Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Civil War: Definition & Suspension

Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The writ of habeas corpus is an ancient law that acts to protect an arrested individual. Learn how President Lincoln utilized his executive powers to suspend the writ during the Civil War.

Understanding the Law

The overarching question is: what is the writ of habeas corpus? The simple answer is that the writ protects an individual against an unlawful arrest. The writ of habeas corpus was written into the United States Constitution under Article 1, Section 9. The law specifically cites that an individual who has been arrested may receive a judicial order to stand trial before a jury of his/her peers. Habeas corpus protects an arrested individual from facing unlawful detention without trial. However, the Constitution also states that the writ of habeas corpus may be suspended in the event of a 'rebellion or invasion;' Congress has the power to authorize arbitrary arrests of individuals who are deemed a threat to the United States.

Let's look at how the writ of habeas corpus surfaced during the Civil War.

Secessionist Fever

The Civil War was only in its infant stages during April 1861. One by one, southern states began seceding in a quasi-domino fashion. Maryland beamed with secessionist fever. Clashes between northern soldiers and pro-secession militia groups sparked an emotional outburst in Baltimore. Eventually, secessionists in Maryland barricaded Baltimore, sabotaged telegraph wires, railroads and bridges and sent a delegation to surround the United States capital. President Abraham Lincoln quickly responded by moving federal troops into Washington to defend the city. Lincoln then pursued an additional measure against the rebels - he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland on April 27, 1861.

With Lincoln's executive order decreed on April 27, General Winfield Scott was empowered to begin arbitrary arrests for any individual who attempted to subvert order or destroy federal property. One of the major arrests during the initial suspension of the writ was made against John Merryman, who was a lieutenant in a secessionist militia and a prominent Maryland aristocrat. He gave the order to have several telegraph lines cut and was therefore arrested. Fortunately, for Merryman, his arrest was quickly brought before an appeals court that was led by Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Challenging Lincoln's Executive Order

Chief Justice Taney quickly ruled against Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus as largely unconstitutional. Taney's argument centered on the fact that habeas corpus had been written into the Constitution as a legislative power, not an executive power. Therefore, only Congress had the ability to suspend the writ of habeas corpus (unfortunately, Congress, in 1861, could never suspend the writ due to timely filibustering by members of the Democratic Party).

Notwithstanding Taney's ruling, Lincoln decided that the order to suspend habeas corpus was within his executive power as commander-in-chief. Lincoln ignored Taney's position, and countered with the fact that it was the president's sole constitutional responsibility to defend the nation from rebellion, which meant the pursuit of any measure necessary to achieve victory. Taney was powerless and could do nothing to stop Lincoln. By September 24, 1862, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus throughout the nation.

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