The first Confiscation Act was passed in July 1861, in the shocked aftermath to the Union’s humiliation at the first Battle of Bull Run. One explanation proffered for the unexpected military vigour of the Confederacy was the use of slave labour to free all whites to fight. The Act allowed for the seizure of rebel property, which would include slaves. But its provisions were limited, and widely ignored; General Alexander McCook was actually praised in the southern press for his zealousness in repatriating slaves to their owners. In late 1861, Congress radicals led by the Republican, Lyman Trumbull, pushed for far more potent legislation. Lincoln resisted; he saw legislation permitting property confiscation in perpetuity risked ‘corruption of blood’ – a fast road to tyranny. A watered-down version was passed (July 1862), with wide opposition in border states where slave-holding persisted. Its passage paved the way for the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863).
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