Oaths of Allegiance
Following on the heels of these widespread arrests, formalized oaths of allegiance became the most ubiquitous symbols of federal authority. The widespread assumption that disloyal majorities of secessionists and neutralists were cowing loyalists in the border states made oaths virtual tools of the occupying troops. Even many unionists objected to being forced to take the federal oath, but others saw some utility to the oaths. One soldier wrote home to his aunt that when administering the oath, “It just sutes me to hear them grumble.” But unionists’ objections surprised him. “It dont hurt a union man to take the Oath,” he admitted, “but we find once in a while one that hates to take the Oath but durst not say anything Once in a grate while they are catched by some of us that over hear their conversation and then put them under an arrest.”
Many citizens who took the oath did so duplicitously. One woman spat that “every one has been required to take the oath—they are then called Loyal—What a mockery.” Others refused entirely. The oath supporting the provisional government, enacted in December 1861 and required of public officials, was especially reviled because many condemned the convention as extralegal. They claimed that they had taken one already when assuming their positions, and taking the “convention oath” suggested their disloyalty.
This was, of course, exactly the point. Their refusal to cooperate implied the rejection of the legitimacy either of the state or federal governments. Residents’ refusal to take either the federal or state oath smoked them out, as it were, especially with the final words: “SO HELP ME GOD.” One southeast Missourian knew well that many of his neighbors feigned neutrality, and taking the oath would unmask their ideological beliefs. “They believe this war is waged against slavery,” wrote Joseph C. Maple, who nevertheless condemned “the Republican mode of carrying on war. . . . Hence they do not wish to take an oath which will cut them off from giving aid to the South.”
The oath sharpened these blurred lines to the great advantage to the government, as one Missourian saw it. “The doubtful men, thinking they were getting to the strong side, [are] joining the rebels, but I believe we are really better off having them avowed against us than as pretended neutrals.” Those so exposed were arrested, publicly listed, and required to post bond in order to gain their release, with sureties (from a few hundred dollars to many thousands) and the affidavits of Unionists who guaranteed their future good behavior. In 1862 in the Liberty, Missouri, district, near the Kansas border, provost marshals required 612 persons to post bonds totaling some $840,000. The provost marshal in Palmyra, near the Mississippi River, reported taking in as much as one million dollars that year.
However unpopular they were, oaths and bonds had an obvious practical value. Identifying secessionists was a challenge, perhaps the challenge for federal authorities. Lists of those who took or refused the oaths were essential identification tools for federal commanders in local areas. Their reliance on oaths and lists to suppress local disloyalists, who were spread throughout their districts, stemmed in part from vulnerability. The small, town-based garrisons were hard-pressed to keep order so far from the army.
Taking or Forsaking the Oaths
Local residents who took the oath disingenuously believed doing so kept their true loyalties hidden. A resident wrote that some of the residents around him “say that they did not mind taking the oath as they did not consider it binding on them, in fact they would rather take the oath than not as it gives them protection and they can get passes to go where they please.” As such, department commanders and provost marshals routinely required accompanying verification of letter writers’ own loyalty in order to solicit a response to their claims or grievances. Mistakes occurred frequently, eliciting remonstrances that required commanders to discern the legitimacy of the listed names and whether the information they had received on such individuals was politically contrived.
Taking the oath presented a crisis of both honor and conscience for many citizens, even neutralists. It was the most visible symbol of personal coercion. For many white Missourians, these oaths were at best superfluous, as they were already residents of a loyal state, and at worst unconstitutional for assuming guilt before innocence and abrogating First Amendment rights. They resented that local commanders and provost marshals forced the oaths on residents who did nothing more than speak out against the military occupation or in favor of Southern rights. “There are a number of influential citizens in this vicinity of rebel proclivities,” wrote one cavalry colonel, “who although they have not committed any overt act . . . in conversation they have defended the cause of the South in a very noisy and offensive manner.”
Unionists, government troops, and the home guard used the oath against neutralists, Southern sympathizers, and secessionists who refused to take it.
