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The Politics of War: Legislation & Executive Actions

The Politics of War: Legislation & Executive Actions
Coming up next: The Effect of War on Civilians in the United States: The Impact on Daily Life & the Economy

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  • 0:45 Funding the War
  • 2:53 Recruiting Men
  • 4:23 Harming the Enemy
  • 6:46 Building up the Home Front
  • 9:25 Opposition at Home
  • 12:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will explore the laws and executive actions the U.S. and Confederate governments used to support the war effort. We will also discuss the prisoner exchange system and the political opposition to the war on both sides.

Orders From on High

During the Civil War, the U.S. and Confederate governments passed legislation and issued executive orders that were designed to support the war effort and advance the Union or Confederate cause. The Republicans, led by President Abraham Lincoln, controlled the North, while the Democrats, led by President Jefferson Davis, controlled the South.

These two political parties focused much of their attention on funding the war, recruiting men to fight, harming their enemies through political means and building up their home fronts. Along the way, both sides met with political opposition at home that sometimes threatened to unravel, or at least slow down the momentum of the war.

Funding the War

Money was a top priority for both the Union and Confederate governments. Armies were expensive. Fighting men needed food, clothing, shelter, weapons and wages, and none of those items were cheap.

The South tried to raise necessary funds in several ways:

1. Certificates of credit

Confederate armies simply took the goods they needed from local farmers and planters and handed out certificates of credit that could be redeemed from state or federal government. These certificates were pretty much worthless, however, because governments usually had no money to pay back the holders.

2. Cotton loans

The Confederate government purchased large amounts of cotton and then issued bonds, payable in cotton, to various overseas suppliers in return for supplies, like shoes or guns.

3. Tax-in-kind

In 1863, the Confederacy passed a law ordering planters and farmers to pay 8% of their cotton and 10% of other crops directly to the government.

4. Issuing currency

Finally, the state and federal governments issued mountains of currency that soon proved worthless because it was not backed by gold or silver.

The North, too, had to find ways to fund the war. The U.S. government, however, followed a different path than the Confederates. On February 25, 1862, it passed the Legal Tender Act that created a stable, national currency, called the 'greenback' for its color. This currency, which was stamped with the federal seal, had to be accepted everywhere for all debts, public or private. Therefore, the government could use these new greenbacks to pay soldiers and purchase supplies.

The next year, 1863, the U.S. passed the National Banking Act and the National Currency Act that set up an easy, reliable way to sell government bonds and issue banknotes. They also increased people's trust in the banking system because many banks were now chartered by the federal government.

Recruiting Fighting Men

If the war was going to continue, both sides needed men as well as money. By 1862, the Confederacy was already short on soldiers. The Confederate government passed the Conscription Act on April 16, 1862. Every man between the ages of 18 and 35 had to enroll for military service. If chosen, he would serve three years in the army.

The act provided exemptions for several professions, as well as the 'twenty Negro' provision that allowed one man to remain on a plantation that had 20 or more slaves. Wealthier men could also hire substitutes if they so chose. Eventually, as the army's ranks further diminished, the government expanded the act's age range to men ages 17 to 50.

The North also needed more fighting men. On July 17, 1862, the U.S. government passed the Militia Act that required states to either raise a certain number of soldiers or be subject to a draft. When this act failed to supply enough soldiers, the U.S. passed the Enrollment Act on March 3, 1864. Every man ages 20 through 45 had to register for the draft. If chosen for service, he could accept his term in the military, hire a substitute or pay a $300 commutation fee. The commutation fee was eliminated in July 1864.

Harming the Enemy and Asserting Control

The U.S. and Confederate governments both wanted to harm their enemies and assert control over as much territory as possible. Politically, there was little the South could do against the North, for the Confederates were usually fighting a defensive war on their home territory.

The North, however, was fighting a war of invasion and occupation, and the U.S. government passed several laws designed to hit the Confederates hard. On August 6, 1861, the Union passed the First Confiscation Act, which authorized the Union army to seize any Confederate property that was being used to support the Confederate war effort. This included slaves, especially if they were working on any sort of military project. Slaves seized in this way were labeled 'contraband.'

On July 6, 1862, the Union passed the Second Confiscation Act. This one allowed the Union to seize the property, land and slaves of any person disloyal to the United States. Slaves seized in this manner were declared free.

Both of these acts were steps leading to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, an executive order in which Abraham Lincoln declared the slaves in Confederate-controlled territories forever free. The Proclamation was intended to strengthen the war effort in the North by providing a rallying point and a strong moral objective. It was also meant to strike at the southern economy and traditional way of life, which were exactly what the Confederates were trying to protect.

Implementing the Proclamation was not easy, however, since it applied to areas under Confederate control. As the Union army gradually moved south and conquered more territory, Lincoln set up military governments to administer the formerly Confederate cities and lands. The President appointed military governors, like Andrew Johnson in Tennessee and General George F. Shepley in Louisiana. These men had the tasks of enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation, regulating daily life in occupied areas and strengthening Union supply lines. Confederates typically hated these military governors because they required citizens to follow strict rules, swear loyalty oaths to the United States and surrender their property to the Union war effort.

Building Up the Home Front

During the war, both the North and the South worked hard to build up their home fronts. This was especially important in the South, which was an agricultural society and had always lagged behind in industrial development. Now, however, the Confederacy had to deal with major material shortages. The army needed everything, from guns to underwear, and the government had to build a manufacturing sector in a hurry.

Under the guidance of Quartermaster General Abraham Myers, the government built and operated factories and warehouses, turning cities like Atlanta and Charlotte into major manufacturing centers almost overnight. The Confederate government also reorganized its railroad system, constructing new railroads and joining together already existing lines.

The North was pretty well set as far as manufacturing and railroads were concerned, so the U.S. government could turn its attention to expanding westward. To promote settlement, Congress passed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. Under this act, settlers would receive 160 acres of land if they promised to reside on their homestead for five years and improve it as much as they could. The government hoped that the promise of land would draw a multitude of immigrants, some of whom would fight for the Union before taking their turn at cultivating and taming the West.

Along with the Homestead Act, Congress also passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which promoted higher education by setting up land-grant colleges to teach agriculture and other necessary subjects, and the Pacific Railroad Act, which chartered the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad Companies to build the first transcontinental railroad.

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