Twenty Negro or Overseer Law?: Ideas for the Classroom

Twenty Negro or Overseer Law?: Ideas for the Classroom

Application for an overseer exemption, May 1864. From Encyclopedia Virginia. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

For the Confederacy, was the Civil War a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight? College students and historians have grappled with this question as long as they have studied the Civil War. For those who answer in the affirmative, this “yes” is generally followed up by the argument that divisions between rich and poor and/or slaveholder and non-slaveholder contributed to the demise of the Confederacy.[1] Others, however, contend that the Civil War was both a rich man’s and a poor man’s fight. These historians are more apt to argue that the overwhelming power of the North (not internal Confederate divisions) led to Union victory.[2]

To support their argument, those favoring the former view have seemingly found a smoking gun in the “Twenty Negro Law.” Passed in October 1862, this amendment to the April 1862 conscription law allowed planters (those who owned twenty or more slaves) an exemption for someone to oversee their slaves. These historians often quote Mississippi Senator James Phelan’s succinct contention that “never did a law meet with universal odium.”[3] One scholar has claimed that the measure was “perhaps the most widely hated act ever imposed by the Confederacy,” and another has added that in the wake of the measure, “the War of Southern independence was, in consequence, effectively lost.”[4]

At first glance, the measure’s potential to undermine class solidarity appears irrefutable. Nevertheless the reality, as is often the case, is more complex. In the June 2017 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, I offered my own analysis. There I argue that the October 1862 law represented a response to legitimate concerns regarding slave unrest, especially in light of Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. And, I point out that scholars have too often adopted an overly simplistic view of the measure. Many authors have disregarded the changes to the law in 1863 and 1864, conflated criticism of abuse of the law with criticism of the law itself, and ignored the fact that few men took advantage of the exemption.[5]

My argument is not that all Confederates welcomed the law or that non-slaveholders cheered this privilege extended to their planter neighbors. Instead, it is a reminder of both the complexity in history and the need to consider Civil War history from the perspective of the soldiers, politicians, and civilians of the era. There was no monolithic opinion regarding the measure, and consequently, the primary sources associated with the “Twenty Negro” or Overseer law provide a valuable opportunity to demonstrate how scholars can use the same sources and come to different conclusions.

In order to encourage students to think critically about this law, and about what primary sources can teach us, one option for an assignment in an upper-division Civil War course is to have students write an editorial either for or against the measure, taking into consideration some relevant primary sources (see appendix). There is, of course, no right or wrong answer, but it is more important how students use the primary sources. Some questions that might guide their work would include:

  1. What were the main arguments in favor of the law?
  2. What were the main arguments against the law?
  3. How did the law change over time? Did politicians respond to the law’s critics?
  4. Does the law support the contention that the Civil War was a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight”?

Also, when I teach this topic I encourage students to be aware of time and place in their editorial (they are allowed to choose their identity, the date they write, and the place they live). If students write in November 1862, they would be writing about a different iteration of the law than if they wrote in June 1864. And, if they write from a South Carolina county with over eighty percent of its population enslaved, they might come to a different conclusion than if they write from a piney woods county with less than ten percent of its population enslaved. And, of course, wealth, gender, proximity to the enemy, and other factors could also shape their attitude toward the law.

Overall, this assignment gives students the opportunity to consider context and contingency in history. My goal is not to get students to agree on their opinion of the measure. Historians have not reached unanimity on the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” issue in the past 150 years. And, my guess is that it will not be resolved in the next 150 years either, so there is no need for a classroom consensus. Instead, my hope is to get my students thinking in the context of the period, to address a key historiographical debate, and to use sources to make a convincing argument.


If you assign an editorial project in class, or you discuss this law in depth, I suggest the following primary sources:

A. The 1860 census:

If your university subscribes to Social Explorer (, that’s the best method to get county data. The printed records are available at and the material is also available at the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) at (the easiest method used to be the University of Virginia census browser but that is no longer operating).

B. Statistics:

State Plantations Overseer Exemptions Percent of Plantations with Exemptions
Virginia 5,777 200 3.5
North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina 15,719 622 3.96
Louisiana 3,925 210 5.3

C. The laws:

  1. First law, October 1862

    “To secure the proper police of the country, one person, either as agent, owner or overseer on each plantation on which one white person is required to be kept by the laws or ordinances of any State, and on which there is no white male adult not liable to do military service, and in States having no such law, one person as agent, owner or overseer, on each plantation of twenty negroes, and on which there is no white male adult not liable to military service…are hereby exempted from military service in the armies of the Confederate States;… Provided, further, That the exemptions…shall only continue whilst the persons exempted are actually engaged in their respective pursuits or occupations. (James M. Matthews, Public Laws of the Confederate States of America, Passed at the Second Session of the First Congress [Richmond: R. M. Smith, 1862], 77-79.)

