Tag Archives: Confiscation

Cameron Defines Federal Fugitive Slave Policy

August 8, 1861 – Secretary of War Simon Cameron responded to Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s request to clarify the administration’s policy on fugitive slaves escaping into Federal military lines, one day after Confederates burned a refuge for escapees.

U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Major General Benjamin F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Major General Benjamin F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Butler commanded Federals at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers. His forces had moved inland to occupy various points, including the town of Hampton. However, after the Federal defeat at Bull Run, Butler was compelled to send many of his men north to help defend Washington. This prompted him to withdraw much of his remaining force back to the fort, abandoning Hampton and other points.

Meanwhile, Confederate Brigadier General John B. Magruder had read a copy of Butler’s July 30 letter to Cameron stating that Hampton had become a refuge for “runaway slaves” (or what Butler called “contraband”) seeking Federal protection. Magruder responded by moving some 2,000 Confederates near the town “to capture and send up to the works at Williamsburg all the Negroes” there.

On August 7, two Confederate companies drove the Federals out of Hampton and allegedly gave residents just 15 minutes to evacuate; “the town was then fired in many places and burned to the ground.” Butler reported that not only did the Confederates seize the slaves there, but they also “took away with them most of the able-bodied white men.” Butler, who had refrained from firing on Hampton from Fort Monroe to avoid civilian casualties, charged Magruder with committing a “wanton act” by leaving the town in ruins.

The next day, Butler allowed many of the newly homeless elderly and infirmed into his lines and wrote once again to Cameron for clarification on the fugitive slave issue. Cameron responded that he had conferred with President Lincoln, who decided that the Fugitive Slave Act had no authority in states rebelling against the U.S. because enforcing that law relied on cooperation between Federal and state officials. Slaves should be returned to owners in loyal slave states (i.e., Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and the District of Columbia), but Federal officers were not obligated to return fugitives to slaveholders in Confederate states.

Regarding slaveholders in Confederate states who remained loyal to the U.S., Lincoln instructed Cameron to tell Butler that it was “quite clear that the substantial rights of loyal masters will be best protected by receiving such fugitives, as well as fugitives from disloyal masters, into the service of the United States, and employing them under such organizations and in such occupations as circumstances may suggest or require.” In other words, loyal masters should not mind surrendering their slaves to the Federal government if they would be used to help put down the rebellion.

Cameron wrote that after the war, “Congress will, doubtless, properly provide for all the persons thus received into the service of the Union, and for just compensation to loyal masters.” He directed Butler to refrain from molesting peaceful slaveholders or from encouraging slaves to escape.

While this answered the legal question of what to do with fugitives, it did not establish that those fugitives would be freed. It also led to the next question of how to care for all those coming into the Federal lines.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 54; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 106

The Confiscation Act

August 6, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln reluctantly signed a bill into the law authorizing Federal military commanders to seize property, including slaves, from people “aiding, abetting, or promoting” rebellion against the U.S.

Sponsored by Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, the law decreed in carefully worded language that “all such property is hereby declared to be lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found; and it shall be the duty of the (president) to cause the same to be seized, confiscated, and condemned.” The confiscated property “shall be condemned in the district or circuit court of the United States having jurisdiction.”

District attorneys were empowered to “institute proceedings of condemnation,” and any revenue gained from the confiscated property would be given to the Federal government. If a citizen brought a case for confiscation to the district attorney, that citizen would be eligible to receive half the confiscated property’s value; this incentivized informers. Property subject to seizure included land, homes, livestock, farm equipment, businesses, cash, stocks, bonds, and most importantly, slaves (although they were not referred to by that term).

Every slave owner aiding the Confederate military “shall forfeit his claim to such labor.” While this empowered Federal authorities to seize slaves as prizes of war, the law provided no explanation of what would be done to care for the slaves once confiscated. The law also did not provide for freeing those slaves; it only provided for taking them from disloyal masters.

Slaves as "contraband of war" | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Slaves as “contraband of war” | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Since this law mostly applied to slaves working in the Confederate armies as laborers, many assumed that those confiscated would be put to work at the same jobs for the Federal armies. This seemed to indicate that they would stay slaves, except now working for the Federal government rather than the Confederacy. Nevertheless, this law adopted the policy initiated by Major General Benjamin F. Butler at Fort Monroe, where he considered fugitive slaves to be “contraband of war” and refused to return them to their masters.

In the Republican-dominated Congress, all but six Republicans approved this measure. Supporters argued that confiscating property was an appropriate action to take against traitors. Many Radical Republicans saw this is a first step toward abolishing slavery, and they pushed this bill through Congress partly as a way to express disapproval of Lincoln’s moderate stance on the issue.

