U.S. Capitol Visitor Center U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

Go Back

Go to Interactive Version


THEME: WARTIME FINANCING AND LEGISLATION

The crisis of the Civil War called for bold legislative action as Congress passed laws to finance and support the war effort. After humiliating Union military defeats in 1861, Congress established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate all aspects of the Union army’s efforts. The secession of southern members allowed northern members of Congress to pass far-reaching legislation that had been stalled for years due to sectional conflict. That legislation spurred national development after the war.

April 27, 1861: Writ of Habeas Corpus Suspended

After the attack on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called for support from state militias. Confederate sympathizers in Maryland ambushed some of the northern troops en route to Washington. Lincoln declared martial law in the region and authorized General Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief of the Union army, to suspend the writ of habeas corpus if necessary to control rebellion. President Lincoln defended his controversial action to Congress when it met in a special session on July 4, 1861, and asked Congress to authorize his decision. Congress passed a bill – signed into law on March 3, 1863 – supporting the president and giving him authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus as necessary for public safety during the rebellion.

"First Blood – The Sixth Massachusetts Regiment Fighting their Way through Baltimore, April 19, 1861"

July 4, 1861: Congress’s Summer Session

At President Abraham Lincoln’s request, a special summer session of Congress - unusual in the 19th century - was convened with a prayer for “wisdom and…speed to their conclusions.” President Lincoln’s message to Congress explained the actions he had taken since the outbreak of the war that included calling up troops and instituting a naval blockade. Congress eventually authorized all of his actions and appropriated $500 million to put 500,000 Union soldiers in the field.

President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln’s Message to Congress, July 4, 1861

President Abraham Lincoln’s Message to Congress, July 4, 1861

Proclamation Calling Forth the Militia and Convening an Extra Session of Congress, April 15, 1861

Proclamation Calling Forth the Militia and Convening an Extra Session of Congress, April 15, 1861

July 4, 1861: Absence of House Members

To fulfill the Constitution’s biennial election requirement, the entire House membership stood for re-election to the 37th Congress (1861-1863). Unlike the Senate, which formally acted to expel 14 sitting members in the spring of 1861, most representatives-elect from southern states simply never showed up to claim their seats when the House organized itself on July 4, 1861. Though the House weighed some contested elections in Unionist areas of Virginia and Tennessee, members representing several of these districts were seated. Under the extraordinary conditions of 1861, the total membership of the House had simply become those elected and sworn in. During the war, the House formally expelled three border-state representatives for taking up arms against the Union (two from Missouri and one from Kentucky).

Congressional Directory, Seating Chart for 37th Congress, Third Session, United States House of Representatives, 1863

Congressional Directory, Seating Chart for 37th Congress, Third Session, United States House of Representatives, 1863

July 21, 1861: Civil War Spectators

With picnic baskets in hand, many curious members of Congress and Washington, D.C. residents traveled to Centreville, Virginia, to watch the battle at Bull Run (Manassas). The Confederate forces defeated an overconfident Union army. In the mayhem that ensued, Confederates captured a member of Congress. In response to the embarrassing defeat at Bull Run, and later, at Ball’s Bluff, Congress created the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate many aspects of the war.

"The First Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, Sunday afternoon, July 21, 1861"

August 6, 1861: The First Confiscation Act

Union army officers noted that the Confederate army’s use of slaves for labor gave them an advantage. In response, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act that allowed the Union army to seize any property used by rebels while fighting. That included slaves, whom the army liberated from their Confederate masters. While some freed slaves found a better life in their new freedom, others died in contraband camps, which lacked adequate food and shelter.

A Group of “Contrabands”, between 1861-1865

A Group of “Contrabands”, between 1861-1865

December 9, 1861: The Joint Committee on the Conduct of War

After the Union army’s embarrassing defeats at the battles of Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff, Congress established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War to “inquire into the causes of the disasters.” Composed of both senators and representatives, Radical Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner supported its formation. The committee’s purview was broadened to include investigations into all aspects of the war, including fraudulent war contracts and mistreatment of Union prisoners and troops by the Confederate army. The Committee publicized its findings, which received wide coverage in the American media.

