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Book Review: Secession on Trial by Cynthia Nicoletti

A review by Dave Bradley




The author has woven a fascinating tale of the remarkable trial.

Not only was Jefferson Davis on trial for treason (and his life) but in many ways, secession itself was on trial.

If found guilty it could be construed as proving that secession was wrong and the South in error in what they did. If acquitted then it could be interpreted that the whole basis on which the Union waged the war was wrong. If so, what would happen next?

Another question to be resolved was should it be a military trial or a civil one. The former would almost certainly ensure a guilty verdict. The latter was far from certain.

Another issue was that if a civil trial was decided upon, was where should it be?

American law states that a trial should be in the state where the alleged crime took place. Should the trial be in Virginia, as that is where he made his decisions, or could it be in any state in which the Confederate Army fought.

If in Virginia, the jurors would be required to take the so-called iron clad oath, swearing they had never aided the Confederacy. Who, in the South, would be able to do this and would it not be very easy for ex-Confederates to slip through the net?.


The ball went back and forth. Davis' lawyer Charles O'Connor played hardball. He feared a ' wrong' verdict as much much as the Government lawyers did but he played a dangerous game of bluff by challenging and almost goading the opposing lawyers into going ahead with a trial in the hope they would get cold feet.

When it was finally decided to release Jefferson Davis on bail, so many wealthy wanted to contribute that bail was increased so that they could all do so!

The first indictment was a farce. Although it accused Davis of treason it did not give any examples of treasonous action nor did it state under which statute the charges were to be brought.

Subsequently, a second and far more cogent and well-constructed indictment was put together. By this time, Davis was residing in Canada and a worried O'Connor advised Davis, discretely, that he might consider skipping bail.

In the end, President Johnson's blanket amnesty for all ex- Confederates made the whole thing moot.

Cynthia Nicoletti really has done a great job with this book and reading the footnotes ( I wish all factual books had footnotes rather than endnotes) shows just how thorough she has been.

For anyone interested in the legal side of the Civil War, I highly recommend this book.

Come to think of it, it would be great if she gave us a talk one day.