All but three members of the non-Republican parties in Congress (Democrats, Whigs, Constitutional Unionists, etc.) opposed this measure. Opponents argued that the law contradicted Lincoln’s stated war aims and the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution declaring that the war was about preserving the Union without interfering with slavery. Congressman John J. Crittenden, who co-sponsored the resolution, argued that legal precedent established the Federal government had no right to interfere with slavery during peace, and thus it should be the same during war.

Critics also argued that the logic of seizing property from traitors had no merit because under the Constitution, property could not be seized until the owner was convicted in court. Thus, property would be confiscated without constitutionally guaranteed due process. This law could also pave the way towards Federal military forces waging war on civilians.

While signing several last-minute bills in the Senate Chamber, Lincoln hesitated before signing this one because it interfered with slavery, something Lincoln had pledged not to do in his inaugural address. The partisan nature in which the bill passed troubled many because it indicated that if the conflict became a war against slavery, Republicans could expect no support from any other political parties to fight it. Partly to keep up bipartisanship in the struggle, this law was never fully enforced.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12211-19; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6608; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 161-62; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 54; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 369; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 105-06; 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. 355-56; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 60; 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), Q361

The Special Session of the 37th U.S. Congress: Legislation

July 24, 1861 – The House of Representatives began considering a new form of direct taxation. In addition, Congress retroactively endorsed President Lincoln’s executive orders and approved recruiting one million three-year volunteers. Meanwhile, the War Department reluctantly accepted some 30,000 two-year volunteers from various states.

U.S. Capitol Building under construction, circa 1861 | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

U.S. Capitol Building under construction, circa 1861 | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The predominantly Republican Congress opened debate on the loyalty of its members. The Senate approved measures expelling U.S. senators from Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas, along with one of the two senators from Tennessee. The House of Representatives approved the expulsion of Congressman John Clark of Missouri by a vote of 94-45. These measures were just a formality because those congressmen had already left to join the Confederacy.

The Senate retained the second senator from Tennessee–Andrew Johnson, who hailed from the predominantly Unionist region of eastern Tennessee. The Senate also seated two senators from “Unionist” Virginia who had been elected by the puppet legislature of the state’s northwestern counties. This legislature, elected by delegates to the Wheeling convention, declared allegiance to the U.S. and was recognized as legitimate by the Lincoln administration, despite its lack of support from most non-northwestern Virginians. The House of Representatives also admitted three congressmen elected by the Unionist Virginians.

To raise revenue for war, President Lincoln signed into law “An act to provide for the collection of duties on imports, and for other purposes.” This authorized the president to regulate trade with the Confederacy. Section 5 empowered Lincoln to allow trade with parts of Confederate states under Federal military occupation. This sanctioned the seizure of southern cotton for cotton-starved northern businesses. Section 9 authorized Federal courts to review claims on confiscated Confederate property.

Opponents of this law argued that it unconstitutionally regulated commerce within a state. Had the Lincoln administration considered the Confederacy to be a foreign nation, this bill could have been legally imposed under international law. However, Lincoln insisted that the Confederacy was merely a rebellious section of the U.S., and as such, under the Constitution the Federal government could not interfere with commerce within a state.

Lincoln also signed a bill into law authorizing a $250 million loan in bonds and treasury notes to the Federal government. According to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, this was needed to meet war expenditures, but it was not enough. The rest of the money needed to come from direct taxation.

The House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, began consideration of a new kind of bill that provided for two forms of taxation: direct real estate taxes apportioned among the states based on population, and excise taxes on certain items such as liquor or bank notes. However, the bill met strong opposition from midwesterners, many of whom were farmers who would pay much more in real estate taxes than eastern merchants.

After rejecting several other proposals, committee members drafted a bill that would levy an income tax on individuals and corporations. This marked the first time that the Federal government drafted legislation to directly tax Americans, and many argued that it was unconstitutional. Proponents asserted that the revenue it would generate was badly needed during this wartime emergency.

Other major bills involved raising troops for the war. Lincoln signed two bills into law authorizing the recruitment of 500,000 volunteers each. The second bill offered each volunteer a $100-bonus if they served two years; this aimed to counter this month’s expiration of many 90-day enlistments. Another measure authorized the creation of military boards to inspect officers and remove those unqualified for command. Minimum criteria for competency were adopted, although some officers continued to be elected by their men or appointed by their home state governors.

Lincoln also endorsed confiscating “rebel” property without due process, improving the U.S. Marine Corps, creating the office of assistant secretary of the navy, and providing “for the temporary increase in the navy.” A law indemnified the states for war-related expenses. Another law defined what constituted conspiring to overthrow the Federal government and imposed penalties for such activity. The Republicans rejected bills proposing a peaceful settlement with the Confederacy.

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Sources

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17547-82; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 56-57; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 43-44, 50-51; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 93-96, 101-03; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 380; 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. 298, 322, 327, 348; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 98-99; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 62-69