Begging your pardon
Records of the Civil War
The war had already been going on for more than two years on that day in December, 154 years ago today.
The country had been through Bull Run and Antietam and Shiloh and Vicksburg and Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and Chickamauga.1
Parts of the rebellious south had been brought under northern control and it was time, the President thought, to consider how to put the country back together.
And so, 154 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction.
Whereas in and by the Constitution of the United States, it is provided that the President “shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment, and
Whereas a rebellion now exists whereby the loyal State governments of several States have for a long time been subverted, and many persons have committed, and are now guilty of treason against the United States, and
Whereas, with reference to said rebellion and treason, laws have been enacted by Congress, declaring forfeitures, and confiscations of property, and liberation of slaves, all upon terms and conditions therein stated, and also declaring that the President was thereby authorized at any time thereafter, by proclamation, to extend to persons who may have participated in the existing rebellion, in any State or part thereof, pardon and amnesty, with such exceptions, and at such time, and on such conditions, as he may deem expedient for the public welfare, and
Whereas the Congressional declaration for limited and conditional pardon, accords with well established judicial exposition of the pardoning power,
under the British, and American Constitutions,and
Whereas, with reference to said rebellion, the President of the United States has issued several proclamations, with provisions in regard to the liberation of slaves, and
Whereas it is now desired by some persons heretofore engaged in said rebellion, to resume their allegiance to the United States, and to re-inaugerate loyal State governments within and for their respective States,2
and then it went to the heart of the matter: a plan for bringing the rebelling states back into the Union when 10 percent of the eligible voters had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States and granting amnesty — a full pardon — to all but the highest Confederate officials and military leaders.
And oh… those pardon and amnesty papers. What a treasure trove they are for genealogists.
For any of us with southern ancestors — The Legal Genealogist included — these records and those that came about later under other Presidential proclamations or the statutes when Congress got into the act are simply gold.
All Civil War pardon and amnesty records are federal records, and so are all held by the U.S. National Archives. But they’re divided up among a number of different record groups.
Record Group 59 (Department of State): Some of them were pretty much a matter of routine and were handled by the Department of State. Those are in Record Group 59 and the records include:
• the Index to Pardons Under Amnesty Proclamations, 1865 – 1869,
• the Register of Amnesty Oaths, 1863 – 1865,
• the List of Persons Accepting Amnesty Pardons, 1865 – 1867,
• the Register of the Disposition of Amnesty Pardons, 1865 – 1867,
• the Register of Amnesty Pardons Sent to the Attorney General, 1865 – 1865,
Most of these are textual records only (meaning you have to access them in person at the National Archives), but there are a few that you can look at online. The amnesty oath of one Robert E. Lee, for example, has been digitized by the National Archives.
Record Group 94 (War Department, Adjutant General’s Office): The requests for Presidential pardons by people who weren’t eligible for the blanket amnesty went to the War Department and then to the President. Records in this group include:
• Amnesty Papers,
• Case Files of Applications from Former Confederates for Presidential Pardons (“Amnesty Papers”), 1865–1867
These records have been digitized and you can see them on Fold3.com, on Ancestry.com and through the National Archives catalog.
That’s where, for example, you’ll find my cousin David Davenport explaining that he’d been postmaster of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, during the war — and that disqualified him from the general amnesty. He had to apply for a Presidential pardon, saying that he did not accept said office for the purpose of aiding the rebellion but that he accepted it to keep out of the rebel army and for no other purpose.3
Record Groups 46 (U.S. Senate) and 233 (U.S. House of Representatives): Congress got into the act as well with statutory provisions and with select committees that reviewed individual petitions for amnesty after the war. Look at:
• RG 46: Petitions and Memorials, Resolutions of State Legislatures, and Related Documents Referred to Committees, 40th – 41st Congresses, and the Accompanying Papers File, 39th – 44th Congresses, 1865 – 1877.
• RG 233: Petitions Submitted to the U.S. Senate Requesting the Removal of Political Disabilities of Former Confederate Officeholders, 1869 – 1877, now on microfilm as M1546.
There’s more to be found for sure. Check out Record Group 393 (Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821 – 1920) for records of the Provost Marshals, since they kept registers of applications for pardon and lists of those who’d taken the oaths of allegiance. And Record Group 109 (War Department Collection of Confederate Records) includes the Register of Confederate Prisoners and Deserters Released on Taking the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, 1863 – 1865, and the Lists of Civilians Taking the Oath of Allegiance or Giving Bond, 1862 – 1864.
For a great overview of all these records, check out archivist John P. Deeben’s 2015 presentation “Restoring the Brotherhood of Union: Confederate Pardon and Amnesty Records, 1865-1877,” given as part of the National Archives Know Your Records seies. You can watch it on YouTube.
So much to be found as our ancestors were begging for pardon…
And all of it begun by a document issued 154 years ago today.
- See “Major battles from the American Civil War,” Historynet.com (http://www.historynet.com/ : accessed 7 Dec 2017). ↩
- Transcription, Abraham Lincoln, Tuesday, December 08, 1863 (Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction), The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Library of Congress, American Memory Project (https://memory.loc.gov/ : accessed 7 Dec 2017). ↩
- U.S. National Archives, Case Files of Applications from Former Confederates for Presidential Pardons (“Amnesty Papers”), 1865-67, entry for David Davenport of North Carolina, microfilm publication M1003, roll 38, (Washington, D.C. : NARA, 1977); digital images, Fold3.com (https://www.fold3.com/i : accessed 7 Dec 2017). ↩