In the annals of Civil War history, one overarching dispute remains unsettled: was the United States waging war against another nation or putting down an internal rebellion? In October 1861 three legal battles put this question to the test. As Mark Weitz reveals, these proceedings were instrumental in debating and ultimately shaping the Confederacy's very identity. Weitz takes readers to courtrooms in Philadelphia and New York, where Confederate sailors caught raiding Union vessels were tried for the capital crime of piracy. Their defense argued that they were not pirates at all but privateers acting on behalf of a sovereign nation, and thus were entitled to protection under international laws governing prisoners of war and could not be executed.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina, a number of Charleston lawyers challenged the Confederacy's Sequestration Act. This law authorized government seizure of the property of "enemy aliens"--an action viewed by Southerners as a threat to civil liberties and states' rights by a central government that had assumed excessive powers. By attempting to preserve long-standing Southern traditions regarding private property and due process, the lawyers highlighted the conflict between the kind of nation the Confederacy wanted to become and the nation it was compelled to be in wartime.
Weitz masterfully interweaves these stories, highlighting the extraordinary tensions between legal professionalism and the public clamor for patriotism. He shows that while the Confederacy struggled to balance its commitment to civil rights and state sovereignty with the need to wage war, the United States walked an equally fine line between officially sanctioning the new Confederacy and utilizing war powers normally directed at enemy nations. Ultimately, both sides discovered that war created irreconcilable contradictions that could not be easily resolved.
The Confederacy on Trial provides an unprecedented look at the difficulty of discerning whether a conflict is a rebellion or a war between nations while it remains undecided. Addressing crucial questions regarding civil liberties, sovereignty, and national identity, the book sheds important light on the modern-day problem of waging war and balancing constitutional protections.