“It Almost Sounds Like Nazi Germany”

I am usually not surprised to see Civil War-related stories about the continued debate about the Confederate flag or questions about secession make the AP, but this one has thrown me for a loop.  Rodney Steward’s new book, David Schenck and the Contours of Confederate Identity, examines the Confederate policy of sequestration, which was passed in response to legislation passed by the U.S. Congress that allowed for the confiscation of property of those deemed to be disloyal.  David Schenck was one of the agents or receivers for the Confederate government in North Carolina.

Receivers moved to seizing property owned by anyone felt to have Northern leanings.  In one case, property was seized from a North Carolina widow whose son lived in California and was considered an enemy alien. In another, a man who owned Wilmington property was delayed for a time on the Outer Banks behind Union lines. When he finally returned home, his property had been seized and he was turned over to the local military authorities as being a Union sympathizer.

That usually meant people were hanged, Steward said.  “Receivers could order people to give account of their property. And if they find what they are looking for — and even if they don’t sometimes and just made it up — they could issue a writ to seize the property and sell it at auction,” he said.  Much of the property is thought to have gone to the people who turned in neighbors. A large part also ended up with the receivers or an inner circle of ultra-nationalists like Schenck, who left extensive diaries, Steward said.

“In his diary, if you read between the lines, if people complain about the war it’s because they are disloyal and they lack virtue — they are not true to the cause. It almost sounds like Nazi Germany,” Steward said.  Schenck writes about building a new house in Lincolnton “at the precise moment that the economy of North Carolina and the Confederacy wasn’t just getting bad, the bottom was literally falling out,” Steward said.  He estimates Schenck personally seized as much as $50,000, about $2 million in today’s money.

While the Act of Sequestration was to compensate Southerners who had lost property to the Union, Steward says he’s not found any evidence money went to reimburse people.  And he wonders how many New South fortunes may have be built on money taken from fellow-Southerners. The system, he said, hurt the Southern cause at a time when it needed support from everyone.  “I think sequestration in the long run had the effect of crushing the will and creating a profound sense of disillusionment,” he said.

I have to admit that I do not know much about this specific Confederate policy, though it does fit into a broader picture of a centralized government in Richmond that intruded into people’s lives in myriad ways during the war.  Most people today know little about these policies since the Confederate government is commonly thought to be the last bastion of states rights or limited government in the history of the United States.  Even a cursory understanding of the history of the Confederacy is sufficient to call such a picture into question.  Perhaps that is why this particular article has gone viral.

Steward’s book grew out of his dissertation, which he wrote at Auburn University under the direction of Ken Noe.  I suspect it’s worth reading. 🙂

6 comments… add one
  • London John Sep 5, 2012 @ 4:43

    This is about a Confederate law, but I believe equally or more repressive measures originated at state and local level, sometimes to the embarrassment of even the Confederate government. The hangings at Gainesville, Texas, are one example.
    Have you seen Cold Mountain, Kevin, and if so what do you think of its depiction of the home front in NC as almost a reign of terror?

  • Brad Sep 4, 2012 @ 6:18

    I’m not sure it’s that surprising. When governments are under stress, they may resort to extra legal, to put it nicely, measures. I think that measures that would raise eyebrows have probably been happening since the beginning of time.

    This does look like a book worth picking up. One thing that does give me pause is comparing a 19th century regime to a 20th century one and judging it from those or 21st century standards.

  • Ken Noe Sep 2, 2012 @ 14:52

    Schenck himself was fascinating: the defense attorney for the notorious murderer Edward “Hardaway Bone” Isham, an ultra secessionist who consistently managed to stay out of uniform, a bureaucrat with connections who left the war a wealthy man, a Klan leader who later testified against them, a New South judge, and finally the father of the battlefield park at Guilford Courthouse. But it’s Rod’s continuing study of sequestration that will keep raising eyebrows. I had never heard of it the first day he mentioned it to me. But anyone “thrown for a loop” by these newspaper stories should read the book, as Rod makes his case.

    Pete Carmichael deserves a “shout out” too, by the way, as Rod’s study of Schenck began as an MA thesis under his direction.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2012 @ 14:54

      Just goes to show that there is plenty more to learn about the Civil War.

  • cg Sep 2, 2012 @ 14:14

    This is a very short book, but if you want an even more succinct version, Steward has a chapter in _Weirding the War_ on this subject/topic.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2012 @ 14:20

      I am still making my way through that collection of essays so thanks for reminding me that Steward is included. This book joins a nice line-up of scholarly studies on the Civil War in North Carolina published over the past few years.

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