Commemorative lithograph of the Emancipation Ordinance of Missouri. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In the spring of 2015, the Library commemorates the sesquicentennial of the final months of the Civil War in Missouri and Kansas with a post derived from the thousands of primary sources that are digitized and incorporated into this website. The Library and its project partners collaborated to assemble this rich repository from the collections of 25 area archives, combining it with interpretive tools and original scholarship produced by nationally recognized historians. Sign up to receive this newsletter via email »
Emancipation for Missouri's Slaves
Nearly four years after the beginning of the Civil War and two years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect in states that had joined the Confederacy, the institution of slavery still lingered in the border state of Missouri. But for the state's enslaved population, the long wait for legal emancipation was finally coming to an end. On January 11, an ordinance of emancipation officially freed the state's slaves. Missouri became the first slave state that had remained loyal to the Union to abolish slavery prior to the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 18, 1865.
Slavery's history in Missouri extended to a time before the region was even a state or territory of the United States. As early as 1720, French colonists brought their slaves with them in an effort to establish settlements and mines along the Mississippi River in what would later become the states of Illinois and Missouri. With the Louisiana Purchase, the region became a territory of the United States, and eventually, in 1820, Missouri was admitted into the Union as a slave state. At the beginning of the Civil War, Missouri's slave population was small relative to those in Southern states, about 10 percent of the overall population, but slaveholders still held considerable economic and political sway in state politics. Fearful of losing more border states to the Confederacy, President Lincoln excluded slave states that were loyal to the Union from his Emancipation Proclamation.
Read more about the history of slavery in Missouri in an essay by Dr. Diane Mutti-Burke, University of Missouri-Kansas City.Despite the continuing legality of slavery in Missouri, the long decline of the institution as a result of the war made the ordinance of emancipation for the state's slaves a simpler transition by January 1865. From 1854 to 1861, the debate over the entry of Kansas into the Union as either a free or slave state sparked a "border war" on the Missouri-Kansas border. While proslavery Missourians crossed over the border to vote in Kansas territorial elections, intimidate voters, or carry out violent attacks on Free-State settlers, antislavery forces from Kansas likewise crossed the border to sack towns and forcibly liberate slaves. After the Civil War began in 1861, Missouri found itself surrounded on three sides by free states, a situation that when combined with the chaos of the war, resulted in a greater number of slaves running away to seek freedom in other states. Some, including Spotswood Rice, who was enslaved near Glasgow, Missouri, ran away and joined the Union Army. Federal soldiers emancipated other slaves whose owners were deemed to be disloyal to the Union, in accordance with the Second Confiscation Act. Finally, as the war dragged on, slaveholders who sided with the Union increasingly recognized the perils the institution faced and considered voluntarily emancipating their slaves to avoid reprisals from other Unionists.
The final emancipation of Missouri's slaves emerged on January 11, 1865, due to the "radical" faction of Missouri's Republican Party gaining the upper hand in the state elections on November 8 of the previous year. Since 1861, the state of Missouri had maintained a special state convention that had originally been called by Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson in order to consider whether the state should secede from the Union. Missouri was the only state to hold such a convention and select to remain in the Union, and Jackson and many like-minded legislators were soon driven out of the state capitol by federal forces. Nonetheless, the state convention continued through the war as a provisional government, parallel to the main government. The convention nominated the pro-Union Hamilton R. Gamble as a provisional governor, and after gaining more "radical" Republican members in November 1864, it decided to end slavery in the state and pursue a course of punishing Southern sympathizers and rewarding Union loyalists.
An excerpt of the text from a commemorative copy of Missouri's emancipation ordinance reads:
That hereafter in this State there shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary servitude; except in punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, and all persons held to service or labor as slaves, are hereby DECLARED FREE.
Of course those provisions did not go beyond freeing the state's slaves, as the convention did not extend the right to vote, access to public education, or any number of other rights to the black population of the state. Later in the spring of 1865, as the war moved toward conclusion, the convention would consider these matters as it moved to adopt a new state constitution.
Kansas Governor Resigns
As Missouri was considering emancipating its slaves, Kansas was in the midst of pushing its governor—who was previously admired as "The War Governor"—out of state office. On January 9, 1865, Governor Thomas Carney's term as governor ended in the midst of a heated rivalry between him and Senator James H. Lane.
