Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Are Pardoned Confederates Still Confederates?

Posted in Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on November 5, 2010

If a Confederate officer takes an oath of allegiance to the United States and the Union, has he forfeited his status as a Confederate?

That’s not a snarky comment or a rhetorical question — I’m entirely serious in asking it.

Not far from my home is the grave of Major General John Bankhead Magruder, a well-known Confederate officer and a local hero who commanded the Department of Texas during the middle of the war and organized the naval and land attack that retook Galveston from Union forces on New Years Day, 1863. After the war, and a brief stint in the service of Maximilian’s army in Mexico, Magruder settled in Houston, where he died in 1871. He was initially buried in there, but his remains were subsequently re-interred in Galveston’s Episcopal Cemetery.

At the end of May 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued a general amnesty for those who had served the Confederacy; under this amnesty, all rights and property (except for slaves) were to be restored upon taking the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Fourteen categories of persons were explicitly excluded from this blanket amnesty, including army officers above the rank of colonel. These excluded persons were required to submit a formal application for pardon, “and so realize the enormity of their crime.” While there was never any real doubt that the vast majority of former Confederates would eventually be eligible for pardon, Johnson was determined to use the pardon process to make manifest a point he mentioned often: “treason is a crime and must be made odious.” Over the next three years, the Johnson administration issued about 13,500 individual pardons.

Magruder applied for his pardon in November 1867, and included a letter of from Union Major General Carl Schurz, attesting to his loyalty. Magruder’s application was approved by Attorney General Henry Stanbery on December 9.


National archives, Case Files of Applications from Former Confederates for Presidential Pardons (“Amnesty Papers”), 1865-67, via Footnote.com

Baltimore, Novr. 14th, 1867

To His Excellency
Andrew Johnson
President of the United States

Sir, as an officer of the Southern army with the rank of Major General, I am not embraced in the amnesty which Your Excellency has proclaimed.

The South submitted her interpretation of the Constitution to the arbitrament of the sword which decided against her — an I am now as loyal a citizen of the United States as any within their borders — I therefore apply for a pardon — As an officer, I have always endeavored to softne the rigors of War & there are no allegations to the contrary, against me, that I am aware of.

I have the honor to be very respectfully Your Obt Servt,

J. Bankhead Magruder

A pardon is not a small thing. A petition for pardon acknowledges and admits a serious legal or moral transgression on the part of the applicant; issuance of a pardon is a formal act of forgiveness, with the implicit understanding that the offense being pardoned is real, is ended and will not be repeated.

There’s no way to parse or explain away Magruder’s declaratory statement, written  in his own hand, that “I am now as loyal a citizen of the United States as any within their borders.” Major General Walker signed an even more explicit statement, that he would “henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder,” closing with, “so help me God.

Are these pledges of loyalty to be taken seriously? It would seem they must be; after all, the core values of loyalty, devotion and personal honor are some of the very things that motivate the desire to recognize these men in the first place. But they voluntarily, formally and explicitly rejected any allegiance to the Confederacy; it’s hard to see how they can still be legitimately considered Confederates. Certainly most Americans today would hesitate to honor an American soldier who formally renounced his American citizenship in favor of another nation’s.

Or should we assume that applying for a pardon and swearing ongoing allegiance to the United States — “in the presence of ALMIGHTY GOD” — was something they simply had to do to get along, and they never really meant it? That it was just what they had to do to get on with their lives? Path of least resistance? Doubtful.

So we’re back to the first option: that these men willingly, voluntarily rejected any further allegiance to the Confederacy. How, then, can they now logically be honored for their loyalty to that defunct nation? There’s not an easy answer to this question; I don’t even think there is an answer that makes any objective sense. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the question.

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4 Responses

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  1. Dick Stanley said, on November 6, 2010 at 8:37 am

    I suppose this only ever applied to officers, commissioned and non-commissioned. I never heard of any former privates doing it.

    • Andy Hall said, on November 6, 2010 at 1:33 pm

      Officers above the rank of colonel (or naval equivalent), and a variety of classes of civil officials. All other could just swear an oath and be done, but senior officers had to apply for a full pardon.

  2. JosephineSouthern said, on November 8, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    Hi, well, after reading your article above I was suddenly struck by something I remembered you wrote on corey’s blog. Andy said:

    “the notion that people alive today — who not only never knew their Civil War ancestors, but who in many cases never met anyone who did know them — can nonetheless “know” and “understand” their beliefs and feelings and motivations, based on nothing….”

    hum, it would appear from your surmising in this question and article that you are guilty of what you accuse and harshly criticize and abhor in devoted Southerners.

    • Andy Hall said, on November 8, 2010 at 11:58 pm

      Josephine, thanks for commenting, but I must respectfully disagree. I’m very up front in this post about not really understanding how these men viewed applying for and accepting a pardon, or how seriously they took their new oaths of loyalty to the United States. It’s a complex question, and I feel sure that each of these men would answer it in his own way. There’s lots of things I would like to ask these guys if I could, and near the top of the list is how they viewed their own actions — first in resigning their U.S. commissions and later, pledging their renewed allegiance to the United States.

      As I say, a pardon is not a small thing, and the act of applying for and accepting it is a serious step that, generally speaking, acknowledges serious transgression. But I genuinely can’t quite wrap my head around how these men viewed that, what they thought of it, how seriously they personally took it. It’s a complex question that I suspect has no clear answer. But it’s a legitimate question nonetheless.

      A lot of posts I write are to make a very specific and clear point that I think is worthwhile — something that (in my view) needs to be said. This one’s a little different. There are lots of topics that I discuss/talk about/harangue on that have objective, provable answers; this really isn’t one of them. This one poses a question that I don’t have an answer to, that there probably isn’t a clear answer to, but that bears thinking about regardless.


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