Presidential Proclamations on Blockade and Commercial Trade No. 81, No. 82, and No. 86 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the start of the Civil War, US president Abraham Lincoln, facing the secession of several Southern states, determined that the seceding states should be isolated and their collective economies stifled. The vehicle the Union would use to achieve this end was an extensive naval blockade of all ports participating in the rebellion. Not long after issuing his first proclamation of this blockade, the president issued two additional declarations, increasing the breadth of the blockade as well as the severity of punishment for those who attempted to smuggle goods past it. Lincoln’s establishment of this blockade ultimately helped to shorten the Civil War’s length and prevent foreign involvement in the conflict.

Summary Overview

At the start of the Civil War, US president Abraham Lincoln, facing the secession of several Southern states, determined that the seceding states should be isolated and their collective economies stifled. The vehicle the Union would use to achieve this end was an extensive naval blockade of all ports participating in the rebellion. Not long after issuing his first proclamation of this blockade, the president issued two additional declarations, increasing the breadth of the blockade as well as the severity of punishment for those who attempted to smuggle goods past it. Lincoln’s establishment of this blockade ultimately helped to shorten the Civil War’s length and prevent foreign involvement in the conflict.

Defining Moment

Following the presidential election of 1860, the state of South Carolina determined that Lincoln’s presidency was a potential threat to the state’s economy and way of life. The South Carolina state legislature called a special convention during which delegates opted to remove the state from membership in the United States. That state’s secession prompted six other states–Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas–to follow suit. In time, four more states joined what became known as the Confederate States of America.

Secession increased tensions between the US military and those who lived in these states, and Southern leaders demanded the surrender of Union-held forts within Confederate territory. When the Union occupants of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, refused to surrender the fort, Southern troops attacked. After thirty-four hours of constant cannon- and gunfire, the Union forces surrendered Fort Sumter and departed, ushering in the Civil War. In response, Lincoln called for the nation to raise 75,000 troops to engage the secessionists on the battlefield.

The key to the South’s success would be trade. Through the many different ports in the southeastern United States (such as those in Charleston; Mobile, Alabama; and Wilmington, North Carolina), the secessionists hoped to build a lucrative cotton exchange with major trading partners in Europe. Also aboard Southern and foreign ships were supplies and weapons to build the Confederacy’s strength. With this economic lifeline in mind, Lincoln began exploring the idea of a blockade. Such a blockade would ideally halt foreign trade with these states and prevent smuggling as well.

Implementing the blockade would be extremely difficult in light of the geography of the states targeted. The Union would need to put security measures into place from the Carolinas to Florida, around the Florida panhandle, along the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Mississippi River. The secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, suggested that rather than send ships and troops to enforce such a broad stretch, the Union could implement the blockade in name only. Welles argued that a de-facto blockade would send a clear message to foreign nations not to support the Southern states. Secretary of State William Henry Seward disagreed, arguing that only an actual blockade, no matter how difficult to form, would send this message to international governments and also prevent smuggling. Lincoln agreed with Seward and issued a proclamation on April 19, 1861, that applied the blockade to the original seceding states. A week later, he expanded the embargo to account for more seceding states, and he extended it once more in August of that year.

Author Biography

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Kentucky, to parents Thomas Lincoln (a farmer and frontiersman) and Nancy Hanks (who died when Abraham was only nine years old). Lincoln and his father moved through the frontier several times after Nancy’s death, first to Indiana and later to Illinois. Lincoln’s childhood education was basic, a product of his upbringing in the rural areas of the Midwest. For example, his school in Indiana was a log cabin. His father assisted in Lincoln’s education. Although his education was limited, young Lincoln developed a love for literature that continued throughout his life. As he grew older, he also gained a strong interest in law.

In 1832, the twenty-three-year-old Lincoln joined the army as a volunteer during the Black Hawk War. He was elected captain of his unit within months of joining and remained involved until the end of the conflict. After the war, Lincoln explored a number of business activities, including work on a riverboat and at his father’s store, before he set up a law practice in New Salem, Illinois.

Lincoln soon pursued elected office. He was defeated in his first campaign for the Illinois state legislature. He remained involved in government until his next campaign opportunity, holding a number of local appointed positions, such as surveyor and postmaster. He also continued to practice law from his own office. In 1834, he successfully campaigned for the state legislature and was reelected three times thereafter. After retiring from the state legislature, he returned to Springfield, Illinois, where he had established a new law practice after passing the Illinois bar. In 1842, he married Mary Todd, with whom he would have four children, although only one would survive into adulthood.

