A school at the Freedmen’s Village in Arlington, Virginia, educated African American children and adults who escaped from their enslavers in Confederate states. Credit: National Archives

July 17, 1862: Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, which declared that all people who were enslaved by Confederate officials or supporters of the Confederacy would be “forever free” if they escaped into Union territory or were captured by the United States military.

The First Confiscation Act came after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run a year earlier. In that fighting, Yankee soldiers discovered that “thousands of slaves at Manassas were doing the work of laborers and servants, and rendering all the whites of the Southern army available for fighting,” President Lincoln’s biographer Robert Morse wrote. “The handicap was so severe and obvious, that it immediately provoked the introduction of a bill freeing slaves belonging to rebels and used for carrying on the war.” 

A year later, Congress considered a tougher act, something Kentucky and other border states opposed. Kentucky Congressman John J. Crittenden declared, “There is a niche in the temple of fame, a niche near to Washington, which should be occupied by the statue of him who shall save this country.” He suggested that Lincoln could step into that niche, but if proved “a mere sectarian and a party man, that niche will be reserved for some future and better patriot.” 

Illinois Congressman Owen Lovejoy, an abolitionist, responded that there was indeed a niche for Lincoln, “not in the blood-besmeared temple of human bondage; not surrounded by slave-fetters and chains, but with the symbols of freedom; not dark with bondage, but radiant with the light of Liberty. … Let Abraham Lincoln make himself … the emancipator.” 

Lincoln signed the Second Confiscation Act, and six months later, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption,...