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Retaliation in Missouri

The Century; a popular quarterly. / Volume 37, Issue 6 (Apr 1889)

Report Provost-Marshal General, March 17, 1866. Mess. and Doc., 1865—66, Part III., p. 63. 3 It is proper to mention that this retaliatory action was under the authority of the State of Missouri. General Curtis, commanding the Department of the Missouri at that time, wrote under date of December 24, 1862: when the guerrilla outrages in Missouri were in one of their moments of fiercest activity, a Union citizen of Palmyra was abducted and murdered under circumstances which clearly marked it as an instance of concerted and deliberate partisan revenge. In retaliation for this, Colonel John Mc Neil, the Union officer in local command, having demanded the perpetrators, which demand was not complied with, ordered the execution of ten rebel guerrillas of the same neighborhood, and carried out the order with military publicity and formality. Even admitting the strong provocation, modern sentiment cannot justify a punishment tenfold as severe as that demanded by the Mosaic law. Less than a month later there was brief mention in a letter of the rebel Major General Holmes to the Confederate War Department of an analogous occurrence in northern Texas. “A secret organization,” he wrote, “to resist the [Confederate] conscript act in northern Texas, has resulted in the citizens organizing a jury of investigation, and I am informed they have tried and executed forty of those convicted, and thus this summary procedure has probably crushed the incipient rebellion.” ~‘ Even without details the incident is a convincing explanation of the seeming unanimity for rebellion in that region. The most shocking occurrence of this character, however, followed the employment of negro soldiers. We cannot in our day adequately picture the vindictive rage of many rebel masters at seeing recent slaves uniformed and armed in defense of a government which had set them free. Under the barbarous institution, to perpetuate which they committed treason and were ready to die, they had punished their human chattels with the unchecked lash, sold them on the auction-block, hunted them with bloodhounds; and it is hardly to be wondered at that amid the license of war individuals among them now and then thought to restore their domination by the aid of military slaughter. As an evidence that such thoughts existed here and there we need only cite the language of Major-General John C. Breckinridge, late Vice-President of the United States. Writing under date of August 14, 1862, to the Union commander at Baton Rouge, he recites in a list of alleged “ outrages “that “ information has reached these headquarters that negro slaves are being organized and armed to be employed against us”; and adds, “I am “General McNeil is a State general, and his column was mainly State troops: the matter has therefore is ever come to my official notice. . . . When persons are condemned to be shot by Federal authority, the proceedings have to be approved by the President, but no case of this sort has arisen under my command.”— War Records, Vol. XXII. Part I., pp~ 86o—i. 4 War Records, Vol. XIII., p. 908.

