Civil Liberties in Virginia during the Civil War


Virginians willingly sacrificed various civil liberties during the American Civil War (1861–1865) in hopes that a victory would establish greater security and liberty in the future. During the course of the war, Virginians interacted with three governments: the Virginia state government, the Confederate government, and the United States government. All curtailed the freedoms protected in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and, subsequently, Article 1, section 9 of the Confederate Constitution, including the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and redress (petition). Civil liberties have also traditionally included concerns among white Southerners over their ability to reasonably do as they please without government interference. Although historians would, for many years, claim that the Confederacy did not curtail rights in the fashion of the U.S. government, there were, in fact, many such instances. Both the Virginia General Assembly and the Confederate Congress passed drafts and restricted property rights. Travel also was restricted. The Confederate Congress declared martial law, prohibited the sale of alcohol, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. An entire Habeas Corpus Commission was established whose commissioners could arrest any Confederate citizen and question his or her loyalty. Although there were protests, mostly directed at the Confederate government, most Virginia citizens accepted these limits on their freedoms as the price of military victory.

Virginia Restrictions on Virginians’ Civil Liberties

Richmond Bread Riot

State restrictions on civil liberties typically occurred at the request of civilians seeking a solution to social chaos or by the legislature seeking to maintain an effective fighting force. The enlistment of numerous white males in the Confederate army along with an invading enemy force helped create social chaos. The absence of the men decreased food production, increased the ratio of the slave population relative to the rest of the population, and frequently removed local leaders from their offices. Crimes of theft, usually related to food, convinced several Virginia communities, including Lynchburg, Petersburg, and Richmond, to request a declaration of martial law from the Confederate government. Petersburg requested martial law March 4, 1862. Such an act yielded governance from locally elected civilian authorities to the national government, which would use military force to keep the peace. This curtailed the ability of citizens to voice their opinions about government via local elections since those local officials had given up their authority. Early in 1862, the Virginia General Assembly moved to enact a state draft to fulfill Virginia’s quota of soldiers owed to the Confederacy. The state draft required sheriffs and local officials to enroll all persons between the ages of 18 and 45 in one class and those aged 16–18 and 45–60 in a second class. Many considered the draft a violation of civil liberties because participation in the army limited what a person could and could not do. The state enacted a draft on February 8, 1862, but it had little effect on Virginians in the wake of a Confederate national draft, which followed two months later.

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.

Castle Thunder Prison

Most famously, the Confederacy used the act to confiscate Thomas Jefferson‘s Monticello, then owned by a captain in the United States Navy. Enforcement of those laws fell to the Habeas Corpus Commissioner, a position created by the president in August 1861 and approved by the Confederate Congress in 1862. The commissioner and his associates exercised the powers of a court and could also arrest any Confederate citizen and question his or her loyalty. However, the subject under arrest was not entitled to a lawyer, a jury, or any of the legal protections allowed to a defendant in court. The government designated its opponents as political prisoners and dispatched them to prisons in Richmond or Salisbury. Often the only way to escape prison was to join the Confederate army, an operation that effectively turned the Habeas Corpus Commission into an additional conscription service.

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

Oath of Allegiance

The policies of the United States government determined the civil liberties of some Virginians during the war, through either military occupation or the creation of West Virginia. The administration of United States president Abraham Lincoln typically treated Southerners as people who had abdicated their civil liberties by the act of secession. The Union arrested approximately 2,000 civilians in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia during the war and called them “political prisoners,” a broad label that also included civilians accused of nonpolitical offenses. Union forces arrested several persons suspected of assisting partisan raider John Singleton Mosby in Virginia. They also imprisoned Confederate deserters crossing Union lines. In addition to those arrest policies, several other acts and proclamations affected Virginians. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in areas in rebellion against the United States. Moreover, the federal government used the 1861 and 1862 Confiscation Acts to take property from Confederate sympathizers.

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.
February 8, 1862
Virginia enacts a military draft.
February 27, 1862
The Confederate Congress suspends the writ of habeas corpus.
March 1, 1862
Confederate president Jefferson Davis declares martial law and suspends both civil jurisdiction and the writ of habeas corpus in Richmond.
March 4, 1862
Petersburg requests martial law.
April 16, 1862
The Confederate Congress passes the first Conscription Act, making all white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five eligible to be drafted into military service. (This is the first such draft in U.S. history.)
February 15, 1864
For a second time, the Confederate Congress suspends the writ of habeas corpus.
  • Blair, William A. Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861–1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Degler, Carl N. The Other South: Southern Dissenters in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1974.
  • Eaton, Clement. Freedom of Thought in the Old South. New York: Peter Smith, 1951.
  • Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Neely, Mark E., Jr. Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
  • Tatum, Georgia Lee. Disloyalty in the Confederacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1934.
APA Citation:
Flook, Jim. Civil Liberties in Virginia during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/civil-liberties-in-virginia-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Flook, Jim. "Civil Liberties in Virginia during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Mar. 2023
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