In direct response to General Benjamin Butler’s decision at Fort Monroe in May of 1861, Congress passed a law saying any property used expressly for armed insurrection against
the Federal government would be captured by Union forces to use as contraband of war. The law itself included the authorization of troops to confiscate slaves with little or no intention of returning them to their masters in the southern states. In terms of military strategy, the law helped the Union army gain a labor advantage over the southern rebel forces as slaves captured or fleeing to northern camps were then used for jobs such as cooking or clearing land for the army to march through or helping build up defenses just as they had when under the control of their southern masters.
The Second Confiscation Act went further than the first one had. Approved by Congress in July of 1862, the law said, “every person who shall hereafter commit the crime of treason against the United States, and shall be adjudged guilty thereof, shall suffer death, and all his slaves, if any, shall be declared and made free; or, at the discretion of the court, he shall be imprisoned for not less than five years and fined not less than ten thousand dollars, and all his slaves, if any, shall be declared and made free.” This was a huge shift in the tactics to be used by Congress and the Union Army. Prior to both Confiscation Acts, Lincoln had worked tirelessly to prevent any interference with slavery and keeping the cause of the war to that of preserving the Union. In fact, he doubted the very legality of the acts. He even went as far to provide a veto message for the record while still signing it into law to let his position known.
This second law said, very plainly, that those southern states in rebellion were treasonous and their slaves would be captured and freed. The limitation of this second law was that the charges of treason were expected to be decided in court. Since there weren’t any precedents set for treason charges, or the freeing of slaves, it wasn’t exactly something that could be easily done. In fact, few cases ever came before a judge. In addition, the death penalty was not specified as strictly necessary and was left up to the court’s discretion to decide the leniency of a sentence.
While both Confiscation Acts didn’t immediately change the strategy of the Union forces, they did provide sanctuary for escaped slaves coming into Union lines and sent a message to the Confederacy that indeed the war was becoming more about the future of slavery.
By: Will Sullivan