The Limits of Sovereignty: Property Confiscation in the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War

By Daniel W. Hamilton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Radical Property Confiscation
in the Thirty-Seventh Congress

The Revolutionary precedent of zealous confiscation had met its inverse in Civil War paralysis. Abraham Lincoln called the Thirtyseventh Congress into special session on July 4, 1861. On August 6, the last day of this short first session, the Congress passed, and Lincoln soon signed, the First Confiscation Act. Enacted in the immediate wake of the first battle of Bull Run, this hurriedly passed law did not break much new ground. It was essentially a restatement of internationally recognized laws of war and authorized the seizure of any property, including slave property, used by the Confederacy to directly aid the war effort.

When the second session of the Thirty-seventh Congress convened in December 1861, public pressure was mounting in the North for another, more vigorous confiscation bill.1 Senator Lyman Trumbull, a Republican from Illinois and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, quickly emerged as the most important figure on confiscation. Two days after the Thirty-seventh Congress reassembled for its second session on December 2, 1861, Trumbull took the floor to introduce S 78, a new confiscation bill entitled “For the confiscation of the property of rebels, and giving freedom to the persons they hold in slavery.”2 This bill envisioned the seizure of all rebel property, whether used directly to support the war, or owned by a rebel a thousand miles away from any battlefield.

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