  2. May 1863 Amendment, which replaced the October 1862 law

    “Sec. 2. For the police and management of slaves, there shall be exempted one person on each farm or plantation, the sole property of a minor, a person of unsound mind, a feme sole, or a person absent from home in the military or naval service of the Confederacy, on which there are twenty or more slaves: Provided, The person so exempted was employed and acting as an overseer previous to the sixteenth April [1862]…for every person exempted, as aforesaid…there shall be paid annually…the sum of five hundred dollars.

    Sec. 3 Such other persons shall be exempted as the President shall be satisfied ought to be exempted in districts of country deprived of country deprived of white or slave labor indispensable to the production of grain or provisions necessary for the support of the population remaining at home, and also on account of justice, equity, and necessity.”(James M. Matthews, The Statutes at Large of the Confederate States of America Passed at the Third Session of the First Congress [Richmond: R.M. Smith, 1863], 158-59.)

  3. February 1864 amendment

    “There shall be exempt one person as overseer…on each farm or plantation upon which there are now …fifteen able-bodies field hands…shall only be granted in cases in which there is no white male adult on the farm or plantation not liable to military service…such person shall first execute a bond…that he will deliver…one hundred pounds of bacon…and one hundred pounds of net beef…for each able bodied slave on the farm…shall further bind himself to sell the marketable surplus of provisions and grain now on hand…to the Government or to the families of soldiers at prices fixed by the commissioners of the State.” (OR, ser. 4, vol. 3: 179-80)

D. Letters/reactions (in chronological order):

  1. “Farmer” to Governor Joseph Brown, February 22, 1862, Washington County, Georgia

    “Some neighborhoods in our Co. will shortly be left entirely destitute of White men & exposed to the ravages of Negroes without any control at all. This state of things arrises from the fact of all men volunteering & leaving from our locality; & no more being willing to stay & risk being drafted. Some farms will be entirely neglected & thereby loose more to the Confederacy than the men would gain by leaving home.”“Some white men should be left in all neighborhoods to carry on the farms & raise corn for the soldiers.” (Governor’s Correspondence, Georgia Department of Archives and History, Atlanta.)

  2. General Daniel Ruggles to General S. Cooper, Adj. Gen’l CSA, October 3, 1862, from Jackson, MS

    Voluntary enlistment plus conscription have taken “such a large proportion of the active freemen of this district, including the owners of slaves and other persons engaged in their management, that many plantations with numerous slaves are being left without the ordinary and necessary control of the white man, an daily applications are made to me to detail or to authorize the retention of proper persons to superintend them. Pernicious influences have already been manifested upon many of these plantations, and it is perhaps not without reason that fears are entertained of some serious disturbance in the sections most densely populated by the servile race, which are in most cases approachable by navigable streams…. The magnitude of this interest within this district is such that some speedy remedy and indicated line of future policy seemed to be imperatively demanded.” (OR, ser. 1, vol. 15, 821.)

  3. F.M. Holladay to Vice President Alexander Stephens, November 30, 1862 (from Mississippi)

    After his son has died in Confederate service, he wrote: “Our army is [torn paper]ing a great to do at the Exemption Law. It does look hard to exempt a man because he has 20 Negroes they say it is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” (Alexander Stephens Papers, Emory University.)

  4. Senator James Phelan to Jefferson Davis, December 9, 1862

    “Never did a law meet with more universal odium than the exemption of slave-owners. Its injustice, gross injustice, is denounced even by men whose position enables them to take advantage of its privileges. Its influence on the poor is most calamitous, and has awakened a spirit of and elicited a discussion of which we may safely predicate the most unfortunate results. I believe such a provision to be unnecessary, inexpedient, and unjust. I labored to defeat it and predicted the consequences of its enactment. It has aroused a spirit of rebellion in some places, I am informed, and bodies of men have banded together to resist; whilst in the army it is said it only needs some daring man to raise the standard to develop a revolt.” (OR, ser. 1, vol. 17, 2: 790.)

  5. John Harris to Becky Harris, February 14, 1863

    “I hear that great dissatisfaction reins in our country in regard to the exemption law, and I cannot blame the people their. I mean those who are poor and have always had to work and all their lives to support their little children…. Who are the men that are detailed to stay at home and attend to the negroes. Is it not those men who before the war … employed the poor men to attend to his negroes and never himself went to the fields. Now how is it those very rich men are the best of overseers, can have more work done and keep the poor negro in better subjugation than any poor man and the poor have to leave those they love to the mercys of the rich and got out to fight the battle of the country – and who for – have not the men of property more at stake than the poor. Certainly they have and they are the ones who ought to face the canon or else when we gain our independence their effects ought to be taken and equally distributed between those who have gained for them their independence.” (John Achilles Harris Letters, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.)

