The Fringes of Imprisonment Policy

Daniel Farrell's picture

In this post, Daniel Farrell, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Cincinnati, reflects on alternative ways to think about Civil War era arrests and imprisonment.

During a research trip over the summer, I came across several letters written by William Wooden, a Missourian charged with disloyalty and sentenced to prison. Wooden’s personal experience is not what piqued my interest, but instead his administrative route through incarceration. In June 1863, the military held Wooden at the “Crobea Hotel” in Buchanan County, Missouri, before spending time in both Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis and the military prison in Alton, Illinois. From what I can gather, the military converted the Buchanan County hotel into a short-term prison. Wooden claims there were at least seventy other prisoners with him that June. While Wooden’s story is typical – a man arrested and sentenced for disloyalty –  his correspondence sheds insight into prison policies that often escape our notice. Wooden’s testimony was my first introduction to the prison, and it’s existence raises several interesting questions. For example, what became of the seventy people Wooden refers to? Were they transferred to other jails, or was it common for suspected traitors to be held at this hotel, only to be released on thin evidence, by taking oaths of loyalty, or after being acquitted in a court-martial proceeding? Were people housed there briefly as an intimidation tactic?

These are types of arrests you are not likely to come across at the federal level, and precisely the one’s I’d like to explore more deeply in my project. In my inaugural blog post, I noted how my dissertation research had moved away from a strict analysis of federal imprisonment policy towards civilians. To quickly recap, this is because I do not feel such an analysis tells the entire story of how the United States enforced unionism. Similarly, such an attitude presents a deterministic top-down approach: it does not fully account for the behaviors of people who are on the lower rungs of the federal bureaucracy or who were acting out of state, local or military interests. For instance, military prison ledgers and court-martial proceedings tell us an important but one-sided part of the story.  They help us see who served lengthy prison sentences in a military prison and why. Many of the usual suspects emerge – Fort Warren, Fort McHenry, Old Capital Prison, Alton, and Camp Chase were all important destinations for civilian prisoners. However, as Wooden’s letters reveal, they do not tell the entire story. As I conduct my research, I continuously come across examples of men (and the occasional woman) held in local penitentiaries, army guardhouses, sheriff’s offices, army encampments, and various other temporary and makeshift prisons. Such “prisons” were unlikely to hold people for long periods, ranging from only a few hours to several weeks at the most.

These places existed on the fringes of federal imprisonment policy. In other words, arrests and detentions that were permissible under a broad interpretation of martial law but have escaped notice in the prison bureaucracy because they took place entirely outside the purview of the Office of the Commissary General of Prisoners. Along similar lines, court-martials rarely sentenced military offenders to short prison sentences, and thus, seldom dealt with the types of arrests, that I would argue, were intended to intimidate people rather than subject them to harsh punishment. That is not to say that federal prison records are exhausted – far from it. Excellent works such as Mark Neely’s The Fate of Liberty and William Blair’s, With Malice Towards Some utilize many of these essential sources to analyze civil liberties and military arrests' constitutionality. Where I diverge, however, is that I am less interested in constitutional issues and more invested in war culture studies. Stated differently, what did the arresting party (whether it be on the federal, state, or local level) believe it was accomplishing? And should we consider the control of civilian populations critical to the war effort? These questions require a different approach to using federal prison records and broadening one’s purview to include militia records, newspapers, Adjutant general records, letters and diaries, and so on.

I’ll provide another example. In 1864, military officials arrested a Missourian for allegedly interfering with African American recruitment. The man testified to his imprisonment at the local provost marshal’s office. While there, the provost interrogated him for several days about his involvement in disrupting recruitment, accused him of bushwhacking, and threatened to send him to Alton if he refused to cooperate. Throughout the process, the man demanded a fair trial or to be released. The provost begrudgingly released him. One thing is sure, his innocence was not apparent (it was, after all, his testimony), but the evidence against him must have been circumstantial. Regardless of his guilt, this episode raises crucial questions about the frequency of such arrests. In Missouri, where guerrilla warfare was rampant and resistance to emancipation common, did provosts feel short-term arrests were an effective way to gauge loyalty, collect information, modify public behavior and threaten citizens without overwhelming the military prison system and being perceived as overtly tyrannical? 

I would also argue that the fringes of imprisonment policy are not strictly limited to physical places. “Imprisonment,” I believe, could imply any form of coerced status. For instance, I have been working on a related project that examines the use of military arrests to force men into militia service. Because these incidents do not involve incarceration or formal charges, the prison records will not reveal these cases.  Such examples will, I hope, expand our understanding of how arrests were not always purely punitive; they could be used to force men of dubious loyalty towards actively preserving the Union. Ultimately, today’s post certainly raises far more questions than it provides answers, but I want to encourage readers to think about civilian arrests in a more encompassing light. One that focuses less upon a person’s alleged crime and more upon why the arrest occurred at all, what the arresting party believed they were accomplishing, and what effect arrests had on civilian populations and the prosecution of the Union war effort.

Hi Dan,
Fascinating topic -- albeit perhaps a challenging one, in terms of finding the plethora examples you want to study. It seems the key is in the question you raise: "what did the arresting party (whether it be on the federal, state, or local level) believe it was accomplishing?"

