Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2023


Howard Law Journal





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In his work, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, James Oakes provides an overview of several Civil War era legal instruments regarding enslavement in the United States. One of the statutes he examines is An Act to Confiscate Property Used for Insurrectionary Purposes, passed by the Thirty Seventh Congress in August, 1861. This law, popularly known as the First Confiscation Act (FCA), is one of the several "Confiscation Acts" that contributed to the weakening of legal enslavement during the War. Fortunately, scholars have contextualized and deemphasized President Lincoln's role as the "Great Emancipator" by examining the works of Congress during the War and by shifting focus to the actions of the enslaved, as they emancipated themselves by fleeing Confederate states. However, many scholars tend to mirror their treatment of Lincoln in the Confiscation Acts by either spreading historical false- hood or twisting the congressional narrative with hyperbole. Some historians overstate the intent and legal effect of the Confiscation Acts, and in Freedom National, Oakes is one of those historians.

The purpose of this Essay is to examine Oakes's treatment of the First Confiscation Act through a review of congressional sources. After looking at the congressional debates and other evidence from the War, scholars must hold Lincoln and Civil War historians accountable for their statements; statements that can be misleading and damaging to desired historical accuracy. We are all attempting to uncover the truth about this oft-mentioned era of American history. In our highly racialized society, where the history of enslavement in the United States remains deeply significant, close scrutiny of the historical narrative is necessary. It is for these reasons, that I respectfully offer this critique of Oakes's narrative surrounding the FCA.



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