The Twenty Negro Law

This is a black and white image of the upper half of the Confederate Capital building.
Library of Congress

In April 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the First Conscription Act in order to increase manpower in the Confederate armies, which were rapidly losing soldiers as twelve-month-enlistments expired and volunteers were fewer than anticipated. This act made all white males aged 18 to 35 eligible for military service and extended the twelve-month volunteers’ service, but allowed anyone who could afford it to hire a substitute (a controversial provision that was repealed at the end of 1863). The act exempted men in certain occupations, mostly government officials, educators, ministers, factory workers, and munitions workers. It did not exempt plantation overseers, which led to many plantations now being run by women, elderly men, or children.

President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. Critics of the proclamation, both North and South, claimed Lincoln was trying to incite slave rebellions, which had been a persistent fear for white slaveholders in the South since the American Revolution. In order to prevent events similar to Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831, the Confederate Congress passed a Second Conscription Act, which included a piece of legislation that would  become known as the “Twenty Negro Law.” It exempted from military service one white overseer for every 20 enslaved people on a plantation, “to secure the proper police of the country.” This would allow enough white males to stay home to defend against a so-called domestic insurrection.

This law was highly unpopular among poor white Southerners, who owned little to no slaves. It also angered ordinary Confederate soldiers, such as Sam R. Watkins. He wrote in his well-known memoir Co. Aytch that the Twenty Negro Law “gave us the blues; we wanted 20 negroes.” It also “raised the howl of ‘rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,’” a common theme that arose both North and South whenever the draft was invoked. However, the cry took on a more acrimonious tone among white Southerners, who feared their rights were once again being trampled upon by an overbearing federal government. Their “peculiar institution” further intensified such resentment. Yet the law remained in place until the Confederate government ceased to exist at the end of the war.

Further Reading


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