Arrest, Arbitrary, During the Civil War

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ARREST, ARBITRARY, DURING THE CIVIL WAR. Freedom from arbitrary arrest, guaranteed in the writ of habeas corpus, has long been a centerpiece of American civil liberties. During the Civil War, however, President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and arrested antiwar protesters to suppress dissent. Under presidential orders, the federal government required residents to carry passports, organized a secret service, and cooperated with local police to apprehend suspects. The government also circumvented the civil liberties of political prisoners. Although federal officials usually detained suspects for only short periods, they did so without any regular hearings.

Furthermore, the federal government sometimes used military commissions to try civilians for their crimes. Although the Supreme Court did not question the power of such commissions during the war, their use outside the war zone for the trial of civilians was declared unconstitutional after the war. High-ranking politicians were not immune from conviction; federal agents imprisoned several prominent politicians, including the mayors of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Congressman Henry May, and former Kentucky governor Charles S. Morehead, as well as many Northern newspaper editors. Historians do not know exactly how many people the government arrested for antiwar protests during the Civil War, although estimates vary from just over 13,000 to as many as 38,000. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and other jurists questioned Lincoln's actions and held that only Congress could suspend habeas corpus. The president, however, defended his position in a series of open letters and continued to arrest antiwar protesters, even after 3 March 1863, when federal lawmakers required the government to release or subject political prisoners to regular judicial procedure.

The Confederacy likewise made summary arrests to suppress disloyalty. The Confederacy's success was small, however, not only because political prisoners became popular martyrs but also because numerous champions of states' rights resisted Confederate policy.


Duker, William F. A Constitutional History of Habeas Corpus. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Martin P.Claussen

Eric J.Morser

See alsoCopperheads ; Habeas Corpus, Writ of ; Vallandigham Incident .

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Arrest, Arbitrary, During the Civil War

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