted President Andrew Johnson to know why she had contributed to the relief of Confederate soldiers and their indigent families. She further explained that she sympathized "with the cause of the people of her section, as would naturally be supposed." Her "natural" sympathies notwithstanding, similar to almost four hundred other southern women, Brown found herself in the unenviable position of asking Johnson for a presidential pardon. Officially, like most of the other female applicants, her "offense" was that she lived in a former Confederate state and possessed taxable property valued in excess of $20,000. This placed her clearly within one of the fourteen groups of individuals denied general amnesty according to the provisions of Johnson's first Amnesty Proclamation and thus required her to petition the president directly. But why did Brown and other women bother to apply? After all, exactly what rights did they expect to lose or regain? Did they truly fear punishment at the hands of Federal authorities, or was something more significant at work? Had the trials and sacrifices of the Civil War pushed these women to demand more from their government? An examination of one hundred southern women's applications sheds light on these questions, reveals that property rights motivated the applicants more than any other factor, and illustrates that elite southern white women applied for amnesty as a means to preserve an old world rather than to advance toward a new one. It further demonstrates that southern women employed numerous strategies, including the skillful exploitation of prevailing gender concepts and dexterous knowledge of sectional politics, to secure presidential pardons. (1)

Southern women such as Mary E. Brown certainly had legitimate reasons for concern because the legal fate of former Confederates remained unresolved at war's end and appeared to rest entirely in Johnson's hands. Similar to Congress and Abraham Lincoln before him, Johnson considered the Confederates guilty of treason. In 1865, Johnson famously proclaimed that traitors must be punished, and indeed possible penalties for treason included death, disfranchisement, imprisonment, confiscation of property, and heavy fines. Despite such rhetoric, he pursued a lenient plan of Reconstruction that provided for a rapid return of the southern states to their "proper relationship" with the union. The plan included proclamations of amnesty that restored legal and political rights to most former Confederates in exchange for an oath of future allegiance to the United States and a promise to obey all legislation pertaining to emancipation. Johnson's first proclamation affected by far the greatest number of southerners, but it excluded from general amnesty fourteen specific classifications of individuals, who were required to request a pardon directly from the president (see table for a list of the excepted classifications). Johnson promised to grant those personal requests "liberally" and indeed pardoned approximately 13,500 of 15,000 applicants between May 29, 1865, and September 6, 1867. (2)

Obviously, female applicants excluded from general amnesty would apply for pardons predominantly, though not exclusively, under the thirteenth exception, also known as the "$20,000 rule." Therefore an examination of female applicants must ask questions different from those raised in a study of male applicants. Unlike an examination of male applicants, the fundamental question here regards not the exception under which the women applied or even whether they were pardoned--both quickly proved predictable. In this sample, ninety-five of one hundred female applicants applied under the thirteenth exception. A previous study of 748 Texas applicants demonstrated that, regardless of gender, every applicant who applied exclusively under the thirteenth exception received a pardon and that only those who met specific military-related criteria (third, fifth, eighth exceptions) proved unlikely to be granted amnesty. …

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