Virginia Restrictions on Virginians' Civil Liberties
Property rights, a liberty long held sacred in the South, came under attack toward the end of the war. In 1863, Virginia created a miniature welfare system by allowing state commissioners to set food costs and forcefully purchase food from citizens and then re-sell or give it to persons classified as needy. Commissioners purchased food at one-half and even as low as one-quarter of the market value. Intended to fight inflation and feed the hungry, this initiative encouraged speculation. Third parties purchased food they did not need themselves and then re-sold it to starving civilians until October 1863 when the Virginia legislature restructured the state stores to serve the needy only.
Although Virginians requested the elimination of civil liberties and the state passed laws to the same effect, many of the acts were clearly undertaken with wartime necessity in mind. With the exception of some armed resistance to the draft in Southwest Virginia and areas that became West Virginia, Virginians generally accepted the necessity of less liberty during wartime, directing their anger not at the state but at the Confederate government.
Confederate Restrictions on Virginians' Civil Liberties
Because Richmond doubled as the state and national capital, the actions of the Confederate Congress and president deeply affected the civil liberties of Virginians, especially those who opposed secession and favored the old union. In August 1861, the Confederate legislature passed three acts for ensuring national unity through the loyalty of its citizens. The Alien Enemies Act provided power for the government to arrest any person living in the Confederacy who did not acknowledge himself as a citizen of the Confederate States of America. This measure enabled the Confederacy to deal with secession opponents and Unionists by forcing them either to leave the country or to acknowledge their loyalty. The second step in dealing with secession opponents and Unionists came in the form of the Sequestration Act, which allowed the government to confiscate any property belonging to non-Confederate citizens.
Confederate policies also affected the civil liberties of loyal Confederates in Virginia. The Confederate Congress authorized the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus from February 1862 until February 1863 and again from February 1864 until August 1864, and afterward authorized Confederate president Jefferson Davis to suspend the writ as he saw fit. The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus allowed the government to hold a prisoner indefinitely without presenting to a court the evidentiary reasons for the arrest. Additionally, civilians found their travel restricted by the Confederate government in the autumn of 1862 when Congress created a civilian pass system. Though promptly issuing exemptions to its own members, Congress forbade civilian travel without the approval of national authorities. The Confederate government also prohibited the sale of liquor in 1862. Although the government explained those measures with appeals to order, unity, and preventing desertion in the army, the restrictions also represented the efforts of the Confederate government to enforce social policy outside the realm of military necessity.
A few Confederate policies that decreased civil liberties did, however, stick closer to military necessity. On April 16, 1862, the Confederacy enacted a national draft designed to increase the fighting numbers of the army. Although Virginia governor John Letcher opposed the national draft as unconstitutional, he made no efforts to thwart it, believing that the Confederacy needed the soldiers. In September of the same year, Confederate general Robert E. Lee enacted a pass system for soldiers designed to halt fraternization with civilians by requiring soldiers to obtain written permission to leave their camps. Directly affecting the fighting maintenance of the army, these measures were seen by civilians as tolerable even though they truncated some of the freedoms of soldiers and civilians alike.
Occupation, Federal Restrictions on Virginians' Civil Liberties
For many years historians concluded that the Confederate government, in contrast to the Lincoln administration, fought the war without impeding upon the liberties of its citizens. This claim noted the absence of any landmark civil liberties cases in the Confederacy similar to Ex Parte Merryman, Ex Parte Milligan, or the arrest of a well-known administration opponent, such as Lincoln's arrest of Ohio's antiwar congressman Clement L. Vallandigham. Historians have since discovered the existence of the Confederacy's Habeas Corpus Commissions, its enactment of martial law, and its suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.
August 1861 - The Confederate Congress passes the Alien Enemies Act and the Sequestration Act, and establishes the Habeas Corpus Commissioner, who is granted the power to arrest any Confederate citizen and question his or her loyalty.
March 1, 1862 - Confederate president Jefferson Davis declares martial law and suspends both civil jurisdiction and the writ of habeas corpus in Richmond.
February 15, 1864 - For a second time, the Confederate Congress suspends the writ of habeas corpus.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: June 1, 2010 | Last modified: July 18, 2012
Contributed by Daniel James (Jim) Flook, seasonal park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park and a PhD candidate at the University of Florida. He specializes in legal/constitutional history and the American Civil War era. His dissertation concerns the use of constitutional rhetoric in public policy debates in the north during the Civil War.