Impressment was the informal and then, beginning in March 1863, the legislated policy of the Confederate government to seize food, fuel, slaves, and other commodities to support armies in the field during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The tax-in-kind law, passed a month later, allowed the government to impress crops from farmers at a negotiated price. Combined with inflationary prices and plummeting morale following military defeats, impressment sparked vocal protests across the South. Discontent was exacerbated by what was perceived as the government’s haphazard enforcement of the law, its setting of below-market prices, and its abuse of labor. As a result, citizens hoarded goods and in some cases even impersonated impressment agents in an effort to steal commodities.
Confederate officials had pursued impressment as early as 1861, when the government published lists of prices and attempted to buy staples from farmers and other businessmen. The ongoing need for a regular source of supply, however, prompted the Confederate Congress to pass an impressment law on March 26, 1863. The act directed military officials, with the assistance of state boards of impressments, to buy food, fuel, and other needed commodities. Appointed by governors and Confederate president Jefferson Davis, the commissioners met with local farmers and merchants in order to set fair prices. If no agreement could be reached, the issue went to an “umpire,” who was the final arbiter. The schedule of prices was to be adjusted every two months and published in local newspapers.
A few months after impressment became law, Confederate losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, combined with high inflation, created a chorus of popular protest. Government price schedules hovered at almost 50 percent below the market rate, outraging farmers and merchants. Adding to their frustration was the uneven way in which goods were impressed. Areas near military campaigns and encamped armies were picked clean, while in other areas impressed goods rotted for lack of transportation. Moreover, it was not uncommon for Southerners to impersonate impressment agents in order to obtain food and fuel to support their own needy families.
Impressment merely exacerbated the disillusionment and discontent behind the lines. War Department clerk Robert Hill Garlick Kean noted the disastrous effect impressment was having on supplies in the Richmond markets: “Farmers … resent the Secretary [of War]’s schedule prices which are often 50% below the market or neighborhood price.” Kean went on to observe that “the instant impressment of flour, corn, and meat as soon as they are brought to any of the inland towns … is causing universal withholding of surplus … The Army will be starved and famine will ensue in the cities unless the Secretary changes his policy.”
The Richmond press also commented on the negative impact impressment policies were having on the Confederate cause. The acerbic editor of the Richmond Examiner wrote, “These arbitrary impressments of Government touch the people’s pride and sense of justice.” He concluded, “It behooves Congress to redress the present wrongful practice and establish a proper system of impressment without delay.” Despite such entreaties, the War Department did not change the policy. As a result, the Confederate government estimated that by March 1865 it had issued $500 million certificates of indebtedness and unpaid invoices.
Enacted in April 1863, tax-in-kind operated similarly to the Impressment Act. Farmers were required to donate 10 percent of certain crops, such as corn, wheat, and sweet potatoes, to tax-in-kind collectors operating under the auspices of the War and Treasury departments. As with impressments, the collectors and farmers negotiated how to calculate 10 percent. Also as with impressments, fake agents stole crops and the government enforced the law haphazardly, causing some Confederate citizens to ask which was the worse scourge, the Union army or Confederate impressment and “TIK-men,” as the tax-in-kind agents were derisively called. Still, at least one scholar has estimated that tax-in-kind generated $62 million for the Confederacy between 1863 and 1865.
Since the beginning and throughout the war, local, state, and federal officials advertised for slave labor to build fortifications, to work in the nation’s growing war industries, and to serve as teamsters, nurses, cooks, and gravediggers. That informal practice was codified in the March 1863 Impressment Act, which allowed the government to impress slave labor as needed. For instance, the Confederate government sought the labor of 20,000 slaves in 1864, reserving the right to impress them if slave owners refused to hire them out. By law, the government paid the owners and provided the slaves with room and board and the opportunity to earn overtime pay.
Still, reimbursement was often slow in coming if it came at all. Government bureaus also regularly impressed slaves at the height of the harvest season and kept them beyond their contracted term of service. Because of poor living and working conditions, many slaves returned to their masters in poor health. Despite protests from slave owners, slave impressments proved critical in allowing the Confederate government to shore up fortifications and keep the war machine churning out arms and ammunition until the very end.
Impressment was a necessity for the Confederate government that nevertheless came at a terrible cost. State governors and advocates of states’ rights protested the power of the central government to seize private property; the state of Georgia went so far as to declare impressment unconstitutional. Hoarding, speculation, and a continued decline in morale combined to hamper the war effort. By the last months of the war, the Confederacy’s economic policies, and in particular impressment, succeeded in reinforcing state loyalties at the expense of the Confederate nation.
March 26, 1863
The Confederate Congress passes the Impressment Act, allowing it to impress, or seize, food, fuel, slaves, and other commodities to support armies in the field. Discontent with the law is exacerbated by what is perceived as the government’s haphazard enforcement of the law, its setting of below-market prices, and its abuse of labor.
The Confederate Congress passes a tax-in-kind law, allowing it to seize, at negotiated prices, farmers’ crops, such as corn, wheat, and sweet potatoes. The law, along with the earlier Impressment Act, sparks protests across the South.