BOMAN: Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri (2011)
Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security by Dennis K. Boman. Louisiana State University Press, 2011. Cloth, ISBN: 080713693X. $45.00.
As a wartime president tasked with holding together a country ripping at the seams, Abraham Lincoln sought and utilized every means of maintaining the Union. For this, Lincoln has often received criticism for his heavy-handed approach to civil liberties and the enforcement of loyalty amongst private citizens. As Dennis Boman argues, however, this view places Lincoln in a vacuum without any of the necessary contexts or a full understanding of the complexities of a nation at war with itself. Following in step with Mark Neely’s wide-ranging survey, The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, Boman offers up border state Missouri as perhaps Lincoln’s greatest challenge in terms of civilian violence and dissension. Indeed, as Neely pointed out, the U.S. military “arrested far more civilians in Missouri than in any other state,” as the state’s renegade government fled its capital, guerrilla bands terrorized local communities, and whole counties faced complete evacuation. Missouri, then, “demonstrates an acute understanding of the limitations of [Lincoln’s] authority,” though rather than bring down a despotic hammer, Boman argues for Lincoln’s overall success as a moderator and “reluctant warrior,” as he led the troubled state back to civilian and local control (15; 280).
From the very beginning, Lincoln was intent on not imposing a dictatorial will, and Bowman traces his efforts to “remove himself from controlling affairs in Missouri,” and thus the book follows the line of Union commanders, each asked to tame the violence. After a failed secession convention and the retreat of Governor Claiborne Jackson, a power vacuum brought to the forefront the two factions that would duel for the right to control Missouri: conditional Unionists, conservative and intent on preserving slavery though opposed to secession; and the Radicals, a powerful minority insistent on overturning the state’s conservative elite. Both groups pummeled Washington with demanding missives and unending complaints, essentially leaving Lincoln stuck between Scylla and Charybdis. From the onset this proved to be the case as John C. Fremont, Union commander of the Department of the West, announced his intention to execute Confederate irregulars, or guerrillas, and to confiscate the property of those who supported them. This edict included the emancipation of slaves belonging to disloyal citizens. Outraged, Missouri’s conditional Unionist element rose up in protest and Lincoln immediately steadied the ship by rescinding the order. For Boman this act served as an early indicator of Lincoln’s efforts to locate “how best to win the war while simultaneously seeking to prevent the alienation of the slaveholding Border States” (56).
Conditions in Missouri, however, only worsened as a carousel of generals appointed by Lincoln struggled to uphold a semblance of order. Henry Halleck angered the Germans of St. Louis, the bulwark of Lincoln’s Republican base in the state, with his conservative approach while conservatives lambasted German regiments for harassing rural communities. Simultaneously and increasingly, guerrilla bands destroyed rail and telegraph lines while carrying on a campaign of violence. Under intense pressure, Halleck ordered any guerrillas or irregulars caught in the act to be put to death. The allowance of the execution of civilian combatants seems shocking, yet, as Boman maintains, Lincoln’s hopes of winning the war made it necessary to end civilian violence. Beyond executions, military strategies included martial law and a system provost marshalls meant to serve as an extension of military law. Newspapers were monitored and at times censured, disloyal speeches led to arrest, and ministers were forced to sign oaths of allegiance. Still, Bowen reminds that most Missourians were far more conditional in their support of the Union, and many harbored allegiances to the South, all of which required a more aggressive strategy as the war progressed. Still, Lincoln stayed connected—Boman points to his interference and overturning of military courts—and sought to curb the severity of military rule.
The most insightful chapters deal with the Emancipation Proclamation and Missouri’s place as a slave state on the border. Radical Republicans refused to compromise with General Schofield, then commander of the Department of Missouri, and heavily criticized Lincoln for leaving slavery alive and well. At the same time, conservatives met the threat of emancipation with fear and anxiety. Lincoln, finding himself on a receding island, wrote of having been “tormented beyond endurance for months by both sides” (217). Still, a balance was sustained and after his reelection Lincoln earnestly sought to transition Missouri from war to peace. He pushed for community meetings and reconciliation and campaigned for a return to local authority as soon as possible. His assassination, of course, left much of the work incomplete.
Throughout the book, Boman makes a strong case for Lincoln’s moderate handling of a desperate situation. In conclusion, Boman argues, “Given its circumstances…it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Missouri came through the conflict without a great amount of trouble and at least some significant curtailment of civil liberties” (217). Still, at times Lincoln disappears from Bowman’s narrative, suggesting the degree of autonomy that Union forces were granted. This seems especially the case in regard to guerrilla warfare and the lengths Union commanders traveled to punish perpetrators. The Kansas-Missouri border, Quantrill’s burning of Lawrence, the infamous Order #11, and civilian warfare throughout the state rarely receive the attention from historians that they should, and it might be said that Lincoln was guilty of a similar crime. Of course, Missouri was but a piece of the shattered puzzle, albeit a particularly salient one, and Lincoln could only allow so much of his gaze to linger on the western frontier. As such, Dennis Boman presents a fine assessment of Lincoln the moderator and is right to characterize his dealing with Missouri as generally successful. This book does much to emphasize Missouri’s unique and significant role in the Civil War and will be appreciated by a wide audience.
Zach Garrison is a Doctoral Student in History at the University of Cincinnatti.