Lincoln’s Suspension of Habeas Corpus

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

This article addresses President Abraham Lincoln’s wartime suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus and recounts the cases of John Merryman, Clement Vallandigham, and Lambdin Milligan. The cast of characters includes many Ohioans.

Suspension of the Writ of Habeus Corpus and the Milligan Case

Abraham Lincoln

Following his election in the face of Southern opposition, Abraham Lincoln had to travel through Baltimore by train secretly under threat of assassination to take office as president in a badly divided county in 1861. Following the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 and the secession of Virginia on April 17, he faced the possibility of the nation’s capital being isolated from the North if the neighboring border state of Maryland would secede and join the Confederacy. Given the small size and scattered location of the United State army, Lincoln called for help from Northern governors to defend Washington, D.C.

On April 19, when the 6th Massachusetts regiment took to the streets of Baltimore (known as “Mob City” and home to many secession sympathizers) to switch trains enroute to Washington City, a mob attacked it. In the ensuing fracas known as the “Pratt Street riot,” four soldiers were killed and 36 wounded and 12 civilians died. In the wake of this bloodshed, Baltimore Mayor George Brown and Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks requested that Lincoln send no more Northern troops by train through Baltimore. Lincoln responded: “Union soldiers are neither birds to fly over Maryland nor moles to burrow under it.” While Hicks was pro-Union, he authorized Maryland militia to prevent the passage of more Union troop trains by disabling railroad bridges and cutting telegraph wires. Answering the call was the Baltimore County Horse Guards, including Lieutenant John Merryman, a farmer.

Its origins in the Magna Carta, the Founding Fathers in the Constitution enshrined the right to a Writ of Habeas Corpus to ensure that Americans who were arrested by the government had the right to go before judges to be informed of the charges against them. Article I, Section 9, Clause 2 of the Constitution states in what is called the suspension clause: “The Privilege of Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” With a rebellion underway and Washington threatened by the formation of a Confederate army across the Potomac River and with Congress not in session, on April 27 Lincoln authorized Winfield Scott, commander of the army, to suspend Habeas Corpus if necessary to ensure the safety of the military supply lines between Philadelphia and Washington. Before Congress convened on July 4, Lincoln would also suspend the writ on the Florida coast and between Philadelphia and New York.

Meanwhile, on April 29, the Maryland Legislature voted 53-13 against secession. On May 13, Massachusetts politician and now General Ben Butler (later known as “Beast” to Southerners because of his occupation policies in a captured New Orleans) marched his troops from the Maryland capital of Annapolis to Baltimore, where he declared martial law. Butler then imprisoned the mayor, city council, and police commissioner in Ft. McHenry (birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner during the British bombardment of the city during the War of 1812). James Ryder Randall, a native Marylander living in Louisiana, responded to these events by composing “Maryland, My Maryland” (adopted as the state song in 1939). Its opening verse begins: “The despot’s heel is on thy shore, Maryland! His torch is at thy temple door, Maryland! Avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore and be the battle queen of yore.” Its ninth and concluding verse shouts: “Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum.” The bands of Lee’s Army of Northen Virginia played “Maryland, My Maryland” as his army invaded the state in September, 1862 and Maryland regiments fought for the South, as well as for the North. But Maryland did not secede (and Lincoln would later imprison pro-secessionist state legislators).

John Merryman

On May 25, John Merryman was arrested and imprisoned in Ft. McHenry on suspicion of treason. His lawyers petitioned Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the United States and federal Circuit Court Judge for Maryland, for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. The elderly Taney obliged within a day. Taney, a Maryland slaveholder, was President Andrew Jackson’s Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury. Jackson appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1836. Taney was notorious for his opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case, which inflamed abolitionist opinion in the North. Taney dispatched a U.S. marshal to Ft. McHenry to bring Merryman to court. Ft. McHenry’s commander, General Cadwallader, refused to obey, citing President Lincoln’s suspension of the writ.