  6. North Carolina Legislature

    “Whereas, the Confederate Congress in an act known as the ‘Military Exemption Bill,’ by the exemption of such persons as may be the owners of twenty or more negroes…have, in the opinion of this General Assembly, made unjust discrimination between such persons, and their less fortunate fellow-citizens, contrary to the spirit of our institutions, and in direct violation of the third section of our Bill of Rights…

    Resolved by this General Assembly, That we do not believe there exists a necessity for such distinctions, and we most respectfully ask our senators and representative in Congress to…urge a repeal of said clauses, at the earliest possible day.” (Public Laws of the State of North Carolina Passed by the General Assembly, 1862-63 [Raleigh: W. W. Holden, State Printer, 1863], 49-50.)

  7. W. Courtney to mother and sister, February 7, 1864

    “I have left the Rebbel[sic] army and I intend in a few days to seek protection in the federal lines…. I wil not be governed by a people where there is not justice among them…. They have always made laws to oppress the poor since this war commenced. first the twenty negro law was allowed. next was allowed the rich man who did not own twenty slaves the privilege to hire a substitute in fact all big men who were not exempt in some way are officers in the army then who must do the fighting…the poor who have left families with the promised they should not suffer for want…[families] have been neglected. left without food….” (Stokes Papers, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.)

  8. Sam Watkins, Tennessee Private, in his memoirs

    “A law was made by the Confederate States Congress about this time allowing every person who owned twenty or more negroes to go home. It gave us the blues; we wanted twenty negroes. Negro property suddenly became very valuable, and there was raised the howl of ‘rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.’ The glory of the war, the glory of the South, the glory and the pride of our volunteers had no charms for the conscript.” (Sam Watkins, Company Aytch or a Side Show of the Big Show, M. Thomas Inge, ed. [Plume, 1999], 31-32.)

E. Speeches

  1. President Jefferson Davis speech, Jackson, MS, December 26, 1862

    “I am told that [the Twenty Negro Law] has excited some discontent and that it has provoked censure, far more severe, I believe, than it deserves. It has been said that it exempts the rich from military service, and forces the poor to fight the battles of the country. The poor do, indeed, fight the battles of the country. It is the poor who save nations and make revolutions. But is it true that in this war the men of property have shrunk from the ordeal of the battle-field? Look through the army; cast your eyes upon the maimed heroes of the war whom you meet in your streets and in the hospitals; remember the martyrs of the conflict; and I am sure you will find among them more than a fair proportion drawn from the ranks of men of property. The object of that portion of the act which exempts those having charge of twenty or more negroes, was not to draw any distinction of classes, but simply to provide a force, in the nature of a police force, sufficient to keep our negroes in control. This was the sole object of the clause. Had it been otherwise, it would never have received my signature. As I have already said, we have no cause to complain of the rich. All of our people have done well; and, while the poor have nobly discharged their duties, most of the wealthiest and most distinguished families of the South have representatives in the ranks. (The Papers of Jefferson Davis, ed. Lynda Crist et al., vol. 8, 1862 [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995], 569.)

  2. Alabama Senator William Yancey Speech in Southern Recorder, February 3, 1863

    “The sole question to be considered is, is the exemption of some one competent to manage slaves, demanded by the interests of the army and the community? If it is, the law is wise in this particular…

    “Every slave holding State, that had considered the question, for many years previously…had enacted laws requiring some male adult white person to reside upon a place where as many as 6 to 20 slaves resided…

    The Exemption law is this particular, but endorsed the policy of the State law.”“The slaves, under skillful management, constitute the great and peculiar strength of the South in war.”

  3. Jefferson Davis to Congress, January 12, 1863

    “I specially recommend…some revision of the exemption law of last session. Serious complaints have reached me of the inequality of its operation from eminent and patriotic citizens, whose opinions merit great consideration, and I trust that some means will be devised for leaving at home a sufficient local police without making discriminations, always to be deprecated, between different classes of our citizens.” (OR, ser. 4, vol. 2, 348.)


[1] For just a few examples of the view that internal divisions doomed the Confederacy, see David Williams, A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom (New York: New Press, 2005); Armstead L. Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861–1865 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 188; William W. Freehling The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
[2] For examples of this view, see Gary Gallagher, The Confederate War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Joseph T. Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (New York: Free Press, 2008); William Blair, Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861–1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); “Everyman’s War: Confederate Enlistment in Civil War Virginia,” Civil War History 50 (March 2004): 5-36.
James Phelan to Jefferson Davis, December 9, 1862, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880–1901), ser. 1, vol. 17, 2:790 (hereafter cited as OR).
[4] David Williams, Rich Man’s War: Class, Caste, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998); Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage, 188.
John Sacher, “‘Twenty-Negro,’ or Overseer Law: A Reconsideration,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 2 (June 2017): 269-292.

John Sacher

John Sacher is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida. His research focuses on politics and society in the nineteenth-century South, particularly during the Civil War era. His book, A Perfect War of Politics: Parties, Politicians, and Democracy in Louisiana, 1824-1861 (LSU, 2003), examines antebellum politics and secession in Louisiana. He is currently working on a book on conscription in the Confederacy. This study uses conscription as a lens to view both Confederate identity and the internal strains within the South during the Civil War.

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