In a little-known chapter of Civil War history, while Confederate troops fought in the field, lawyers called receivers were back home systematically seizing an estimated $20 million worth of property and goods from anyone suspected of having Union leanings.
The system robbed the Confederate government of needed funds and tore at the morale and loyalty of Southerners as their fledgling nation fought for its existence, said Rodney Steward, a historian who teaches at the University of South Carolina-Salkahatchie.
“What you find is there was another layer to the Confederate home front. It’s ugly. It’s really ugly,” he said. “It’s a state that is highly intolerant of any type of dissent. It’s highly suspicious of its own people to the point where it deprives some of them of their lives.”
Steward has written a biography of David Schenck, a receiver for the Western Piedmont District of North Carolina, and is working on a second book on how the process worked across the Confederacy. Steward’s book “David Schenck and the Contours of Confederate Identity” was published this summer by the University of Tennessee Press.
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In the summer of 1861, the U.S. Congress passed an act allowing confiscation of any property, including slaves, belonging to anyone in rebellion. The Confederate Congress quickly countered with the Act of Sequestration.
“It asserts that the government of the Confederacy will confiscate all goods, chattel and credits belonging to Northerners,” Steward said. There were about 100 receivers appointed across the Confederacy and only a fraction of what was seized got to Richmond.
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.