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Landmark Legislation: The Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862


Lyman Trumbull

As the Senate met in extraordinary session from July 4 to August 6, 1861, one of the wartime measures it considered was the Confiscation Act, designed to allow the federal government to seize property, including slave property, being used to support the Confederate rebellion. The Senate passed the final bill on August 5, 1861, by a vote 24 to 11, and it was signed into law by President Lincoln the next day. Although this bill had symbolic importance, it had little effect on the rebellion or wartime negotiations.

When Congress again convened in December, Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, proposed a more comprehensive confiscation bill. On December 2, 1861, Trumbull introducted the Confisctation Act of 1862 to allow for seizure of all Confederate porperty, whether or not it had been used to support hte rebellion. Before long, however, Trumbull's bill stalled due to idelogocial difference over the issue of confiscation. Radical Republicans called for a vigorous confiscation bill to seize property and free slaves, but more conservative members worried about expanding the reach of the federal government while denying property owners their constitutional rights.

Early in 1862, a group of moderate senators, led by Ohio’s John Sherman, produced a compromise bill that authorized the federal government to free slaves in conquered rebel territory and prohibited the return of fugitive slaves, while allowing for confiscation of Confederate property through court action. It also allowed the Union army to recruit African American soldiers. Although more aggressive than the first act, the Confiscation Act of 1862 also lacked enforcement capabilities. Loosely enforced by the Lincoln administration, the law was actively undermined by Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson.