Severe Punishments are the Only Remedies

Federal Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Department of Missouri, announced that a “state of insurrection” existed in the state. But unlike his predecessor, John C. Fremont, Halleck requested permission from his superiors at Washington to impose martial law. Permission was granted on December 2 in a message signed by President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward:

“General: As an insurrection exists in the United States and is in arms in the State of Missouri, you are hereby authorized and empowered to suspend the writ of habeas corpus within the limits of the military division under your command, and to exercise martial law as you find it necessary, in your discretion, to secure the public safety and the authority of the United States.”

Two days later, Halleck issued General Orders Number 13, which addressed the issue of secessionist spies operating within Federal lines:

“The mild and indulgent course heretofore pursued toward this class of men has utterly failed to restrain them from such unlawful conduct. All persons found in disguise as pretended loyal citizens, or under other false pretenses, within our lines, giving information to or communicating with the enemy will be arrested, tried, condemned, and shot as spies. It should be remembered that in this respect the laws of war make no distinction of sex; all are liable to the same penalty.”

Halleck accused secessionists of driving loyal Missourians from their homes and forcing them to seek refuge in St. Louis, where they came “barefooted, half-clad and in a destitute and starving condition.” These refugees stood in stark contrast to the “wealthy secessionists” in the city “who render aid, assistance, and encouragement to those who commit these outrages, although less bold,” proclaiming them “equally guilty.”

To penalize them, Halleck directed provost marshals to identify secessionists “who are, judging by their mode of living, in good circumstances” and force them to contribute $10,000 each in support of the Unionist refugees. If this sum could not be paid in cash, the disloyalists were to “quarter them in their houses, and to feed and clothe them at the expense of avowed secessionists and of those who are found guilty of giving aid, assistance, and encouragement to the enemy.” Federals were to seize the property of those who did not comply and sell it at auction.

The orders instructed departmental commanders to adhere to the Confiscation Act regarding any fugitive slaves entering Federal lines. Halleck added, “Should Congress extend this penalty to the property of all rebels in arms, or giving aid, assistance, and encouragement to the enemy,” added Halleck, “such provisions will be strictly enforced.” Halleck concluded:

“Peace and war cannot exist together. We cannot at the same time extend to rebels the rights of peace and enforce against them the penalties of war. They have forfeited their civil rights as citizens by making war against the Government, and upon their own heads must fall the consequences.”

Secessionist women protested Halleck’s order by wearing white and red rosettes. Halleck responded to this by having Federals hand the same rosettes out to prostitutes in the city, and people who had formerly saw them as a symbol of defiance now saw them as a sign of impurity.

Maj Gen H.W. Halleck | Image Credit:

Later this month, a Federal colonel stationed 80 miles west of St. Louis reported “that several parties of secessionists are gathering and committing depredations in Montgomery County, within 10 miles of us.” Halleck directed the colonel to “send strong force to cross in the direction of Warrenton. Arrest all secessionists and bridge-burners.”

Meanwhile, Federal scouts intercepted a copy of Special Orders Number 14, written by Major General Sterling Price of the Missouri State Guards: “You are hereby ordered to immediately cause to be destroyed all railroad bridges and telegraph wires in your vicinity.” Halleck responded by issuing General Orders Number 32, which targeted citizens sabotaging Federal operations by burning bridges, destroying railroads, and cutting telegraph wires:

“These men are guilty of the highest crime known to the code of war and the punishment is death. Any one caught in the act will be immediately shot, and any one accused of this crime will be arrested and placed in close confinement until his case can be examined by a military commission and if found guilty he also will suffer death.”

Moreover, any “pretended Union man” who had evidence against secessionists but did not share it with Federal authorities would also be arrested. Federal commanders were to confiscate “the slaves of all secessionists in the vicinity and if necessary the secessionists themselves and their property.” Halleck concluded:

“Hereafter the towns and counties in which such destruction of public property takes place will be made to pay the expenses of all repairs unless it be shown that the people of such towns or counties could not have prevented it on account of the superior force of the enemy.”

As Federals scattered secessionists at Fulton and repaired the railroad at Warrenton, Halleck wrote to General-in-Chief George B. McClellan that the sabotage was “the most annoying features of the war… effected by small parties of mounted men, disguised as farmers, but well armed. They overpower or overawe the guards, set fire to the bridges, and escape before a force can be collected against them. Examples of severe punishment are the only remedies.”

Halleck issued orders to 15 Federal commanders at 15 points throughout the state: “Look out for bridge-burners. It is reported that concerted attempts will be made to destroy railroads and telegraph lines. Shoot down every one making the attempt.” Brigadier General John Pope dispatched cavalry to Lexington, where they destroyed two ferryboats that secessionists could have used to cross the Missouri and join Price’s retreat toward Springfield.

The day after Christmas, Halleck proclaimed martial law in St. Louis and along all railroad lines in Missouri. Two days later, the Federal sweep through Missouri that Halleck envisioned began when Brigadier General Benjamin M. Prentiss’s forces attacked secessionists near Hallsville, inflicting 50 casualties (five killed, 35 wounded, and 10 taken prisoner) and capturing 90 horses and 105 stands of arms. The sweep continued into the next year.


  • Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 8. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 2 – Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.

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