Carney's rivalry stemmed from "Jim" Lane's considerable sway in Washington, D.C., which crowded out the influence of other Kansans on the national stage. Early in the war, Lane moved quickly and organized the Frontier Guard, a militia group from Kansas, to defend the White House and the capital city from the newly formed Confederacy. Even prior to the war, Lane fortuitously supported Abraham Lincoln's presidential ambitions before he emerged as a strong candidate to secure the Republican nomination in 1860. Once the war began, Lane exerted significant influence on federal management of the war in Kansas, including the raising and deployment of regiments in defense of the state. Comparatively, other Kansas leaders, including the first governor of the state, Charles Robinson, and the other senator from Kansas, Samuel C. Pomeroy, struggled to receive federal support. Ultimately, Lane's attacks on Governor Robinson resulted in Robinson's impeachment relating to improper sales of bonds to fund the state militia in 1861. Robinson was eventually acquitted of all charges, but only after he had resigned his position.
When Thomas Carney succeeded Robinson as governor, he inherited the rivalry with Jim Lane. Carney, reputably the richest man in the state, became known for donating his own money to raising militia in defense of the state, receiving much acclaim in the process. However, by federal order he disbanded one of the privately funded militias three days prior to Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863, and feuded with Lane over military matters and political patronage from the Lincoln administration.
In the spring of 1864, Carney grasped an opportunity to strip Lane of his senate seat. Lane's first appointment as senator was scheduled to last just four years, instead of the usual six, so that Kansas would comply with federal law and not schedule the selection of both of its senators in the same year. With Lane's term ending in 1865, his rivals in the legislature attempted to appoint a new senator nearly a full year prior to the end of his term and, notably, before Lane could organize any sort of campaign. In numerous histories, including Kansas's War, by Pearl T. Ponce, it is documented that Carney went along with the plot, and the legislature selected Thomas Carney as Lane's replacement as a U.S. senator from Kansas. Amid the intense controversy that followed in the next few months, Carney was forced to renounce his new senate seat because he could not hold both offices simultaneously, and the legislature had to reverse course due to the apparent unconstitutionality of appointing a new senator a year before the term was set to end.
What followed was an intense campaign season in the fall of 1864, and Carney failed to secure his party's nomination for a second term. On January 9, 1865, Carney's governorship ended, and the third governor of Kansas, Samuel J. Crawford, entered office.
Confederate Prisoner Seeks Release
Meanwhile, at a Union prison in Hilton Head, South Carolina, a Confederate prisoner from Missouri named Alex M. Bedford sought his release. On January 26, Bedford wrote to his wife, Mary E. Bedford, to advise her of his poor health, saying "I must get out of prison or I will soon go to my long home[.] I am leaner in flesh than I ever was ... I am so weak I reel as I walk & nearly lossed my eyesight[.]"
Alex had been captured in Arkansas in August 1863, and the surviving correspondence between him and his wife documents the struggles they faced. Mary had to manage their farm and occasionally mail packages of clothes, blankets, money, or other necessities to Alex so that he could survive the meager conditions of the prison. By January 1864, Alex hoped to be exchanged for the release of Union prisoners, and the month before, Mary had written to him that she was lobbying the Union authorities for his exchange.
Prisoner exchange, while not uncommon, was no simple matter during the Civil War. From the outset, the federal government hesitated to adopt a policy for the "general exchange" of prisoners, because reaching such agreements with the Confederate government could be seen as a formal recognition of the Confederacy, a stance that the Lincoln administration wanted to avoid. Instead, the Union tacitly endorsed a policy of "special exchange," administered on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of individual generals who made arrangements with Confederate leaders for exchange of prisoners.
Alex's letter reveals that his wife was trying to lobby for a special exchange on his behalf, but after spending considerably more than a year in prison, Alex had given up hope of receiving one. The alternative, given Alex's declining health, was to accept a parole and return home. As with many prisoners of war, Alex had resisted parole on moral grounds, not wanting to return to civilian life when the Southern cause was still in question. By 1865, Alex's correspondence reveals that given his poor health and the tide of the war that was turning against the Confederacy, he was ready to leave the war effort, but also that he did not think it was safe to return to his home in Savannah, Missouri, about 15 miles to the North of St. Joseph. After years of warfare along the Missouri-Kansas border and the bitter animosity that resulted from Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, the retaliatory General Order No. 11, and more recently, Price's Raid, Alex understandably feared reprisals directed toward "disloyal" Southern sympathizers in northwestern Missouri.
Alex asked Mary whether it would be safe to return home, instructing, "if you think I cant live at home & had better stay here let me know[.] I will be governed by you[.] you can see the neighbors to see if it would be safe for me[.] has James Bohart returned home[?]" Otherwise, he asked her, "if you wish me to come home write a mediately & send me the check."
Evidently Mary E. Bedford decided that it was not safe for Alex to receive parole and return home. Future letters reveal that Alex remained imprisoned, and at times gravely ill, until after the end of the war when he could finally attempt to make his way home.