An outraged Taney then wrote an opinion on June 1 calling Lincoln’s action unconstitutional. Taney’s primary reasoning in Ex Parte Merryman was that the placement of the suspension clause in the Constitution’s section on the powers of the Congress meant that only the Congress and not the President could suspend Habeas Corpus. In the face of Taney’s opinion, Lincoln simply ignored it. Given Taney’s age and pro-slavery views and the dangers that his new administration faced, it is understandable that Lincoln would not bow to Taney’s view of the Constitution. Taney would die on October 13, 1864, the same day that Maryland outlawed slavery. Lincoln called Congress into session, and his Attorney General issued an opinion justifying his action to address the emergency. Lincoln wrote to Congress: “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”

Under an amnesty proclamation issued by Lincoln, nevertheless, on July 13, Merryman was turned over to the civilian authorities and released. However, in July, 1863 the U.S. Attorney for Baltimore re-indicted Merryman for treason. However, his trial was postponed and the charges eventually dismissed in April, 1867. In May, 1863, the North Central Railroad sued Merryman for damages for his participation in the 1861 railroad bridge burnings but nothing came of this. In turn, Merryman sued General Cadwallader for unjust imprisonment but his suit was dismissed by a federal court in April, 1864. In July of that year, Merryman entertained Maryland Confederate General Bradley Johnson at his farm during Jubal Early’s incursion into Maryland that led to the confrontation at Fort Stevens outside Washington with President Lincoln present. Merryman was a prosperous farmer and prominent citizen after the war, dying in 1881.

Extension of Habeas Corpus

On September 24, 1862 (following the Battle of Antietam), Lincoln expanded the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus:

“All Rebels and Insurgents, their aiders and abettors within the United States, and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording aid and comfort to Rebels against the authority of the United States, shall be subject to martial law and liable to trial and punishment by Courts Martial or Military Commission.”

Lincoln initially delegated implementation of this policy to Secretary of State William Seward but then transferred this responsibility to Ohioan Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. It was been estimated that between 14,000 and 38,000 were imprisoned and denied access to Habeas Corpus during the war.

In March, 1863, Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Act, effectively authorizing its suspension. However, this law required the government to provide lists of those imprisoned to civilian judges and to have them charged by grand juries when they next met. Non-compliance required their release. This legislation reflected growing opposition to the military draft, culminating a few months later in the New York City draft riots. Again, Lincoln simply ignored the conditions that Congress attached to the suspension of the writ.

Copperheads: Vallandigham

“Peace Democrats” (known as “Copperheads”) opposed the war policy of the Lincoln administration, arguing instead for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy (which Lincoln refused to recognize). Their opposition grew in tandem with Union military setbacks and the draft. This was heightened by discontent among many Northerners at Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in fall, 1862. The Peace Democrats enjoyed considerable electoral success that fall in reaction to these events.

Clement Vallandigham

A prominent voice among the Peace Democrats was Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham, a lawyer from Dayton, even though he lost his seat in the fall, 1862 election. He was sympathetic to the South and an outspoken critic of Lincoln. General Ambrose Burnside, following his disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862, was re-assigned to the Ohio department. On April 13, 1863, Burnside issued an order which stated that “Treason, express or implied, would not be tolerated.” On May 1, Vallandigham spoke in Mt. Vernon, where he denounced “King” Lincoln, in the presence of a federal agent. He was arrested by the army on May 5, imprisoned in Cincinnati, tried before a military tribunal despite his request for a jury trial, and sentenced to imprisonment for the remainder of the war. Vallandigham protested a denial of due process and demanded a Writ of Habeas Corpus. His appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would be rejected in Ex Parte Vallandigham in February, 1864 because the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction over military commissions.

However, rather than allow his sentence to be carried out and make him a Copperhead martyr, Lincoln instead exiled him to the Confederacy. He was turned over to General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee on May 25. This exile didn’t last long because within 24 days he was sent out to sea, making his way to Canada via Bermuda. Vallandigham than ran for governor of Ohio on the Democratic ticket from Windsor, Ontario but lost in a landslide to pro-Union War Democrat John Brough that fall. Undeterred and allowed by Lincoln to travel freely back in the United States, Vallandigham attended the Democratic convention in Chicago in the summer of 1864 and drafted its peace platform (although the party’s candidate George McClellan, twice dismissed by Lincoln, refused to accept its demand for an immediate end of the war). After the war, Vallandigham ran unsuccessfully for seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on an anti-Reconstruction platform. His practice as a lawyer ended with his death in 1871 in Lebanon when he accidentally shot himself while defending an accused murderer.

Copperheads: Milligan

Despite Vallandigham’s 1863 defeat in Ohio, there was considerable Copperhead support in southern Ohio and neighboring Indiana. Union authorities feared that a secret underground group of pro-Confederate sympathizers – the Knights of the Golden Circle or the Sons of Liberty – might actually stage an uprising aimed at freeing Confederate prisoners and leading disaffected Midwestern states to secede. This was despite the lack of support for General John Hunt Morgan when his Confederate cavalry passed through southern Indiana and Ohio from July 8, 1863 until the capture of his remaining raiders on July 26.