"Union soldiers in Andersonville Prison: Sickness, Starvation, Death"

1861: Soldier Pensions

In 1861 Congress enacted legislation granting pension benefits to veterans with war-related disabilities and dependents of Civil War soldiers killed in action, including widows. Over the next three decades, Congress expanded the program and the pension office became the largest government department outside the military. Those denied pensions – including women who had served as scouts, disguised themselves as soldiers or provided auxiliary support – petitioned Congress directly with their claims.

Letter from Representative Sereno E. Payne to Representative George Ray on behalf of Harriet Tubman Davis, February 5, 1898

Letter from Representative Sereno E. Payne to Representative George Ray on behalf of Harriet Tubman Davis, February 5, 1898

Civil War Pension Index Card of Benson Robbins

Civil War Pension Index Card of Benson Robbins

1861: "Greenbacks"

Gold and silver coin, the only federally-accepted legal tender at the start of the Civil War, became increasingly scarce as the war progressed. The shortage hindered the government’s ability to finance the war. In response, Congress passed the Legal Tender Act, authorizing the U.S. Treasury to issue $150 million in notes, known popularly as “greenbacks.” The Treasury also collected revenue through an income tax that varied according to a person's income level, similar to the system we have today.

Legal Tender Act, February 25, 1862

Legal Tender Act, February 25, 1862

“Greenback” (United States Note) Issued March 10, 1862

“Greenback” (United States Note) Issued March 10, 1862

February 13, 1862: The Capital's Fortification System

Congress approved the construction of a system of fortifications to protect the District of Columbia from Confederate attack. By 1865, it included 68 forts, 20 miles of rifle pits, 807 guns and 98 mortars strategically placed along a 37-mile circle of fortifications. Washington, D.C., became the most heavily fortified city in the country.

"Washington, District of Columbia. Officers of 3rd Regiment Massachusetts Heavy Artillery"

May - July 1862: Western Settlement

America's push west continued unimpeded during the Civil War. Congress passed three acts in rapid succession in 1862 that promoted westward expansion. The Homestead Act granted federal land in western territories to any citizen who agreed to improve and live on the land. The Pacific Railway Act provided federal funds for building the first transcontinental railroad. The Morrill Land Grant College Act supported the establishment of colleges in each state through the sale of public lands, much of which were in the West. All three of these major initiatives had been stalled in Congress for years due to sectional disputes over their provisions. Secession allowed their successful passage.

Homesteaders in Nebraska

Homesteaders in Nebraska

Morrill Act (Morrill Land Grant College Act), Passed July 2, 1862

Morrill Act (Morrill Land Grant College Act), Passed July 2, 1862

Pacific Railway Act, Approved July 1, 1862

Pacific Railway Act, Approved July 1, 1862

July 2, 1862: Ironclad Test Oath

In 1862, Congress enacted the “Ironclad Test Oath.” Civil servants and military officers had to swear future loyalty to the Union and affirm no previous disloyal conduct – a clause aimed at Confederate sympathizers. In 1864, the oath became mandatory for all senators. After the war, Congress created an alternative vow for southerners as an act of reconciliation. The Ironclad Test Oath was repealed in 1884 and replaced with the one used today.

"Vice-President [sic] Wade Administering the Oath to Schuyler Colfax ", 1869

Senate Loyalty Oath Book

Senate Loyalty Oath Book

July 17, 1862: The Militia Act

The Militia Act bolstered Union forces by allowing President Abraham Lincoln to employ “persons of African descent” in military or naval service. African Americans were initially recruited for noncombatant roles such as scouts, laborers and nurses. But the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, announced that African Americans could engage in combat. Nearly 200,000 African Americans enlisted as soldiers and sailors served in the Civil War.

"Band of 107th U.S. Colored Infantry"

March 3, 1863: The Conscription Act

Congress passed the Conscription Act stating that all male citizens between 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 35 and 45 could be drafted for military service. A draft lottery was held on July 11, 1863, to fill the Union army’s ranks. Potential draftees could avoid conscription by hiring a substitute or paying $300 to the government. Bloody riots broke out in New York City to protest the draft and its inequities.

"Charge of the Police on the Rioters at the 'Tribune' Office," 1863