The punished-to-militia-service cases suggest the accomplishment as a particular outcome. "Enforcing loyalty" is a broader, less concrete accomplishment. I wonder if there are also instances in which the accomplishment was more pointed and perhaps personal. I'm thinking of a case on the Confederate side, in which a woman whose marriage was faltering and whose in-laws had laid claim to her children, accusing her of being an unfit mother, reported the in-laws as disloyal to the Confederacy (which they in fact were, but presumptions about gender and class dissuaded authorities from pursuing cases against the mother-in-law or the sister-in-law in question).
Are you interested in how individuals might have deployed complaints/accusations of disloyalty to punish or otherwise curtail those against whom they had a non-loyalty-related grudge?


Dear Dan, 

I enjoyed this post and only had a quick comment that I found myself wondering how exactly one converts a Civil War-era hotel into a temporary jail or prison that can hold more than a handful of people, let alone seventy. It sounds like a setting for a scene from a Tarantino movie. No doubt much of the enforcement work against alleged and actual disloyalty on the home front was improvised. Fascinating stuff!

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior

Hi Dan,

Lois’s question is an intriguing one because she suggests that not all arrests were necessarily about enforcing Unionism. This line of inquiry seems like a fruitful one since we should never underestimate personal grudges when contemplating policies of this sort. I’d like to piggy-back on her question by asking if some of the cases were non-political in a different way: were a number of these civilians arrested for criminal acts as opposed to political ones? Did the Federal authorities distinguish between the two? Is it possible for you to make that distinction? These questions occurred to me because in your original post, you referred to “various criminals frustrating the war effort”--which suggests that separating the two categories is difficult.



Hi Dan,

In researching my recently released book, Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice, I encountered many of the issues you raise in your post. My work focuses on women handled through the Department of the Missouri’s provost marshal general office in St. Louis, in other words, accused women who were arrested in and/or ended up in St. Louis and its military prisons. Many of the four hundred and forty women I investigate were arrested in out-state Missouri, especially in 1864 and 1865 and held in custody in a variety of locations before being sent to St. Louis. These places included local jails, hotels, the accused’s own homes under house arrest, the homes of loyal women who supervised the accused, and other locations. Union authorities made do with what they had.

As you suspect, provost marshals and other officers in the field had broad latitude to deal with the accused, especially after the adoption of General Orders No. 100, Lieber’s Code. Once satisfied that an accused person was not guilty, or could not be proven guilty, or was no longer a threat, Union officials usually released her or him. Charges against the women ranged broadly from relatively minor offenses to serious ones that usually led further investigation and often to a prison in the St. Louis area until the case was resolved.

If you have not already, you need to consult the two provost-marshal-general collections in Record Group 109 of the National Archives, the Individual Civilian Files and the Two or More Civilian Files. The former has been digitized and is accessible through the commercial FOLD website. I found that it was well worth the expense. The latter can be searched for Missouri-related arrests through the Missouri Secretary of State’s website. (Search Missouri Provost Marshall.) It’s in these collections, especially in the Individual Civilian Files, that you’re apt to find the voices or the accused and the accusers.

As to your speculation on what became of the seventy people imprisoned with William Wooden, I suspect the answer is all of the above.

Best wishes in your research.

Tom Curran

It’s been a little long in the coming, but I wanted to thank everyone for responding and leaving me with some helpful comments and questions. To start, I want to respond directly to Lois and Hugh, as they both had related questions.

When it comes to intent, parsing out whether an accusation of disloyalty was authentic can be tricky. Similar to Lois’s example, I, too, have found a few similar cases where it appears that a civilian was weaponizing the politics of loyalty to satisfy a personal vendetta. At least for now, my project is too broad to allow me to delve deeply into these interesting cases with any regularity. I’m still primarily interested in how federal officials responded to these accusations, and I find that they mostly took them seriously.

In one example, a Missouri man successfully lobbied the Enrolled Missouri Militia (EMM) to force a woman from her home on vague charges of disloyalty. Her neighbors protested and counter accused the man of being badly motivated. Upon reflection, an EMM officer took the women’s side, lamenting that a “rich secessionist” had successfully made a refugee out of a poor, loyal woman.

In another example, a provost marshal reviewed a complaint of horse theft and dismissed it because it was a civil matter. Provosts commonly associated horse theft with guerrilla warfare, and convicted guerrillas faced grave consequences. Perhaps the theft victim wanted military officials to treat his perpetrator as a military violator, but one can only speculate. Nevertheless, the provost took the complaint seriously but decided it was outside his jurisdiction.

More to Hugh’s question, what about arrests that appear to be apolitical? A common violation I come across are people arrested for selling liquor to soldiers or operating saloons without a license. The military often shut down dram shops in the hopes of reducing a soldier’s access to alcohol and curtailing public meeting houses where secessionists gathered. The military often placed restrictions on commerce as well, especially in areas that bordered Confederate territory.

Military violations of liquor laws and commerce restrictions is an interesting grey area. Civilians could obtain licenses to buy and sell these sensitive goods, but the military required them to take an oath of loyalty, post bond, and provide references. Thus circumventing this process would technically be an act of treason. In some cases, the violator was disloyal – they were attempting to sell war materials to the Confederacy or knowingly catered to suspicious characters. But in many cases, the violator was just trying to make money. I do find that punishments often reflect a person’s intentions. Those trying to make a buck are usually released after paying a fine.

However, I have come across one case that I can’t easily explain. In May 1865, the military arrested and convicted a Virginian man of bigamy. I am unsure why the provost was involved.

I hope that sheds some insight into your questions!