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Where did all the treason trials go?

by | Jun 28, 2017 | News, Reconstruction

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court

__Article III, Section 3, United States Constitution

Have you ever wondered how many Confederate veterans were executed for treason? A handful? Hundreds? A thousand, perhaps?

Here’s a hint: The largest mass execution in U.S. history claimed 38 lives in a one-day harvest. A 39th convict was hanged later. But the dead were not Confederates and the charge was not treason.

Those who went to the gallows were Sioux implicated in an uprising that terrorized Minnesota halfway into the Civil War. For a readable and unflinching account, try “Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862,” by Hank H. Cox. (Caution: It’s not for the faint of heart or the impressionable young.)

The reality is that there were many in both camps, as the war ended, for whom patching up the Union was a more urgent need than meting out punishments. Signing an oath of allegiance to the Constitution was enough to put most returning soldiers beyond the hangman’s reach. Others found refuge in the postwar flurry of amnesty proclamations and pardons. And President Andrew Johnson covered the rest with Proclamation 179, issued on Christmas day in 1868.

For those who like their history tidy, with all characters either elevated to sainthood or relegated to perdition, and with all issues neatly resolved, this is an unacceptable place to let the matter drop. History, however, seldom satisfies such cravings.

On the one hand, you have the plain language of Section 3, which is a good description of the actions of secessionists who seized U.S. forts, garrisons, gun emplacements, mints and other assets, pulling triggers or lanyards where resistance was offered. And it’s a fact that Proclamation 179 included a pardon for “treason” along with other crimes specified in Section 3. If you accepted a pardon, you must have been a traitor.

On the other hand, only the unreconstructed need anything more elaborate than a pair of unassailable facts


  1. Johnson’s was a general pardon, naming no individuals. What this meant was that one need not carry or even own written proof of immunity to prosecution for his crimes, because his crimes were no longer actionable.
  1. In this land in which all accused persons are entitled to the presumption of innocence unless proven guilty, no one can ever be convicted of Civil War treason because all suspects and all witnesses to overt acts are long dead.

That isn’t the kind of gripping, all-or-nothing resolution that some people crave, but it’s what the law has to offer. And that invites speculation that we might all more profitably discuss subjects other than great-grandpa’s legal status.


Reconstruction would be a fine starting point. That, and voter discrimination – an issue that has left tracks all the way into a new millennium.

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