We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

The Civil War Confiscation Acts

Failing to Reconstruct the South

John Syrett

Publication Year: 2005

This book is the first full account in more than 20 years of two significant, but relatively understudied, laws passed during the Civil War. The Confiscation Acts (1861-62) were designed to sanction slave holding states by authorizing the Federal Government to seize rebel properties (including land and other assets held in Northern and border states) and grant freedom to slaves who fought with or worked for the Confederate military. Abraham Lincoln objected to the Acts for fear they might push border states, particularly Missouri and Kentucky, into secession. The Acts were eventually rendered moot by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. John Syrett examines the political contexts of the Acts, especially the debates in Congress, and demonstrates how the failure of the confiscation acts during the war presaged the political and structural shortcomings of Reconstruction after the war.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

pdf iconDownload PDF (102.0 KB)
pp. iii-v


pdf iconDownload PDF (86.9 KB)
pp. vii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (67.3 KB)
pp. ix

This book began as a dissertation over 35 years ago when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. Professor Stanley I. Kutler suggested the topic and advised me along the way to its completion. Without his interest and advice on how to proceed, it probably would not have been finished. I was not the most persistent student, and his patience with me proved a blessing, both...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (74.3 KB)
pp. xi-xiii

In the summer of 1861, as slaves entered Union lines and the North faltered on the battlefield, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, the text of which can be found in the appendix to this book. Proposed by Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, the first act meant to confiscate property, primarily slaves, used to aid the Confederacy. Although the act freed few if any slaves, in part...

read more

Chapter 1: The First Confiscation Act

pdf iconDownload PDF (156.2 KB)
pp. 1-19

Samuel Gridley Howe and other abolitionists believed that with the firing on Fort Sumter, God had ‘‘opened the way’’ for the emancipation of the slaves and the subjugation of the ‘‘Slave power.’’1 This, to be sure, was a view only a small minority shared when the Civil War began on April 12, 1861. Most in the North, including President Abraham Lincoln, hoped that the war...

read more

Chapter 2: The Second Confiscation Act: The Act and Its Opponents

pdf iconDownload PDF (127.2 KB)
pp. 20-34

By December 1861 there were several indications in the North that some form of confiscation, mostly related to slavery, had gained public support. In Massachusetts, Amos Lawrence, a merchant and abolitionist, wrote the editor of a Boston newspaper that he supported ‘‘the policy of confiscating the property and freeing the slaves’’ of all rebels. In Philadelphia, Sidney...

read more

Chapter 3: The Second Act: Divided Republican Support and Flawed Result

pdf iconDownload PDF (149.2 KB)
pp. 35-54

Republican differences over the Second Confiscation Act reveal the limits of the radicals’ influence in the Thirty-seventh Congress, at least on confiscation. The ineffective provisions of the second act also demonstrate the distaste for special legislation, as Michael Les Benedict has termed it, in mid-nineteenth century. If Senators Sumner, Wade, and Trumbull and...

read more

Chapter 4: Enforcement of the Second Act: Lincoln and Bates

pdf iconDownload PDF (139.5 KB)
pp. 55-72

Although Lincoln acknowledged the importance of the second act in a number of instances in the weeks after its passage, he and Attorney General Edward Bates chose not to implement the law vigorously. Lincoln used the second act in various ways, but not to punish those who aided the rebellion or to change the property relations in the South. In the end, the...

read more

Chapter 5: Early Military Confiscation

pdf iconDownload PDF (126.1 KB)
pp. 73-87

The military commanders and troops who conquered and occupied the South were potentially the best enforcers of the confiscation acts. They encountered confiscable property before any other government officials and, through martial law, could have prevented transfers of property titles. However, they could not confiscate property without going through the courts....

read more

Chapter 6: Rules of War and Later Military Confiscation

pdf iconDownload PDF (141.9 KB)
pp. 88-102

The military’s participation in confiscation occurred during a period of critical discussion about the rules of war. This discussion was clearly important for the conduct of the Civil War and later conflicts, but it did not have much effect on how the military involved itself with confiscation. The debate over the rules of war was, nonetheless, for it explains how both civilians...

read more

Chapter 7: The Treasury’s Part in Confiscation

pdf iconDownload PDF (133.3 KB)
pp. 103-119

If anyone in the administration might have had sympathy for confiscation and its aims, it should have been Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. He certainly had the greatest antislavery and radical reputation of the men Lincoln chose for the Cabinet.1 As well, the Treasury Department was authorized to handle a diverse assortment of property in the South as it followed...

read more

Chapter 8: The Politics of Confiscation

pdf iconDownload PDF (132.8 KB)
pp. 120-136

The failure of the confiscation acts, particularly the second, owed much to the inattention and declining interest of the Republicans in Congress. Except for one inquiry about implementation in the District of Columbia in early 1863, Republicans ignored the acts until early 1864. Although Congress had created the Committee on the Conduct of the War to monitor...

read more

Chapter 9: Andrew Johnson and the End of Confiscation

pdf iconDownload PDF (138.3 KB)
pp. 137-154

The succession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency in April 1865 produced a shift in the enforcement of the confiscation acts. Lincoln had implemented the acts conservatively with the willing assistance of Attorney General Bates. When it suited his plans for emancipation, Lincoln had invoked the second act. Otherwise, until his December 1863 proclamation on...

read more

Chapter 10: Confiscation and the Courts: Jurisdiction and Procedures

pdf iconDownload PDF (125.5 KB)
pp. 155-168

Despite the expectations of both confiscation’s supporters and opponents, the Supreme Court liberally interpreted the First and Second Confiscation Acts. It granted Congress the benefit of the doubt on jurisdictional and procedural questions and accepted the constitutional argument for confiscation, thereby permitting the acts as broad a scope as their...

read more

Chapter 11: Confiscation and the Courts: Constitutionality and Duration

pdf iconDownload PDF (135.8 KB)
pp. 169-184

The Supreme Court’s decisions on substantive confiscation issues were important for several reasons. The support for confiscation’s constitutionality in Miller v. United States (1870)1 vindicated those who had proposed and supported the First and Second Confiscation Acts in Congress. Although two justices did dissent in Miller over its constitutionality, the majority’s...

read more

Chapter 12: Conclusion

pdf iconDownload PDF (82.7 KB)
pp. 185-189

Although the confiscation acts did not accomplish their goals, they were still important measures that represented many Northerners’ concerns about how the war should be prosecuted and applied pressure on President Lincoln to expand the Union’s objectives. They promised a radical alteration of property relations in the South and the prospect of distributing land...


pdf iconDownload PDF (108.1 KB)
pp. 191-196


pdf iconDownload PDF (456.3 KB)
pp. 197-248

Selected Bibliography

pdf iconDownload PDF (172.5 KB)
pp. 249-267


pdf iconDownload PDF (150.0 KB)
pp. 269-282

E-ISBN-13: 9780823247585
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823224890
Print-ISBN-10: 0823224899

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2005

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Confiscations and contributions.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access