Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Freeborn v. The Protector, 1872: The Civil War Ends in Court

After publishing the post on Sunday about the first soldier killed in action during the Civil War, I realized I had never searched for the decision the Supreme Court had rendered, which legally established the start and end dates of the Civil War. What I discovered was fascinating -- there were actually two official start and end dates for the Civil War and they varied by state. I certainly never learned that in school!

It turns out the case was decided on 29 January 1872 and was known as William A. Freeborn v. The Protector, J. C. Bell. I have no idea what the original case was about, but when it reached the Supreme Court, the point of law to be decided was about statutes of limitation. My assumption is one of the parties sued the other for damages that occurred during or just after the war. The other party claimed the suit was not brought in a timely fashion due to the statutes of limitation on war damages, which would have been based on the date of the end of the war.

Page 463 from Cases Argued and Decided in the Supreme Court of the United
States, Book 20,
by Charles L. Thompson
It came to the Supreme Court on appeal from the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Louisiana. Mr. F. S. Blount argued for J. C. Bell, the appellant, or the person who applies to a higher court for a reversal of a lower court ruling. His argument was simple. The end date of the Civil War had been established when Congress enacted legislation recognizing Presidential Proclamation 157. That proclamation set the official end date of the Civil War as 20 August 1866. Therefore, that was the date upon which any statute of limitations should based.

Page 464 from Cases Argued and Decided in the Supreme Court of the
United States, Book 20,
by Charles L. Thompson
Mr. P. Phillips argued for William A. Freeborn, the appellee, or the respondent in a case heard by a higher court. His argument was more complicated but the net result was peace existed in Alabama well before 20 August 1866 and therefore, the appellant did not proceed with his appeal in a timely fashion.

Page 465 from Cases Argued and Decided by the Supreme Court of the
United States, Book 20,
by Charles L. Thompson

Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase delivered the opinion of the court. In that opinion, two start dates and two end dates for the Civil War were cited. They were important because the statute of limitations clock was suspended in times of rebellion and began again when rebellion ended. Justice Chase based those dates on presidential proclamations. Chase granted the appellee's motion to dismiss the case because the appeal was not filed within the time allowed by the statute of limitations.

The case seemed like a pretty trivial case about commercial law, but it did legally establish the start and end dates for the Civil War in each state and so should be a critically important case to historians. And after reading this post, you can smugly refute most history books and websites which state the Civil War started on 12 April 1861 when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter! Based on this Supreme Court case, President Lincoln and the United States were actually the belligerent parties who started the war.

20 December 1860: South Carolina seceded

9 January 1861: Mississippi seceded

10 January 1861: Florida seceded

11 January 1861: Alabama seceded

19 January 1861: Georgia seceded

26 January 1861: Louisiana seceded

1 February 1861: Texas seceded

12 April 1861: Confederates open fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor

15 April 1861: President Lincoln issued Presidential Proclamation 80, which called up the militia

17 April 1861: Virginia seceded

19 April 1861: President Lincoln issued Presidential Proclamation 81, which ordered the blockade of ports of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas

Presidential Proclamation 81 as signed by President Lincoln; image courtesy
of the RAAB Collection

27 April 1861: President Lincoln issued Presidential Proclamation 82, which extended the blockade to the ports of Virginia and North Carolina

6 May 1861: Arkansas seceded

20 May 1861: North Carolina seceded

8 June 1861: Tennessee seceded

After Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox, several presidential proclamations were issued normalizing relations and commerce with the former Confederate states. However, two proclamations issued by President Andrew Johnson in 1866 were considered the formal end of the war by the Supreme Court in Freeborn v. The Protector:

2 April 1866: President Johnson issued Presidential Proclamation 153, which declared the insurrection in the states of Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Florida to be at an end.

20 August 1866: President Johnson issued Presidential Proclamation 157, which declared peace, order, tranquility and civil authority existed throughout the United States; this proclamation was considered the official end of the war with Texas

Thompson, Charles L., Cases Argued and Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, Book 20, Lawyers' Edition. (Rochester, New York: The Lawyers Co-Operative Publishing Company, 1918), pages 463-465

Presidential Proclamations, The American Presidency Project, University of California Santa Barbara (accessed 9 November 2015)

RAAB Collection, autograph dealers (accessed 5 November 2015)

First KIA of the Civil War


  1. Wow. This is all news to me. I was such a fool to think I'd had a pretty good education. I learned NONE of this back in school. So glad, that as a genealogist, I've been doing some of my own digging, primarily into the American Revolutionary War, but that, too, has broadened by understanding of just what took place.

    1. I never learned this in school either. Even though I was raised in Virginia, we were taught the Confederacy caused the war by seceding from the United States and firing on Fort Sumter. I think this is a little known case that most history books think would complicate what really happened...yet, as the highest court in the land, their ruling in my view is the official one.