In 1847, Lincoln was elected, as a member of the Whig Party, to the US House of Representatives, a post he held for one term. In 1855, he ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate. He tried again in 1858, this time as a Republican. In 1860, undaunted by his previous electoral defeats, Lincoln ran successfully for president on the Republican ticket. He was reelected in 1864.

President Lincoln’s 1861–65 tenure was marked not just by his Civil War accomplishments. He also helped build the Republican Party, unify the Northern Democrats, bring an end to slavery, and improve relations with the Indians on the American frontier. During his second term, he led the effort to reconcile the nation’s relationship with the secessionist South. However, he was unable to complete his work as president: On April 14, 1865, while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. After three days of lying in state in the US Capitol rotunda, he was interred at Oak Grove Cemetery in Springfield.

Document Analysis

Even before taking office in March 1861, Lincoln was faced with a harsh reality. South Carolina, which saw Lincoln’s supposed opposition to slavery as a threat to its economy, voted to cease its “membership” in the United States in December of 1860. Several other states, inspired by South Carolina’s move, followed suit early in 1861. The push for Southern secession had sparked dangerous confrontations between Union troops stationed in these states and the rebel forces living there. Lincoln’s predecessor as president, James Buchanan, had told his troops to stand their ground, even when operating in siege conditions, as they were at Fort Sumter. Lincoln, upon assuming office, authorized the troops at that island fort to surrender their positions but by no means wanted to allow the secession to continue unanswered.

One month after his inauguration, Lincoln–after consulting with his cabinet–decided to take a major step to cut off the secessionists’ economic lifelines. He did so through a series of proclamations, presidential statements that institute the necessary measures to deal with particular situations. In these documents, he declares that a civil war is at hand, one that threatened to tear apart the Union. A blockade was necessary to contain and defeat the growing rebellion. Lincoln looked to Congress to support this policy, encouraging the legislature to implement any legislation necessary to ensure that the blockade was imposed efficiently and effectively. He also looked to his own administration, including the military, federal attorneys, and other officials, urging them to do their respective parts to maintain the blockade’s integrity and that of the Union.

Proclamation 81

On April 19, 1861, Lincoln issued the first of these documents. In the first line of proclamation 81, he declares that the government of the United States faced an open insurrection in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Lincoln speaks initially to the fact that this insurrection directly affected the Union’s ability to collect tax revenue from its citizens, a provision established in the US Constitution. His list of grievances against these states, however, begins to grow from this statement.

For example, he accuses the seceding states of threatening to practice piracy against the Union’s maritime commercial pursuits. He claims that the states were willing to use “pretended” letters of marque, written documents authorizing privateers to attack, capture, or loot Union ships. Letters of marque were commonly used throughout maritime history, particularly during times of open war, and the US Constitution granted Congress the ability to issue such letters. The government of the Confederacy likewise claimed the ability to grant letters of marque, but as the United States did not consider the Confederate government to be legitimate, the seceded states were thus, in Lincoln’s view, attempting to claim a power they did not have. To make matters worse, he writes, these seven states were threatening to use this power against the “good citizens” of the United States as they engaged in lawful commerce in their own waters.

Lincoln proclaims that the individuals committing these acts–the members of the seceding states–must cease their actions and calls for the US military to deploy and “repress” the rebels. In the interest of the public peace and safety, and with the integrity of the United States at stake, he writes, Congress must take into account the “unlawful proceedings” of the Southern states. He states that he believes it necessary to place a blockade around the ports of each of the states that has seceded. A navy force would be present to prevent any ships from entering or exiting these harbors. Any unauthorized ship caught in these waterways would be detained, examined, and cataloged. That ship would then be issued a formal warning not to repeat its actions and released. If the ship again tried to enter or leave a blockaded port, it would be captured and its crew prosecuted. Any cargo of value seized would be considered a prize (a ship and its cargo captured during war) and redistributed among Union circles.

