Author: Susanna Michele Lee

an associate professor in the history department at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
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Twenty-Slave Law

The Twenty-Slave Law, passed by the Confederate Congress on October 11, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861–1865), created an exemption to military conscription for the owners of twenty or more slaves. The law was controversial in much of the South, where it served to exacerbate certain social rifts and led to claims by drafted soldiers that they were fighting a “rich man’s war.” The law did not generate as much opposition in Virginia, home to the Confederacy’s largest population of slaves. Supporters viewed the law as essential in guarding against slave rebellion and in maintaining agriculture and industry and, therefore, the nation’s ability to carry on the war effort. The Confederate Congress later amended the law to alleviate concerns, limiting the ability of plantation owners to evade military service.

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Southern Claims Commission in Virginia, The

The Southern Claims Commission was created by Congress on March 3, 1871, to compensate southern Unionists for property appropriated by the Union army during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Although claims for reimbursement had been made since early in the war, many in Congress had resisted authorizing their payment. They feared fraud and dismissed the sincerity of Unionism in the South. Once former Confederate states began to be readmitted to the Union, however, pressure mounted and the law passed. The act required the president to appoint three commissioners to “receive, examine, and consider the justice and validity” of claims for “stores and supplies” taken by the Union army in the Confederate states. The commissioners reported their decisions on each claim to Congress for approval and appropriation. Because the Union presence was so extensive in the state, Virginians submitted 3,197 claims, the second largest number after Tennessee. The claims from Virginia suggest the wide diversity of Unionism in the state during the war. White men often expressed their loyalty by opposing secession, while African Americans sought freedom from slavery and women worked within their traditional gender roles to assist the Union war effort. Over time, the Southern Claims Commission lost support and was seen as divisive. It finished its work in 1880.

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Refugees during the Civil War

Virginia possessed the largest number of the estimated 200,000 Southerners who fled their homes during the American Civil War (1861–1865). There were three broad classes of refugees in Virginia during the war—slaves, white Unionists and other dissidents, and Confederates—although historians have tended to focus only on Confederates. These three groups shared some of the same dislocations, but their experiences of the war differed dramatically. White and black Unionists and dissidents who fled to Union lines contributed to the Northern war effort. Confederates, in contrast, bitterly resented the Union invaders, but the hardships of refugee life exacerbated feelings of war weariness. This, combined with social divisions inside Virginia, factored into Confederate defeat.

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Free Blacks during the Civil War

Free blacks in Virginia numbered 58,042 on the eve of the American Civil War (1861–1865), or about 44 percent of the future Confederacy’s free black population. Of the slave states, only Maryland had a larger population, with 83,942. Free blacks were concentrated in Virginia’s cities. According to the 1860 census, the greatest number, 3,244, resided in Petersburg, followed by Richmond with 2,576, Alexandria with 1,415, and Norfolk with 1,046. Free blacks included men and women of African descent who were born free or who gained their freedom before the war through manumission. Virginia officially required freed slaves to leave the state after 1806, but many remained in violation of the law. Of course, many more African Americans became free during the war, escaping the fighting as refugees or claiming legal freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Although Confederate propagandists insisted that free blacks would support the Confederate cause, their service was often rendered only by the threat of violence. In the meantime, concerns about their loyalty combined with their disproportionate wartime suffering contributed to Virginia’s internal divisions and exposed the weaknesses of Confederate ideology.

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