Lambdin Milligan

Another outspoken Copperhead opponent of the Lincoln administration’s war policy was Ohio-born lawyer and farmer Lambdin Milligan (a law classmate of Edwin Stanton). Suspected of conspiring against the Union, he and some other Indiana Copperhead leaders were arrested by the military under the direction of General Alvin Hovey on October 5, 1864 and tried by a military tribunal beginning on October 21. Milligan was convicted of treason (along with four others). He was sentenced on December 10 to be executed by hanging, His execution date was set for May 19, 1865. Following Lincoln’s assassination and apparently at the behest of War Secretary Stanton, President Andrew Johnson postponed Milligan’s execution until the civilian courts could hear his appeal.

On March 6, 1866, the U.S. Supreme Court began six days of argument on the issue of the validity of his trial and conviction by the military, led by Ohioan and Chief Justice Salmon Chase, formerly Lincoln’s wartime Secretary of the Treasury. The government’s case was presented by Attorney General James Speed, aided by Ben Butler and former Ohio Attorney General Henry Stansbury. Milligan was represented by a legal team that included Ohioan Civil War hero, Congressman, and future president James Garfield and David Dudley Field, a prominent attorney and the older brother of sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field.

The court issued its opinion and the Writ of Habeas Corpus on December 17, 1866 in Ex Parte Milligan. It ruled unanimously that under the 1863 Habeas Corpus Act Milligan should have been tried in the open civilian courts in Indiana, rather than by military commission. The author of the lead opinion was Justice David Davis. Maryland-born Davis attended Kenyon College in Ohio and began a law practice in Illinois. He became a state judge. Befriending attorney Abraham Lincoln, Davis became his campaign manager at the 1860 Chicago Republican convention that nominated him. In 1862, Lincoln (by recess appointment) named Davis to the U.S. Supreme Court. With Lincoln now dead and the Civil War over, Davis famously wrote:

“The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times and under all circumstances. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads to anarchy or despotism.”

Davis not only recognized the operation of the civilian courts in Indiana in 1864 but also the denial of the Sixth Amendment right of Milligan to a trial by jury. On behalf of four justices, Chief Justice Chase wrote that Congress did have the power to create military commissions, something not recognized by Davis in his opinion. In March 2, 1867, in the first Reconstruction Act, Congress empowered military commanders in the occupied South to use military commissions, which were used until its end when Ohioan and President Rutherford Hayes withdrew Federal troops from the South and ended its occupation after his controversial election in 1876.

Released in April, 1866, Milligan inveighed publicly the next month against the martyred president and the wartime pro-Union governors of Indiana and Ohio. He then sued those involved in his jailing for $500,000 in damages for trespass and false imprisonment. Milligan was represented by Thomas Hendrickson, a future Vice-President. The general who ordered his arrest was represented by Ohio-born future president Benjamin Harrison. In 1871, the jury awarded a verdict for Milligan but only $5 in damages. Milligan died in 1899.


My conclusions are these:

  1. Lincoln was entirely justified in his initial suspension of Habeas Corpus with Congress not in session under unprecedented wartime conditions caused by the secession of the Southern states.

  2. Taney’s interpretation of the Constitution as to whether only Congress could suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus was debatable.

  3. Lincoln’s refusal to comply with the procedural provisions of the 1863 Habeas Corpus Act and the use of military commissions in Ohio in 1863 and Indiana in 1864 when civilian courts were available for the prosecution of Vallandigham and Milligan were also debatable, although his actions were not successfully challenged in the courts during the war.

  4. Lincoln’s refusal to make Copperhead martyrs of Peace Democrats Vallandigham and Milligan during the war was politically shrewd.


The Milligan opinion still resonates today as the legal and political debates continue over the treatment of “enemy combatants” imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, their trials before military commissions, and the Patriot Act provisions for the arrest of those Americans accused of being associated with “terrorism.”

References (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Kelley, Darwin. 1973. Milligan’s Fight Against Lincoln. Exposition Press.

Neely, Mark. 1991. The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. Oxford University Press.

Rehnquist, William. 2000. All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime. Knopf.

Weber, Jennifer. 2006. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. Oxford University Press.

White, Jonathan W. 2011. Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman (Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War). LSU Press.

Williams, Frank. 2004 (May 5). Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties in Wartime. The Heritage Foundation (Lecture #834)