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An Uphill Battle

From the onset of Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation of 1865, the President intended to deal more harshly with former Confederate officers than the other excepted classes. As early as August 11, 1865, when the subject of amnesty was brought up in a Cabinet meeting, it was reported, “’No one who had been educated at public expense (West Point or the Naval Academy; eighth exception)…no officer of the Army or Navy…had been pardoned, nor did [Johnson] propose to pardon anyone of that class.’” (Dorris 1960, 24)  Johnson and his Cabinet “agreed on a strategy to refuse amnesty to, or at least to scrutinize more closely” any of the applicants petitioning under the third, fifth and eighth exceptions of Johnson’s 1865 Proclamation. (Clampitt 2006, 260) Historian Bradley R. Clampitt reveals that this strategy was certainly enforced in Texas; the applicants falling under the “military exceptions” were pardoned at a rate of 35.2 percent, while all others were pardoned at a rate of 99.2 percent. (Clampitt 2006, 265) This fact is exceptional considering that roughly 13,500 of 15,000 (90 percent) of petitions were granted between May 29, 1865 and September 6, 1867, suggesting that the majority of those whose pardons were denied were military officers. (Clampitt 2006, 254) Non-military applicants from Western North Carolina tended to stress the fact that they were not in the military, suggesting that they felt that “only military resistance was treason." (McKinney 2005, 19)

It was thus facing this up- hill battle that former Confederate officers had to work to justify their actions during the war. Realizing this disadvantage, General Robert E. Lee nevertheless set the example for Confederate officers requesting amnesty from President Johnson. On July 13, 1865, he submitted arguably one of the shortest amnesty requests. Less than one hundred words in length, Lee’s request simply affirmed his complicity in the rebellion and proclaimed his exemption from presidential amnesty due to the fact that he attended West Point and held the rank of general in the Confederate army. In it was no defense, no justification, and no heart-felt plea for forgiveness. Although Lee’s petition was symbolic because it signaled to other officers to follow in kind and contribute to the rebuilding of the nation, it could be surmised that he had little expectation of being granted amnesty. Lee attempted to set an example to his compatriots, but knew that his request would not likely be granted, no matter how lengthy or defensible. (Dorris 1953, 121)     

Lee’s request for amnesty stood in stark contrast with those of exempted officers from North Carolina. Their requests ranged from two hand-written pages, to upwards of five, full of defenses of their actions and justification for their deserving of pardon. In keeping with the directions instructing petitioners to detail their lives prior to and during, the war these former North Carolina military officers worked to highlight an image of themselves “soldiering on” and carrying out the duties asked of them by their state, not of political engines or agitators. In this manner, these men worked to establish their participation in the context of the reluctant soldier doing his state’s bidding. The officers asserted their allegiance to North Carolina while denying political responsibility. In the case of their wartime activities, the petitioners worked to highlight their ethical conduct and treatment of Union soldiers during the war in order to assuage the fact that they actively took up arms against the Union and commanded troops with the purpose of defeating the United States. Through this, the petitioners hoped to prove that they had harbored no ill will towards the Union, and that readmitting them into the Union would come without conflict.