In February 1862, the Missouri provisional government’s new state treasurer, George Caleb Bingham, saw a troublesome development in his war-torn state. Garrisoning federal troops, especially in the western portion of Missouri, were subjecting civilians "to a kind of winnowing process by which the 'tares' were to be separated from the wheat — the loyal from the disloyal portion of the inhabitants."
The statement of a single individual . . . was to be taken as conclusive [and] it was not, for a moment, deemed necessary, that any investigation, in form, should take place. . . . [before they] drew a line, sufficiently legible, between Unionists and Secessionists.
With an artist’s eye for detail, Bingham’s “winnowing” was in fact a reference to measures implemented by the federal military to accomplish sharp categorizations among a deeply divided populace in an ostensibly loyal state, many of whom claimed themselves neutral in the contest.
The Dominion System
The American Civil War, especially in border slave states like Missouri, prompted hardened, albeit sometimes erratic, definitions of loyalty and disloyalty from a population with a wide array of political stances. In 1861 and 1862, border state citizens like Bingham witnessed the development of a dominion system – an integrated, if imperfectly implemented, knot of counterinsurgency measures conducted mostly by low-level, often volunteer post commanders and assisted by civilian informants. They included:
- Military districting and garrisons;
- Oaths and lists of civilians categorized as “loyal” and “disloyal;”
- Civilian assessments, or levies;
- Martial law, or the suspension of civil authority in favor of military rule;
- Provost marshal system, or the use of military personnel to preserve order among civilians, along with other functions, during the war (began informally in Missouri and other border states in 1861);
- Trade restrictions and the permit system, which allowed military personnel and civilian boards to regulate which civilians engaged in legal commercial activity.
With Abraham Lincoln’s assent, military leaders at the local level implemented these measures as a broader strategy to establish control of the “chaos of incendiary elements,” as one commander referred to the often armed local populations, whose true loyalties were often uncertain and changing. This contest for definitions in fact allowed little room for neutrality, as citizens were caught in the web of restraints that aligned along the binary of loyalty and disloyalty. The outcome directly affected societal harmony and authority in Missouri and all of the border states for the duration of the war.
Soldiers performed professionally under the best of circumstances, but overzealously or even murderously under the worst.Administering the dominion system required interaction between federal troops, militia or home guard, and unionist citizens. Garrisoning towns, especially small ones, often required the commandeering of the communities’ physical structures and private homes for the army’s use. Damage or destruction often followed, as did the confiscation of private property.
Once the garrisoning of local towns was accomplished, ferreting out and suppressing perceived disloyalists—their primary task—required search patrols of varying sizes. Soldiers performed professionally under the best of circumstances, but overzealously or even murderously under the worst. In either case, cavalry patrols regularly roamed the countryside on self-styled “scouts” looking for disloyalists, saboteurs, and guerrillas.
However patriotic the motives of soldiers and officers, many had arrived in Missouri from free states with preconceived notions of its propertied inhabitants as wealthy, proslavery, disloyal southerners. Distinctions between loyal and disloyal property owners often evaporated in the minds of the occupying troops. Many soldiers evinced distrust or disdain for the mass of residents, especially slaveholders. One cavalry officer, Wyllis C. Ransom, an abolitionist hard-liner who had recently moved to Kansas from Wisconsin, concluded that the broadest portion of the border populace was disloyal.
“At the outbreak of the war,” Ransom recalled,
The people of the rural districts of the western part of the state of Missouri were divided into three classes—The first comprising one quarter were loyal to the United States but for the most part, of necessity, secretly so, and were soon compelled to join the Union armies or to seek the protection of Union communities. Another quarter were open in their hostility to the government, and showing their faith by their work, were soon found with [James] Rains or Price in the armies of the Confederacy. The remaining half were secretly hostile to the United States through professedly friends, non-combatants or neutrals. It was from the last class that the cruel wars of Missouri were mostly realized.
Not surprisingly, Ransom’s 6th Kansas Cavalry was the subject of numerous complaints lodged by western Missourians of theft and wanton destruction.
In the fall of 1863, Brigadier General John McNeil, a Canadian-born, St. Louis Yankee notorious for his role in the “Palmyra Massacre” the previous year, included a stern dictum on qualified loyalty in a general order he issued in southwestern Missouri. “The citizen who has chosen the position of neutrality and who claims or has claimed to have ‘done nothing on nary side,’ is not loyal.”
Many Union troops soon confronted personal disputes, feuds, slights, and political differences that, after festering for years prior to the war, quickly broke open. Major General John M. Schofield complained that the war in Missouri was largely “the result of old feuds, and involves very little, if at all, the question of Union or disunion.” Open conflict offered what one local called an “evening-up time . . . [when] many a man became a violent Unionist because the ancient enemies of his house were Southern sympathizers.” Class resentments certainly drove many such complaints against prominent landowners. Slaveholders in particular were targets. As one Missourian of moderate means later sneered, “the cry of ‘disloyal’ could be very easily raised against any man who happened to have a superabundance of property.”
Local Unionists’ targeting of prominent residents figured into federal troops’ rejection of nuanced political stances. Widespread military arrests, often made “on the slightest and most trivial grounds” (including for simply writing to those in the Confederate army or states), occurred throughout the border slave states. Without oversight, prisoners jammed courthouse jails and other sites of confinement, “arrested without any cause, except that they were reported secessionists,” as one St. Louis resident reported.
Prisoners jammed courthouse jails and other sites of confinement, “arrested without any cause, except that they were reported secessionists."
The historian Mark E. Neely, closely examining the federal government’s arrest records during the war, has concluded that some 13,000 civilians were arrested throughout the nation, the largest portion of whom were in the border states. His figures do not even include Missouri, where fragmentary evidence suggests a “formidable if not staggering” number of civilians likely were detained. Indeed, in excess of 2,000 were incarcerated at St. Louis’s Gratiot Street prison alone from April 1862 to October 1863. Neely also acknowledges that poor record-keeping would likely ratchet up any such estimate in Missouri.
Home guard and state militia members who supported or replaced the garrisoning troops were contributors to this shadow war. A resident of Elk Fork, Missouri, complained that his local home guard “came from all parts of the County and Some of them have little grudges at their fellow Citizens and they make use of their opportunity to avenge themselves.” Lincoln himself heard complaints that “arrests, banishments, and assessments are made more for private malice, revenge, and pecuniary interest than for the public good.”
The abuses by both federals and Confederates, militia and home guard were pronounced enough for John C. Frémont and Sterling Price, leading “antagonist forces” in the field in November 1861, to issue an unusual joint proclamation. It pledged that “future arrests or forcible interference by armed or unarmed parties of citizens . . . for the mere entertainment or expression of political opinions shall hereafter cease . . . and that the war now progressing shall be exclusively confined to armies in the field.” Six weeks later, Major General Henry Halleck pledged to disband home guard units in Missouri, “as rapidly as I can supply their places” with state militia.
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Ash, Stephen V. When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the Civil War. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.