Furthermore, he writes that any individual or group claiming to have the national authority (such as that of the United States or another legitimate country) to attack the interests of the federal government at sea would be captured and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This statement serves as a warning to two audiences. First, it is a caution to any foreign party who may become involved in privateering against American ships using the aforementioned fraudulent letters of marque. Second and more importantly, it speaks to the secessionists themselves, advising them that the United States government will not tolerate any Rebel attacks on its ships.

Proclamation 82

Although Lincoln’s first proclamation issues a stern warning to the secessionists not to attack American interests, they did not capitulate. In proclamation 82, issued just over a week after Lincoln declared the blockade, the president states that a number of Union officials who were simply collecting taxes and performing other duties as ordered by Washington had been arrested in North Carolina and Virginia and detained without due process of law. Their captors, Lincoln writes, claimed to be acting under the authority of the governments of their respective states. Virginia had only two months earlier opted to remain with the Union and seek a compromise with the new Lincoln administration. However, the state’s government soon changed its position, and Virginia broke away from the United States on April 17. Its capital, Richmond, soon became the capital of the Confederacy.

North Carolina also remained on the sidelines early, seeking some sort of compromise with the federal government. However, after Lincoln issued his call for 75,000 troops on April 15, North Carolina refused to provide its share of volunteers. Although the state did not officially secede from the Union until the next month, North Carolina’s leadership had already made the decision to defy the federal government, placing that state squarely on the side of the secessionists. Because of these actions on the part of the states, proclamation 82 extends the blockade to Virginia and North Carolina’s ports as well.

The next few months saw a series of major changes that would shape the Civil War. In June, the western counties of Virginia took issue with the state government’s decision to secede and in turn seceded from the Confederacy. This region was admitted into the Union on June 20, taking the name of West Virginia. Meanwhile, the Union continued a long-running series of political maneuvers to prevent many of the slave states from joining the Confederacy. These efforts proved fruitful, as Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland remained part of the Union. In July, Union and Confederate militias met on the battlefield for the first time at Manassas, Virginia, in the First Battle of Bull Run, wherein an untrained Union Army was forced to retreat in the face of an overwhelming infusion of Confederate reinforcements. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s blockade was finally in place, with improved naval vessels enforcing it against smaller, faster smuggling ships known as blockade runners. In addition to implementing the blockade, Congress on July 13 declared the Confederate States to be in an official state of insurrection against the United States.

Proclamation 86

On August 16, Lincoln issued proclamation 86, which speaks to effect of the above developments on the wartime situation. He states that he was within his rights as president when he called for the 75,000 troops to meet what was clearly an “insurrection against the laws, Constitution, and Government of the United States.” He cites the Militia Act of 1795, passed by Congress to validate the actions of president George Washington, who had raised a militia to put down the Whiskey Rebellion the previous year. Despite Lincoln’s use of the presidential power given him by Congress, however, the Confederate insurrection had continued and spread into Tennessee, Arkansas, and other states.

Lincoln notes that the Rebels had been operating as if they were subject solely to the authority of the state governments. These governments, on the other hand, had done nothing to deny this perceived sovereignty. Furthermore, although the rebels had clearly been operating against the laws of the United States, the state governments claiming authority over them had done nothing to suppress the insurrection.

Since Congress had joined Lincoln in identifying the eleven insurgent states (excluding West Virginia, which Lincoln notes refused to join and in fact was taking steps to combat the insurgency), Lincoln felt empowered to elevate the effort against the Confederacy. His first move in this proclamation is to declare commerce with the secessionist states illegal until the end of the war. Any goods, merchandise, or other items brought into the Union by land or sea from these states or vice versa–unless granted an exemption by the president or his administration–would be “forfeited to the United States.” Furthermore, any Confederate ships caught transporting people or goods into or out of the Union would also be confiscated. Once the blockade was in place, any unauthorized ship found attempting to travel between the United States and the Confederate ports in question would be captured and its cargo distributed in the Union.

Lincoln applied the full weight of his power to these proclamations and the blockade itself. At his disposal were not only the US Navy and the War Department but also law enforcement, including marshals and district attorneys, and the US Treasury. Lincoln mentions this last agency because of its responsibilities in collecting and processing revenues. Much of Lincoln’s argument against the secessionist movement, as seen in these proclamations, was based on the fact that the states involved would cease to collect federal tax revenues and pay their federal obligations. The Treasury would thus recoup lost revenues by liquidating any confiscated ships and contraband. Implicit is the notion that once a blockade runner was captured by the Union, any item of value seized would not be returned to the perpetrator as long as the war persisted.