THERE are errors in the April installment of the “Life of Lincoln “ relative to the part taken by me in the execution of ten rebel guerrillas at Palmyra, Missouri, in October, 1862, in retaliation for the abduction and murder of a Union citizen of that town. With the opinion of Messrs. Nicolay and Hay on what they term “a punishment tenfold as severe as that demanded by the Mosaic law” I need not concern myself. The statement that my action was under the authority of the State of Missouri is an error. The letter of General Curtis quoted to sustain that statement appears (according to a foot-note on page 86o of Vol. XXII. of the “Official Records “) never to have been sent; or, if sent, he was afterwards ashamed of its misstatements, for he forwarded to Washington a copy of a letter taking entirely different ground for refusing to treat with the rebel authorities in their investigation of the execution. The fact is that while I was at the time a brigadier general of Missouri State troops, I held a commission as colonel of the 2d Missouri Cavalry, a regiment of State militia mustered into the United States service. As such I had been assigned, June 4, 1862, by the department commander, General Schofield, to command the district of North-east Missouri (see Vol. XIII., page 417, of the” Official Records “), and instructed by him to “ take the field in person and exterminate the rebel bands” infesting that section. General Schofield expressly enjoined (see Vol. XIII., page 467, of the “Official Records “) : “ Do not be too moderate in the measure of severity dealt out to them. Carry out General Orders No. 18 and No. 3 thoroughly.” General Order No. 18 (see Vol. XIII., page 402, “Official Records “) states that: Rebel officers and men are returning to their homes, passing stealthily through our lines and endeavoring again to stir up insurrection in various portions of the State where peace has long prevailed, and there still remain among the disaffected who never belonged to the rebel army a few who avail themselves of every opportunity to murder Union soldiers and destroy the property of citizens. The utmost vigilance and energy are enjoined upon all troops of the State in hunting down and destroying these robbers and assassins. When caught in arms engaged in their unlawful warfare they will he shot down upon the spot. All good citizens who desire to live in peace are required to give their assistance to the military authorities in detecting and bringing to punishment the outlaws who infest this State, and those who shelter and give them protection. Those who fail to do their duty in this matter will he regarded and treated as abettors of the criminals. It will thus be seen that I was acting directly under Federal authority as an officer of the United States Army and in accordance with my official instructions as such. Moreover, the ten guerrillas executed (not one of whom but had committed murder under circumstances of atrocity) were selected from twenty-two who had previously been formally tried by a United States military commission and sentenced to death, so that their death was but hastened by the act of retaliation, the remaining twelve of the twenty-two convicted being soon afterwards shot in pursuance of their sentence by the officers in command at Macon City and Mexico, Mo Nor was there unseemly haste in thus carrying out the sentence already pronounced against these unfortunate men. Public notice was given that the ten men would be shot unless within ten days the abducted Union citizen (Andrew Alisman, seventy years of age and a non-combatant) was returned unharmed to his family. During that period of ten days, my ranking officer, General Lewis Merrill of the regular army, and General Curtis, who had succeeded General Schofield in command of the district of Missouri, September 26, 1862, were fully advised of my action. In a letter to me dated January 22, 1880, referring to an attack on me in the United States Senate relative to this matter, General Merrill wrote as follows: No notice appears to have been taken of the other executions, and no reflections were ever made that I know of on either General Curtis or myself, though equally responsible with you, and indeed having the greater responsibility, in that we were your superior officers and could have stopped your action had duty allowed it. Both General Curtis and myself had to listen to many heart- rending appeals to take this action, and both uniformly refused. ‘Ihe event showed it would have been weakness and failure of duty to have listened, for the executions practically ended all guerrilla operations in North Missouri, and restored peace to the community to such an extent at least that it was possible thereafter to commit to the civil authorities the trial and punishment of most of the crime which was thereafter perpetrated. Before this the civil authorities were utterly powerless. You have long suffered from falsehood and misapprehension in this matter, and it gives me great pleasure to do what I can to right you, as I know no more tender-hearted soldier than yourself ever lived, and no more painful duty could have been imposed upon you than that involved in the execution of these criminals; hut I also know that you never permitted personal pain to swerve you from the plain line and demand of duty, however stern and hard it should be. Such an investigation of this affair as President Lincoln made before appointing me a brigadier general (November, 1863) will convince any unbiased inquirer that my action sprung from neither “mistaken zeal “ nor “unctirbed passion,” as my present critics infer, but from an imperative sense of duty. Since the issue of the April CENTURY an interview with General Merrill has appeared in4he St. Louis “Globe-Democrat” (April 2), in which he relates that he was summoned by telegraph to report to the President, and immediately repairing to Washington, ignorant of the reason for the summons, appeared before President Lincoln at a time when the members of the Cabinet were seated about him. General Merrill then proceeds as follows “I was ordered to report to you, Mr. President,” I said, after being presented. “Yes, General. . . . I want to inquire about that shooting in Missouri.” “I can give you a written report in a few minutes that will explain all,” I said. I don’t want anything in writing, General. I want you to tell me the story.” I told it to him as I have to you, with this addition: “I telegraphed you a number of times asking your approval of the order and asking you, Mr. President, to issue the order yourself; but I asked in vain; and as it was a necessity, I took the responsibility. It was my duty, and I have never felt a twinge of conscience that suggested I did other than right to my trust.” The President came up, laid his hand on my shoulder, and said: “Remember, young man, there are some things which should be done which it would not do for superiors to order done.” By his manner I inferred that had be ordered me to do what it was essential for me to do, political complications would have arisen which would have been troublesome. He evidently meant that he justified my course himself, but preferred not saying so, and left me to understand that my judgment was trusted, and to be exercised by me in emergency. Having thus the indorsement of both the officers who were my immediate superiors, the implied approval of President Lincoln (whose too tender heart forbade ordering retaliation even for the Fort Pillow massacre), and cherishing, as I do, the firm conviction that my action was the means of saving the lives and property of hundreds of loyal men and women, I feel that my act was the performance of a public duty. 

John McNeil, Late Brevet Major-General, U. S. Vs/s. ST. Louis.