Military Procedures & Events--Insurrections



Insurrection is an organized attempt by a group of people to overthrow a government, usually by violence. The cause, participants, and size of an effort to overthrow authority can vary. However, political and military officials typically respond to insurrections with legal and military force.

The United States Constitution refers to insurrection in Article 1, Section 8, where it authorizes Congress to “provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.” Southern secession activities were not called insurrectionary until Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, turning the tense political debate over the legality of unilateral state secession into open warfare. At that point, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to enforce federal authority in the South and described the seceded states as engaging in insurrection. The term carries important legal connotations. International law does not recognize insurrectionists as legal combatants in war. By late 1861, Lincoln preferred to describe the South as in a state of “rebellion” instead of insurrection—a term with the same technical meaning, but which more strongly characterized the Confederacy as engaging in an unjust resistance to authority.

Confederates also feared political insurrection within the South during Civil War. Support for secession was not universal through the Southern states, and numerous communities—particularly in eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, northern Alabama, and most famously western Virginia (which actually separated and created its own state of West Virginia in 1863)—harbored pro-Union sentiments. Confederate and secessionist state officials frequently described anti-Confederate resistance within these communities and other parts of the South as insurrectionary. They used state and Confederate military forces to suppress such opposition.

Nineteenth century Southerners most commonly used the term insurrection to describe physical resistance by slaves against their masters. When the Union Army began to employ African American soldiers in 1863, the Confederate government announced that white Union officers captured while commanding black soldiers would be executed for inciting “servile insurrection.” The Confederacy backed down from that threat when Lincoln’s administration responded that it would execute one Confederate prisoner for each Union soldier killed, but the policy reflected the long-standing Southern fear of slave insurrections or rebellions. Before, during, and even after the Civil War, white Southern officials called out local militias—or even unregulated groups of armed men—to reestablish authority over African Americans suspected or accused of insurrection, often with overly violent methods. (Gaines M. Foster, “What’s Not in a Name: The Naming of the American Civil War,” Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Sept 2018), 417-419; Wikipedia)

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