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  • "Twenty-Negro," or Overseer LawA Reconsideration
  • John M. Sacher (bio)

On October 11, 1862, the Confederate Congress revised its conscription policy. The original act, passed in April 1862, had provided a list of exemptions for essential home-front occupations, including Confederate and state officers; mail carriers; teachers; nurses; printers; apothecaries; ministers; employees in mines, furnaces, and foundries; and men working on the railroads. In thinking about the requirements of the home front, legislators had forgotten several fundamental needs, among them the need to supervise the nation's slave population. In the antebellum South, the control of slaves, particularly on plantations, often rested in the hands of white overseers. In addition to performing their police role, overseers also contributed to crop yield, as white southerners presumed slaves worked more efficiently and produced larger crops under direct white supervision. The modified conscription law recognized the Confederacy's need for overseers: it stipulated that in order "to secure the proper police of the country" on each plantation with twenty or more slaves on "which there is no white male adult not liable to military service," one person shall be exempted from conscription while engaged as an overseer.1

This exemption, more commonly known as the "twenty-negro" or "twenty-slave" law, merits a close reexamination in its historical context focusing on the demand for it, its multiple iterations, and its enforcement. Such investigation leads to the conclusion that the legislation should properly be termed the "overseer" law, not the "twenty-negro" law. The measure should not be considered solely in terms of its effect on class relationships in the Confederacy. Instead, it represented an attempt to balance the competing needs of the Confederate army (an insatiable demand for soldiers) and the home front (food production and slave control). Additionally, sensitive to its potential to undermine class harmony, Confederate legislators, in response to criticisms, twice altered the law to mitigate social conflict. When one examines these factors, one is struck not by politicians' callousness toward common folk but instead by their sincere efforts to achieve [End Page 269] the competing goals of maintaining an army in the field, supervising the Confederacy's slave workforce, and keeping the support of non-slaveholders. Also, the government closely regulated who could take advantage of the overseer law's provisions. In fact, the best evidence available indicates that less than 10 percent of southern planters received exemptions, and they often received exemptions for experienced overseers, not for themselves or their sons.

Nevertheless, the law, particularly when considered in conjunction with both the ability of prospective conscripts to provide substitutes in their place and perceived abuses of the exemption system, fueled allegations during and after the war that the conflict had become a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight." In an often-cited letter, Mississippi senator James Phelan admonished Jefferson Davis, "Never did a law meet with more universal odium than the exemption of slave owners." Writing two months after the measure's passage, Phelan, who had voted against the exemption and planned to propose a new law rescinding it, contended that even planters recognized its "gross injustice" and that "its influence on the poor is most calamitous." Specifically, Phelan warned that recusant conscripts had banded together to resist the measure and that it had planted seeds of revolt within the army.2

Many scholars have adopted Phelan's opinion of the overseer exemption; they posit the twenty-negro law as a key plank in their argument that the Confederacy collapsed from internal class fissures. The traditional view of Confederate conscription starts with Albert Burton Moore's 1924 Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy, which remains the standard text on the subject. Moore proclaimed that the twenty-negro law "caused much dissatisfaction among the masses and in the ranks. It was regarded as pure class legislation." Other historians agree. In Masters without Slaves, James Roark contends that "the law allowed planters and their sons to avoid conscription." Paul Escott, in After Secession, blames the twenty-negro law for "open[ing] a breach between the planter class and the small farmers and non-slaveholders."3

Some scholars who emphasize a Confederacy imploding from class conflict...


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