Lincoln’s Militia Proclamation

April 15, 1861 – President Lincoln issued an official proclamation declaring that the Confederate states were in rebellion against the U.S. Lincoln asked for 75,000 volunteers to join their state militias to help put down the rebellion, and he called for a special session of Congress to assemble on July 4.

When news of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter reached Washington on the 13th, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, in the capital at that time, rushed to Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s office and offered 1,000 men from his state for Federal service. Ramsey submitted his proposal in writing, making Minnesota the first state to offer troops in the wartime hysteria that would soon sweep both North and South.

News of Fort Sumter’s surrender spread throughout the country on Sunday the 14th. Several prominent northern politicians visited the White House to pledge support for any efforts President Abraham Lincoln may take to preserve the Union. This included political rival Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who met with Lincoln despite suffering from severe illness.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas | Image Credit:
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 | Image Credit:

Lincoln cordially received Douglas. In a private two-hour meeting, Douglas assured Lincoln that despite their political disagreements, he approved Lincoln’s resolve “to preserve the Union, maintain the government, and defend the capital.” Douglas said, “The capital of our country is in danger, and must be protected at all hazards, at any expense of men and money.”

Lincoln shared a draft of a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. He then asked Douglas to encourage northern Democrats to support it, thus showing a united political front against the Confederacy. Douglas quickly agreed, suggesting that Lincoln change his proclamation to call for 200,000 troops, because “You do not know the dishonest purposes of those men as well as I do.”

After the meeting, Douglas released a statement to the press declaring that although he “was unalterably opposed to the administration on all its political issues, he was prepared to sustain the President in the exercise of all his constitutional functions to preserve the Union, and maintain the government, and defend the Federal Capital.”

Lincoln held a late-night cabinet meeting, where the officers discussed Lincoln’s proposed proclamation. Some officers wanted the volunteer call raised to 100,000, and others urged it lowered to 50,000. Lincoln kept it at 75,000. Lincoln did not declare war in his proclamation because only Congress could make such a declaration.

The men then discussed when Congress should be assembled to approve military spending. Secretary of State William H. Seward suggested that Lincoln shape his war policy first before calling Congress into session. Lincoln agreed, setting the date for July 4 and hoping the congressmen would use “their patriotism to sanction the war measures taken prior to that time by the Executive.”

The volunteers would serve according to “The 1795 Act for Calling forth the Militia,” which mandated that militia could serve for either 90 days or 30 days after Congress assembled. Thus, their service would end on August 4. Arguing that the size of the crisis called for extraordinary (and unconstitutional) measures, Lincoln proceeded to carry out his war policies without congressional sanction for the next three months. 

Lincoln's Militia Proclamation | Photo Credit:
Lincoln’s Militia Proclamation | Photo Credit:

In the official proclamation released on Monday the 15th, Lincoln declared that southerners had disavowed Federal law, and they “constituted combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in Marshals by law.” He therefore asked 75,000 volunteers to join their state militias for three months “in order to suppress said combinations and cause the laws to be duly executed.” In accordance with the 1795 Militia Act, the call prohibited black volunteers.

Lincoln proclaimed, “I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate and aid in this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government, and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.” A call for rebelling states to disperse their militias and return to the Union within 20 days suggested that no action would be taken against them if they complied.

The proclamation concluded with a call for Congress to remain out of session until July 4. This was a calculation in which Lincoln hoped that northerners would strongly support his policies by that time, and thus Congress would be pressured to sanction all his actions between now and then.

In addition to the 75,000 volunteers, Lincoln also called for an extra 22,700 Regular Army troops to serve. But even during this time of patriotic hysteria, no more than 2,000 men came forward to join the Regular Army, instead preferring the shorter 90-day term of service.

Lincoln derived his notion of “combinations” from the 1795 law (an amended form of the 1792 Militia Act), which President George Washington had used to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington had referred to individual farmers refusing to pay taxes to distill whiskey as “combinations,” which differed greatly from seven states leaving the Union to form an independent nation.

Taking the Constitution literally, Article IV, Section 4 prevented Lincoln from calling on Federal forces to oppose a state. Moreover, if the states were indeed “sovereign” as documented, then they would also have the right to secede. Others argued that since the states had formed the Federal government, the Federal government did not have the power to suppress a state. However Lincoln, in refusing to refer to the Confederacy by name, would not admit that it was a new and independent nation made up of sovereign states.

Critics also noted that Lincoln’s call for “loyal citizens” undermined the idea of a republic, in which the people themselves are sovereign. Under this definition, requesting loyalty to the Federal government would mean the government, not the people, had become the true sovereign, which in turn meant the U.S. was no longer a constitutional republic.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis expressed dismay upon learning of Lincoln’s proclamation because it was issued when Congress was not in session, which usurped the congressional power to authorize military mobilization. Moreover, Lincoln would not assemble Congress for nearly three months, giving him sole power in the interim to wage war. To many Confederates, this decree simply validated what they had suspected all along—that Lincoln and the Republicans sought to suppress the South and attain absolute rule.

But Lincoln and the Republicans considered the Union indivisible and thus deemed secession illegal. The Confederacy could not be an independent nation and could not receive international recognition. The southern states were merely in such mass rebellion that they required an additional number of citizen militias to disband it. Lincoln avoided the term “war,” which would imply a conflict with a foreign entity, something the Confederacy was not according to his official policy.

Also, proclaiming this a rebellion made it legally easier for Lincoln to call on military force to suppress it because executive acts to oppose a true rebellion did not require congressional approval. But even so, if an insurrection was to occur within a state, the president had no power to use force to put down that insurrection unless requested to do so by the state itself.

Almost as soon as the proclamation was received, northerners began galvanizing behind Lincoln by raising state militia units dedicated to preserving the Union. Massachusetts became the first state to respond to Lincoln’s call by mustering in a militia unit on the 16th. Stephen A. Douglas published his endorsement of Lincoln’s proclamation to unify northern Democrats and Republicans against the Confederacy.

There were also Unionists in largely pro-Confederate states, such as predominantly pro-U.S. eastern Tennessee. At Knoxville, local newspaper editor William G. Brownlow announced he would “fight the Secessionist leaders till Hell froze over, and then fight them on the ice.” A Knoxville resident raised a U.S. flag and dared anyone to try removing it.

However, Lincoln’s proclamation sparked intense outrage in the states still considering secession: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, most of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri. Three of these six would ultimately secede in defiance of Lincoln’s call.



  • Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 36-38
  • Catton, Bruce, The Coming Fury p. 329
  • Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 7-8
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5248-59, 5642-54, 7226-38
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21236-46
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 11, 13
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 35
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6205-15
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 50-52
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 23
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 348
  • Klein, Frederic S., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 479
  • Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 145
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 59-60
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 322
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 66
  • Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 21
  • Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 50-52, 283
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261


Leave a Reply