At the end of proclamation 86, Lincoln attempt to show flexibility with regard to specific cases. For example, he suggests that parties detained for violating the blockade may, if they feel mistreated by the charges levied against them, appeal directly to the Treasury Department. The treasury would, Lincoln writes, have the authority to review each case thoroughly and drop the charges in special cases. Lincoln also leaves open the possibility that the suspension of commerce between Union and secessionist states could be exempted if the latter “maintain[ed] a loyal adhesion” to the former. The newly created state of West Virginia, cited in proclamation 86, provides an example of how a state may benefit economically from this declaration of loyalty. If a state wanted to avoid suffering from a lack of commerce with the Union, it could simply reverse course, rejoin the Union, and immediately return to economic vitality.

Nevertheless, it was Lincoln’s intention to apply a strict, extensive, and far-reaching blockade that would weaken the maritime-reliant economies of the Southern states that declared themselves sovereign. In fact, the breakaway states had by this point not only seceded, an act that itself was illegal in Lincoln’s view, but also taken up arms against the military and civilian agents of the federal government. Lincoln and his cabinet believed that the war could be ended if the Confederacy’s maritime supply and revenue lines were cut. The only way to ensure the efficacy of such a policy was to apply the blockade in the strictest manner possible.

Essential Themes

Lincoln inherited from his predecessor a steadily deteriorating situation, as the divide between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South continued to widen. Opponents of Lincoln argued repeatedly during his first presidential campaign that he would not share Buchanan’s apparent ambivalence on abolition and would outlaw slavery, on which the agrarian economy of the South relied. Although Lincoln asserted during this period that he had said nothing to support this rumor, his success on the campaign trail made the Southern states extremely wary. After he won the election, South Carolina decided it was time to break away from Lincoln’s United States.

Lincoln’s response to the secession of South Carolina was to take swift action, calling up 75,000 troops to confront the rebels. This action emboldened other states to follow South Carolina’s example. As states continued to leave the Union, Lincoln issued three proclamations that were designed to cut off the port cities of the South. The blockade was within his presidential power to impose, he argues in the proclamations, as the country faced an insurrection that threatened the safety of its government and people. In proclamation 86, the third proclamation concerning the blockade, Lincoln asserts his presidential authority again, outlining specific punishments for those who would violate the blockade. Still, he also sought to appear fair. Those who felt they were unjustly accused could appeal their cases, even during wartime. Furthermore, Lincoln makes it known that all involved states, even those that had already seceded, could avoid the blockade and the resulting economic disruption by rededicating themselves to the Union.

The proclamations include strong language identifying the secessionist states as criminals and belligerents against the United States. Such verbiage was likely included both to intimidate the Southern states and to make it clear to foreign governments that they were to stay away from the affected ports or else be seen as potential enemies of the Union. The US government was largely successful in preventing foreign powers from allying with the Confederacy; although the Confederacy continued to trade with some foreign bodies, particularly British possessions in the Caribbean, the governments of such areas remained officially allied with the United States. However, the secessionists themselves were not intimidated by bellicose language, and the Confederate movement against the United States continued.

  • “Abraham Lincoln.” Library of Congress. Lib. of Cong., 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
  • “The Blockade of Confederate Ports, 1861–1865.” Office of the Historian. US Department of State, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
  • Faulkner, Ronnie W. “Secession.” North Carolina History Project. John Locke Foundation, 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
  • “Fort Sumter.” Civil War Trust. Civil War Trust, 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
  • Lankford, Nelson D. “Virginia Convention of 1861.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 5 Apr. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
  • “Lincoln, Abraham.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. US Cong., 2005. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Beschloss, Michael, and Hugh Sidey. The Presidents of the United States of America. Washington: White House Historical Assn., 2009. Print.
  • Canfield, Eugene B. “Birth of a Blockade.” Naval History 21.5 (2007): 44–51. Print.
  • Ekelund, Robert B. Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War. Lanham: Rowan, 2004. Print.
  • Lincoln, Abraham. “Call for 75,000 Volunteers.” Essential Documents of American History. Comp. Norman Desmarais and James H. McGovern. 2009. Web. Academic Search Premier. 24 Apr. 2013.
  • Wise, Stephen R. Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running during the Civil War. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1991. Print.
Categories: History