Despite capricious and even corrupt determinations of loyalty and disloyalty, Lincoln left to department commanders the discretion to make such decisions, recognizing that this was the single most critical point with which to keep order in the border states. As the president wrote his department commander in Missouri, assessing the loyalty of residents “must be left to you who are on the spot.”
Oaths visibly divided local communities. Civilians who took the oath or posted bond, or both, often found themselves exposed. Visitors known to be disloyal often attracted the attention of armed federals. One bonded Missourian wrote in October 1862, after sending away one such visitor, “I was fearful that some of the Negroes about the house might see him. The danger was greater to us than to him. He saw that he was an unwelcome visitor, and left as abruptly as he came.”
Reprisals often followed, resulting in societal divisions that in some cases worked to the government’s advantage. Unionists, government troops, and the home guard used the oath against neutralists, Southern sympathizers, and secessionists who refused to take it. Yet disloyal residents often chastised those neighbors who did take it, whether feigned or not, as cowards or disloyal to the Southern Cause.
Shunning was only the most benign form of retribution made against oath-takers. Many others were insulted, threatened, and even attacked for their capitulation to Yankee aggression. Worse, they were turned in to garrison commanders as disloyalists. In July 1862, Miami, Missouri, merchant John Scott found himself arrested for disloyalty by armed state militia with guns pointed, only to learn after his bonded release that a neighbor, “one of the most violent and uncompromising secessionists, intolerant to Union men, getting ready to go to the Southern army and having [secession] flags on house and business building,” had reported him following a private disagreement between them.
Complaints from prominent unionists about the occupiers’ strident measures were plentiful, questioning their severity, capriciousness, and especially corruption. Most important, the federals’ presence seemed to many to be fueling the insurgency in Missouri. Reverend William G. Eliot, a prominent St. Louis Unionist, nonetheless questioned the ability of the military to “assort and classify these, so as to indicate the dividing line of loyalty and disloyalty . . . is a task of great difficulty.” He saw only harm to the public weal. “The bitterness of feeling,” wrote the concerned clergyman, “will renew the personal hostilities which were beginning to disappear, and, thus fanned, the secession element will refuse to die.”
View a video clip of Pulitzer Prize winner Mark E. Neely, Jr. discussing Lincoln's interpretation of the Constitution at the Kansas City Public Library.
On August 25, 1863, in the aftermath of William Quantrill’s brutal guerrilla raid on Lawrence, Kansas, the centrality of definitions of loyalty and disloyalty in Missouri would eclipse all other locales during the Civil War. Recognizing the unreliability of hitherto differentiations between the loyal and disloyal, Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, commanding the District of the Border, issued General Order No. 11. The orders required nearly all residents of four of Missouri’s western border counties (Cass and Bates counties, virtually all of Jackson, and the northern half of Vernon County), living more than a mile from the four military posts in the area, to come to those posts to be certified as loyal by military authorities.
What resulted was the national government’s first-ever forcible removal of white, propertied citizens from their homes. Of the some 40,000 people who had inhabited the area at the start of the war, whether unionist or not, none could stay in their homes. As one newspaper reported, anyone who remained “not within the protection of a Military Station . . . and is not molested is [seen as] a rebel or rebel sympathizer.” The resulting population displacement and destruction of property (lest it fall into rebel hands) prompted the nickname “Burnt District,” as an apt description of the region.
In early 1862, even before Order No. 11 took the dominion system to new extremes, Missouri’s provost marshal general, Bernard G. Farrar, wrote from his headquarters in St. Louis, “It is now purely a question of power not one of law. ” At nearly the same time, that state’s lieutenant governor, Willard P. Hall, spoke similarly to conditions in his state. “Amidst armies,” he asserted, “the law is silent.” Both men’s candid views of the authority of an occupying army among an increasingly hostile citizenry were placed, curiously, within the context of instructions to desist in arresting civilians around the state merely on suspicion of disloyalty. But their views precisely defined the circumstances in Missouri and other border slave states, where martial authority and civil laws grappled for supremacy, plunging civilians deep into the shadow world of war.
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.