The Suspension of Habeas Corpus

Two days after the Emancipation Proclamation was released, President Abraham Lincoln issued an edict declaring that “all Rebels and Insurgents, their aiders and abettors within the United States, and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting military drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice affording aid and comfort to the rebels against the authority of the United States, shall be subject to martial law, and liable to trial and punishment by courts-martial or military commission.” This order also suspended the writ of habeas corpus for those suspected of perpetrating such activities.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:

Lincoln issued this directive in conjunction with the provisions of the Militia Act, which gave the War Department arbitrary (and some argued unconstitutional) powers to arrest and imprison anyone suspected of interfering with the military draft. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had caused an uproar by ordering the arrest of hundreds of citizens, especially in traditionally Democratic districts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

In addition to this order, the new position of provost marshal general was created within the War Department. This person was to work with the provost marshals within the states:

“To arrest all deserters, whether regulars, volunteers, or militia, and send them to the nearest military commander or military post, where they can be cared for and sent to their respective regiments; to arrest, upon the warrant of the Judge Advocate, all disloyal persons subject to arrest under the orders of the War Department; to inquire into and report treasonable practices, seize stolen or embezzled property of the Government, detect spies of the enemy, and perform such other duties as may be enjoined on them by the War Department.”

The provost marshals were authorized to force citizens into helping them do their jobs, and military commissions were established to try those arrested for such infractions, regardless of whether civil courts functioned in those states. This threatened to place the North under military rule. Hundreds of people were arrested, including five newspaper editors, three judges, and several politicians.

This order served to silence dissent against not only the Emancipation Proclamation, but the war and even the Lincoln administration as well. Many expressed outrage that this order was issued alongside the order freeing slaves, believing that there was a correlation between the restriction of civil rights for whites and the expansion of those rights for blacks. In addition, many feared the ramifications of allowing the Federal government to infringe so heavily upon constitutional liberties.


  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • 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.

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