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Background Essay on the "Twenty Negro" Law

The so-called "Twenty Negro Law," enacted by the Confederate Congress in 1862, allowed an exemption from military service for slaveholders who owned twenty or more slaves. In effect, this allowed large plantation owners and overseers to avoid serving in the Confederate Army, leaving the bulk of the fighting to poor southern whites, small farmers and non-slaveowners. The law thus created resentment among poor whites towards the wealthy who benefited from the law.

After the Confederate Congress adopted conscription in April 1862, it enacted a long list of exemptions, mostly occupations that were designated as essential to the war effort. In reality, many of those exempted did not perform crucial war work, but the most controversial exemption, approved in October 1862, was the so-called twenty Negro law. This law excused from military service “one person as agent, owner, or overseer on each plantation of twenty negroes” if all other white men on the plantation were otherwise eligible for military service. The law also allowed an additional “white male adult” to avoid service in situations where more two or more plantations within five miles of each other contained more than twenty slaves. This law enabled some slave owners and overseers to escape the draft in order to ensure white male supervision of large groups of slaves. Critics noted that similar protection was not offered to non-slaveholding farmers in the South. Congress revised this provision in 1863 (to protect against fraud) and 1864 (reducing the number of slaves to fifteen).

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning, “Background Essay on the "Twenty Negro" Law,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 4, 2023,

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