In the early days of the Civil War, tensions between the Union and Confederate states were escalating rapidly. On April 19, 1861, just a week after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, riots erupted in Baltimore, Maryland, as pro-Confederate mobs attacked Union troops who were en route to Washington, D.C. The unrest threatened the security of the capital, and communication lines between the Northern states were at risk of being severed.
Recognizing the urgency of the situation, President Lincoln took decisive action on April 27, 1861, by suspending the writ of habeas corpus along the rail lines between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. This unprecedented move granted military authorities the power to arrest, detain, and silence dissenters and suspected Confederate sympathizers without immediate judicial oversight.
Lincoln’s suspension of the writ faced significant backlash from political opponents and civil liberties advocates. Critics argued that the president had overstepped his constitutional authority, as the power to suspend the writ is not explicitly granted to the executive branch in the U.S. Constitution. The famous case of Ex parte Merryman (1861) saw Chief Justice Roger B. Taney challenge Lincoln’s suspension, asserting that only Congress had the authority to suspend the writ. However, Lincoln maintained his position, arguing that the extraordinary circumstances of the Civil War required immediate action to preserve the Union.
In March 1863, Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, which retroactively authorized Lincoln’s suspension of the writ and expanded its scope to include the entire country. The act allowed for the detention of suspected Confederate sympathizers and draft evaders but also stipulated that detainees were entitled to a speedy trial.