- The Civil War Confifiscation Acts: Failing to Reconstruct the South
This book describes the passage and enforcement of the First and Second Confiscation Acts. The First Confiscation Act, passed in the summer of 1861, was designed to seize property, mainly slaves used to support the Confederacy. The Second Confiscation Act, passed a year later, was intended to confiscate all property from those who supported the Confederacy. Little property was actually confiscated under either act and the Emancipation Proclamation made them irrelevant in freeing slaves, which may be why there has been relatively little work on the topic. However, Syrett argues convincingly that the political struggle to pass the acts illustrates how thinking about the war effort shifted from the desire to restore the Union to the desire to abolish slavery, and the forces that led to the failure to enforce the provisions of the acts were also responsible for the failure of Reconstruction to significantly redistribute land to newly freed slaves.
The First Confiscation Act was passed, without much debate, in response to military reverses and the dilemma faced by Union commanders when fugitive slaves crossed the Union lines. Neither Lincoln nor his attorney general Edward Bates made much effort to enforce it. Lincoln consistently opposed harsh punishment for rebels because of his focus on restoring the Union. Frustration with this failure led supporters to push for the passage of the Second Confiscation Act, which its authors hoped would result in larger amounts of Confederate property being seized, land distributed to newly freed slaves, and the destruction of the planter class.
The political battle to pass the Second Act makes it clear that there was little consensus among Republicans as to how to punish Confederate supporters, [End Page 90] restore the Union, or end slavery. The compromise version that finally passed did not accomplish the original goals of its supporters. Although its passage may have helped pushed Lincoln to widen the focus of the war effort from restoring the Union to the ending of slavery, it never had his support. Both acts were enforced "late, minimally and with tight control" (186). Republican support both for confiscation and land for the freedman declined after the summer of 1862. Given the political realities Syrett reveals in his detailed discussion of the debate, it is not surprising that Reconstruction failed to accomplish significant redistribution of land in the South.
This book is very well written. Syrett's use of archival and other sources allows him to give a very complete account of the political climate that surrounded the passage of the Confiscation Acts as well military confiscation and enforcement of the acts by the courts. His discussion contains new insights into Northern thinking about winning the war, how the Union should be restored, and what course should be taken in reconstructing the South.