Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security/Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War

By Scott, Sean A. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security/Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War


Scott, Sean A., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security. By Dennis K. Boman. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 356, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $45.00.)

Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War. By Burrus M. Carnahan. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. Pp. 165, notes, index. Paperback, $19.95.)

Both authors commend Abraham Lincoln for the shrewd, albeit sometimes flawed, course he pursued as president in dealing with thorny political, military, and legal issues relating to the rights of civilians. Dennis Boman closely examines the myriad difficulties presented by the unusual conditions in Missouri. Plagued by guerilla warfare and populated by numerous citizens who sympathized with the Confederacy, Missouri seemingly presented Lincoln with one crisis after another related to civil liberties. The establishment of martial law, the implementation of an elaborate provost-marshal system, the suppression of newspapers, the requirement of loyalty oaths for public officials and even clergymen, and the operation of military tribunals to try civilians all contributed in some fashion to the violation of civil liberties for some citizens. Boman nevertheless believes that the overall record of the president, his military commanders, and civil authorities, although punctuated with "many mistakes of commission and omission," is commendable, especially after considering the extraordinary circumstances they faced (p. 279). Furthermore, he portrays Lincoln as a competent manager who delegated decision making to subordinates in the field and only reluctantly interfered in Missouri when specific circumstances compelled his action. For instance, General John C. Fremont's premature proclamation of emancipation and General Samuel R. Curtis's unwarranted removal of Samuel B. McPheeters from Pine Street Presbyterian Church required the president's direct response in order to prevent additional problems. In the final analysis, Boman praises Lincoln for consistently attempting to limit conflicts between military and civil leaders and radical and conservative forces within Missouri. More importantly, the president's steady hand and resolute vision, despite some unnecessary limitations of the freedoms of speech, the press, and religion by military authorities, helped diminished the adverse effects of these infringements of civil liberties and ultimately facilitated the restoration of civilian government.

Boman's in-depth study should interest anyone wanting to know more about the complex conditions in Missouri that presented unique problems and required difficult choices for civilians, public officials, and military leaders living in a divided state within a divided nation. He makes excellent use of the Union Provost-Marshals' File of Papers Relating to Individual Citizens from Record Group 109 at the National Archives, a rich source that preserves the stories and testimonies of thousands of civilians whom military authorities questioned, detained, arrested, or imprisoned for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons. One might reasonably quibble with him for assigning Lincoln a titular role in the book, for there are numerous pages where he is either absent from the narrative or seemingly powerlessly observing developments from the distant confines of Washington. Indeed, events in Missouri oftentimes transpired independent of the president's ability to control or shape them to his liking and his overarching desire to defer to the judgments of officials in the state and only intervene when absolutely necessary supports this conclusion that he played a secondary role rather than deserving top billing.

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