Throughout 1861 and well into 1862 conciliation was the official policy of the Lincoln administration. The hope was that the Confederate secessionists could be returned to the Union with a minimum of blood and destruction. In fact these hopes lasted right up to the repulse of McClellan’s advance on Richmond in the early summer of 1862.
In the space of the month of July Northern newspapers went from endorsing conciliation at the beginning of the month to publishing bitter editorials by the end of the month. The Lincoln administration realizing that their policy of conciliation would not work agreed. New orders were dispatched to the Union armies that called for the confiscation of Southern property. The armies were encouraged to live off the land as they moved through the Southern countryside.
Meanwhile, the Congress was debating a new and harsher confiscation bill proposed by Sen. Lyman Trumbull (R-IL). Put forward in December 1861 and debated for six months it called for the confiscation of all property, both real and personal, of anyone living where the rebellion made ordinary judicial proceedings impossible, provided that the owner was in arms against the Government or aiding in the rebellion. It also provided for the emancipation of the convicted person’s slaves and their transportation to a colony.
Supporters of conciliation within the Congress railed against the proposed bill as an indiscriminate assault against the rights of all Southerners, loyal or rebellious. Others denounced it as unconstitutional. Many said that it was bad policy. Their argument had been heard before, claiming that the passage of the bill would turn any Union sentiment in the South into support for the Confederacy.
The Radical Republicans were having none of these arguments and insisted that the bill must be passed but in a stronger form than Trumbull’s draft. The bill was seen more as a vehicle for the emancipation of Southern slaves than anything else. On the other hand the War Democrats saw the bill as a necessary means to put down the rebellion. Both sides did agree that it was a means to punish the “landed proprietors” who they blamed for the rebellion.
After much debate the bill was referred to a select Senate committee who modified the bill to reflect some of the constitutional concerns of the moderate Republicans. The bill mandated that property could only be confiscated after an individual was convicted of inciting or engaging in rebellion. It permitted the President to emancipate the slaves of rebels who resided in areas still under rebellion six months after the bill’s passage. It also authorized the President to enlist blacks as soldiers. The bill was then sent to the House.
In the House the bill had a rockier time and a select committee was formed in the hopes that it could break the various deadlocks. The House select committee reported out two bills. One dealt with confiscation, the other with emancipation. The confiscation bill was rejected outright by the Senate while the emancipation bill languished while it seemed that McClellan might capture Richmond and end the war.
In the Western Theater, Union forces had sliced deep into the Confederacy and by the end of May 1862 they had captured the strategic rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi. It seemed certain that with victories in both theaters the rebellion was about to be crushed. Then, the unexpected happened as it often does in war.
With the vast Union Army a mere five miles from Richmond the two armies fought a battle at Seven Pines. The Confederate commander General Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded by shell fragments and was carried from the field. Jefferson Davis immediately appointed his military adviser General Robert E. Lee as his replacement.
The change in leadership of the Confederate Army in the field as a result of Seven Pines had a profound effect on the war. On June 24, 1862, McClellan’s massive Army of the Potomac was within 6 miles (9.7 km) of the Confederate capital of Richmond; Union soldiers wrote that they could hear church bells ringing in the city. Within 90 days, however, Robert E. Lee had driven McClellan from the Peninsula,Pope had been soundly beaten at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and the battle lines were 20 miles (32 km) from the Union capital in Washington.
Despite a string of victories, McClellan continued to withdraw south to the safety of Harrison’s Landing where he was supported by the guns of the Union Navy. It was here that he met with Lincoln and delivered to him a letter outlining his views on conciliation. But Lincoln simply ignored his letter and turned instead to military matters.
The President realized that the window for conciliation was rapidly closing and that the war had moved beyond that approach. The two houses of Congress finally came to a compromise agreement and presented the President with the bill which he signed on July 17, 1862. The bill because of its requirement that confiscation cases be tried in court did not severely damage the Southern economy.
However, it did accomplish two goals. It punished the Southern aristocracy who the Union Congress viewed as the ones who started the war. It was blow against slavery with its emancipation provisions. Most importantly, it signaled both the Southerners and the Union Army that the official policy of conciliation was ended.