- Date of birth: May 9, 1820
- Place of birth: Harpers Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia)
- Claim to fame: Democratic governor of Missouri and crucial figure in Missouri politics during the Civil War
- Politcial affliations: Democratic Party
- Date of death: November 3, 1882
- Place of death: St. Joseph, Missouri
- Final resting place: Mount Mora Cemetery, St. Joseph, Missouri
Willard Preble Hall was a lawyer, Democratic politician, soldier, and crucial figure in Missouri politics during the tumultuous Civil War era. He served as United States congressman, general in the state militia during the Civil War, provisional lieutenant governor between 1861 and 1864, and 17th governor of the state in 1864-65.
Born in Harpers Ferry Virginia (now West Virginia) on May 9, 1820, Hall attended boarding school in Baltimore before being accepted to Yale College (now Yale University), graduating in 1839. Like so many easterners, Hall went west the next year, settling in Randolph County, Missouri, where he was admitted to the bar and began a law practice in Sparta in 1842. Hall quickly attained regional prominence in law and Democratic Party politics. He was appointed circuit attorney in St. Joseph in 1843 and Democratic presidential elector in 1844, eventually throwing his support behind Tennessee Democrat James K. Polk.
Like so many easterners, Hall went west the next year, settling in Randolph County, Missouri, where he was admitted to the bar and began a law practice in Sparta in 1842.
President Polk made good on his campaign promise of territorial expansion, and the Mexican War afforded Hall further opportunity for advancement. He enlisted as a private in the First Missouri Cavalry and was later promoted to lieutenant. While still a private in 1846, Hall assisted his regimental colonel, A. W. Doniphan, in drafting the Kearny Code. Named after United States general and Mexican War hero Stephen W. Kearny, the Code was a set of English and Spanish language civil laws—borrowed heavily from the U.S. Bill of Rights and Hall’s personal copy of Missouri statutes—that applied to the New Mexico Territory, newly acquired from Mexico. The Code would stand until 1891. In October 1846 Hall left New Mexico for California. He traveled there with the Mormon Battalion, an army unit of over 500 Latter Day Saints whose famed march from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego helped secure New Mexico and Arizona for the United States.
Hall’s Mexican War tenure was brief but notable, and his growing reputation soon translated to political power. He was elected to the U.S. House of representatives in November 1846, while serving in the West, and returned to Missouri to enter Congress on March 4, 1847. Hall’s time in the Thirtieth, Thirty-first, and Thirty-second U.S. Congresses between 1847 and 1853 saw him deal with the questions of slavery and territorial expansion. Along with other “Young America” Democrats, Hall sponsored territorial expansion and railroad construction in order to facilitate continental growth. His service as chairman of the Committee on Private Land Claims (Thirty-first Congress) and the Committee on Public Lands (Thirty-second Congress) testify to his core issues.
In December 1851 Hall introduced legislation to settle the Nebraska Territory’s Platte River Valley, a region northwest of Missouri that had been acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Hall’s bill made no mention of either slavery or repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Although the proposal failed, Senator Stephen Douglas pursued a similar middle course regarding slavery for his Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which led to the creation of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories and spurred violence over the slavery question. After three terms in the House, Hall moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, and resumed his law practice, but he could not resist politics. After an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1856, Hall temporarily resumed his legal trade as national and state political conflict mounted.
After three terms in the House, Hall moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, and resumed his law practice, but he could not resist politics.
Missouri became a state divided in 1861. Governor Robert M. Stewart advocated Union loyalty and military noninvolvement, and Hall served as a member of the state’s constitutional convention that echoed his policy in February 1861. Yet the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s subsequent call for volunteers destroyed all hopes of neutrality. The swift failure of armed neutrality pitted secessionist governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and lieutenant governor Thomas C. Reynolds against the state’s mostly Unionist legislature, with the former destined for political exile. Amid this political turnover, the now entirely Unionist state convention of July 1861 appointed Hall as lieutenant governor on August 1. Hall was also commissioned brigadier general of the pro-Union Missouri State Guard, and served as commander of the District of Northwest Missouri until 1863.
Hall became the 17th governor of the state of Missouri upon the death of Hamilton Rowan Gamble on January 31, 1864, and was succeeded on January 2, 1865, by Republican Thomas Clement Fletcher. He addressed the state’s violence and economic calamity by continuing Gamble’s conservative Unionist precedent. Above all, Hall’s tenure in Jefferson City was marked by administering successfully the day-to-day functions of civil government in war-torn Missouri.
Fletcher’s election signaled a turn in Missouri politics away from wartime conduct and toward the issues of Reconstruction. Hall retired from politics and public life after leaving the governorship on January 2, returning to St. Joseph and resuming his law practice. He died on November 3, 1882, and is buried in St. Joseph’s Mount Mora Cemetery, near former Missouri governors Robert M. Stewart and Silas Woodson and Civil War generals James Craig and M. Jeff Thompson.
Dawson, Joseph G., III. Doniphan’s Epic March: The 1st Missouri Volunteers in the Mexican War. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999.
Parrish, William E. A History of Missouri, Vol. 3, 1860-1875. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.