As soon as he took the oath of office, President Andrew Johnson was faced with the formidable task of reuniting our broken nation. Johnson needed to heal the wounds of war yet deal with the treason of the South. On May 29, 1865, Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation. He signed a sweeping pardon that covered the average Confederate citizen/soldier. Once they took the oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union, their citizen rights were restored as well as any confiscated property returned, excluding slaves of course. This amnesty proclamation did have some exclusions. Fourteen groups were not pardoned in this general amnesty. Those excluded from the general pardon included officers in the war, governors of Confederate states, senators and congressmen of Confederate states, wealthy landowners and anyone who held a “position” in the Confederacy.
These individuals had a process to complete before receiving a pardon. They were to apply for amnesty from the US government. Each individual’s paperwork was to include a letter asking for amnesty, an oath of allegiance, and letters of recommendation from friends or relatives. If your Confederate Civil War ancestor fell into any of the categories he may have an amnesty file.
Those excluded from amnesty were:
First. All who are or shall have been pretended civil or diplomatic officers or otherwise domestic or foreign agents of the pretended Confederate government.
Second. All who left judicial stations under the United States to aid the rebellion.
Third. All who shall have been military or naval officers of said pretended Confederate government above the rank of colonel in the army or lieutenant in the navy.
Fourth. All who left seats in the Congress of the United States to aid the rebellion.
Fifth. All who resigned or tendered resignations of their commissions in the Army or Navy of the United States to evade duty in resisting the rebellion.
Sixth. All who have engaged in any way in treating otherwise than lawfully as prisoners of war persons found in the United States service as officers, soldiers, seamen, or in other capacities.
Seventh. All persons who have been or are absentees from the United States for the purpose of aiding the rebellion.
Eighth. All military and naval officers in the rebel service who were educated by the Government in the Military Academy at West Point or the United States Naval Academy.
Ninth. All persons who held the pretended offices of governors of States in insurrection against the United States.
Tenth. All persons who left their homes within the jurisdiction and protection of the United States and passed beyond the Federal military lines into the pretended Confederate States for the purpose of aiding the rebellion.
Eleventh. All persons who have been engaged in the destruction of the commerce of the United States upon the high seas and all persons who have made raids into the United States from Canada or been engaged in destroying the commerce of the United States upon the lakes and rivers that separate the British Provinces from the United States.
Twelfth. All persons who, at the time when they seek to obtain the benefits hereof by taking the oath herein prescribed, are in military, naval, or civil confinement or custody, or under bonds of the civil, military, or naval authorities or agents of the United States as prisoners of war, or persons detained for offenses of any kind, either before or after conviction.
Thirteenth. All persons who have voluntarily participated in said rebellion and the estimated value of whose taxable property is over $20,000.
Fourteenth. All persons who have taken the oath of amnesty as prescribed in the President's proclamation of December 8, A. D. 1863, or an oath of allegiance to the Government of the United States since the date of said proclamation and who have not thenceforward kept and maintained the same inviolate.1
It’s interesting to note that a Presidential pardon to any Southerner in the list above would restore the applicant’s rights as a US citizen and would also provide him with immunity from future prosecution for treason and return of seized property. It wasn’t long before the federal government was inundated with thousands of applications for amnesty. By the end of 1867 there were 13,500 pardons issued.
With the deluge of applications President Johnson issued another amnesty proclamation reducing the number of those excluded from his earlier pardon down to 3 groups. By doing so he reduced the number of those still not pardoned. On Christmas Day 1868, Johnson's final amnesty proclamation was extended "unconditionally and without reservation" to all who had participated in the rebellion.2
If your Confederate Civil War ancestor applied for a pardon his file may be among the 13,500 issued. So where do you find the Confederate Amnesty Papers? They are housed at the National Archives in RG 94 and are searchable by clicking this link, scroll down to mid-page and there is a gray box that says, “Search within this series”. You’ll be taken to the applications and can search them free of charge.
The Amnesty Papers are also online at Ancestry and Fold3, which of course are paid sites. On all sites the files are organized by state, then by applicant’s last name. Files contain affidavits, oaths of allegiance, recommendations for executive clemency, and other pertinent paperwork. Most files are only a few pages long but as you can imagine contain valuable information to the family historian.
If you choose not to use the National Archives site for research and you’re currently not a subscriber to either Ancestry or Fold3’s site these records can be available at any local library that has free Ancestry.com or Fold3 access. Also check your local Family History Center for availability.
Who knows, the Confederate Amnesty Papers may just hold the answers to your toughest research questions. Good luck in your search.
Andrew Johnson: "Proclamation 134—Granting Amnesty to Participants in the Rebellion, with Certain Exceptions," May 29, 1865. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. 12 Oct. 2017. ↩
"Case Files of Applications From Former Confederates for Presidential Pardons (“Amnesty Papers”) 1865-1867 National Archives Microfilm Publications Pamphlet Description M1003." (n.d.): n. pag. IRC Library. National Archives and Record Administration. Web. 12 Oct. 2017. . ↩