Pardon and Amnesty in Reconstruction-Era Tennessee

By Kathleen Zebley Liulevicius

Pardon petitions from former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers contain a wealth of information about people from an array of social and economic backgrounds, and include details about many individuals who would otherwise not appear in the historical record. In this article, Kathleen Zebley Liulevicius discusses her exploration of Tennessee pardon petitions and what they can teach us about the Civil War.

An example of a pardon petition signed by President Andrew Johnson.

Henderson Carter was anxious, desperate to receive a pardon for a treason indictment in federal court. Even amid the war-torn realities of Tennessee in 1865, in the wake of the Civil War, this concern loomed large in his mind. Without that vital document, he feared the loss of his land, his only asset to support himself and six household members. Carter had to travel forty-five miles from his home in McMinn County to the federal court in Knoxville and present a pardon certificate in order to have the treason charge dropped. This was a grueling journey for a self-described feeble, sixty-six-year-old illiterate farmer. In his petition, Carter avowed that his sole offense was sympathizing with the Confederates and that he had not served in their army or persecuted Union men and their families.

In a pattern replicated across Tennessee, Carter’s own community was split over his case. Demanding justice, some neighbors had reported Carter to the federal court for his Confederate sympathies, while other Unionist neighbors urged mercy and composed a recommendation letter vouching for the veracity of Carter’s statements and characterizing him as a quiet citizen. Thus, divided opinions before and during the Civil War continued during Reconstruction. Once Carter’s pardon documents reached Governor William G. Brownlow, and later President Andrew Johnson, both men approved the application, and Carter (to his immense relief) received his pardon in October 1865. Now the federal court dismissed the treason charge, and Carter no longer feared the loss of his farmland.

Rebel Salvation cover image

This was Carter’s reconstruction as lived experience, but it was part of a bigger story of Reconstruction. President Johnson’s Proclamation of Pardon and Amnesty on May 29, 1865, excluded fourteen classes of people, including Confederate officeholders, career military men, wealthy elite who owned slaves and vast properties, and men indicted for treason. Those excluded from the general pardon had to write individual petitions to President Johnson explaining why presidential pardon was necessary and include an oath of amnesty promising to support the Union and the US Constitution, abide by laws made during the rebellion, and accept the emancipation of slaves. The more than 630 pardon petitions from Tennessee and accompanying notes of recommendation—or in some cases letters discouraging pardon—offer a unique, compelling view into the frightening and chaotic time immediately following the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination.

Those men and women who wrote diaries and chronicled the war in letters represent a literate, economically secure group of southerners. But what about other segments of the population who in various ways sustained the rebellion yet left no eloquent literary records of their experience? The pardon petitions sent to President Johnson in the years 1865–1868 provide a glimpse into the reasoning, motivations, justifications, and war-time endeavors of these men and women often overlooked in studies of the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

These rich sources, analyzed in my new book Rebel Salvation: Pardon and Amnesty of Confederates in Tennessee, augment our knowledge of the challenges and fears facing southerners immediately after the war. Instead of focusing on the rancorous high-level debates about Reconstruction between President Johnson and Congress, a study of pardon petitions submitted by Tennesseans illuminates the compromises forged between former opponents, Unionists and ex-Confederates, as they now labored to return their state to the Union.

A photo of Kathleen Zebley Liulevicius

Kathleen Zebley Liulevicius received her PhD in nineteenth-century United States history at the University of Tennessee. She has taught at the State University of New York–Geneseo, the University of North Carolina–Pembroke, and the University of Tennessee.

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In Rebel Salvation, Kathleen Zebley Liulevicius examines pardon petitions from former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers in Tennessee to craft a unique and comprehensive analysis of the process of Reconstruction in the Volunteer State after the Civil War. The pardoning of former Confederates proved a collaborative process in which neighbors, acquaintances, and erstwhile enemies lodged formal pleas to grant or deny clemency from state and federal officials. Indeed, as Rebel Salvation reveals, the long road to peace began here in the newly reunited communities of postwar Tennessee.

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