“With traitors there is no distinction of sex”: Prosecuting Female Traitors in Missouri’s Little Dixie during the Civil War

by Elle Harvell   [1] 

In February 1863, a general military order appeared in the Columbia Missouri Statesman under the heading SECESH WOMEN.[2] General Order No. 1, crafted by Colonel James A. Price of the 6th Regiment Enrolled Missouri Militia (E.M.M.) stationed at Weston, Missouri, dripped with contempt as it made explicitly clear that “secesh women” would be held responsible for their, as well as their children’s, words and acts considered to be disloyal to the Federal government. Price acknowledged the common belief at the time that “Ladies and children do not thus speak of their own free will” and were “prompted to it by their husbands and parents, who are too cowardly to speak it themselves,” but insisted that “with traitors there is no distinction of sex—all must be treated alike” and he ordered the arrest, with “sufficient proof,” of “all such” women in his district.[3]

Price’s order reveals the dilemma Union officials faced in prosecuting women for treason. Women acting in an overly political manner challenged antebellum conceptions of women as nonpartisan and apolitical beings. With his order, Price contributed to one of the Civil War’s most startling social transformations: women were now considered participants in war and liable to suffer punishment.[4] For the first time in American history, women were arrested and prosecuted on a mass scale, especially in Missouri where nearly fifty percent of the total U.S. treason trials took place.[5]

In general, Missouri Unionists were reluctant to hold women responsible for treason; however, Federal officers quickly realized their elusive guerrilla foe depended on support from the local civilian population and southern sympathizing women played a particularly important role in sustaining irregular insurgents.[6] Within the first year of the war, official military orders in Missouri made rebellious civilians, regardless of sex, responsible for their actions and liable to suffer punishment. Accusations of treason—the definition of which expanded over the course of the war from aiding the enemy to speaking or writing anything disloyal—resulted in arrest, imprisonment, and in extreme cases, banishment from the state.[7]

The arrest of women sparked outrage among most nineteenth-century observers. Guerrilla fighters, more than anyone, disagreed with Federal policies targeting women. Often, guerrillas made clear their disgust with Federal policies by destroying property and targeting Unionist civilians for retaliatory violence. Guerrilla leader “Sy” Cockerill threatened such retaliatory violence in a missive to Major General Samuel R. Curtis, Union commander of Missouri. Cockerill criticized Curtis and his troops for “committing outrages known only to barbarians,” including killing innocent men, burning civilian homes, and banishing men, women, and children. In response, Cockerill promised to “hoist a black flag,” meaning he would “show no quarter to any claiming protection under the Stars and Stripes.”[8]

Despite guerrilla threats, by 1864, Federal officials in Missouri resorted to arresting rebellious women in full force. The case of Anne Fickle of Lafayette County exemplifies the Federal necessity for changing policies toward women. Anne Fickle and Ann Reid plotted with Captain Andrew Blunt, a guerrilla leader, and James Burns, a member of Co. I, 5th Provisional Regiment, E.M.M., to help Otho Hinton, a captured guerrilla, escape from confinement at the local Masonic College in Lexington.[9] For her role in the failed plot that left several Union soldiers dead, the twenty-year-old Fickle was convicted of concealing guerrillas, conspiring to release a prisoner, bribing a U.S. soldier, and murder in the second-degree.[10] The commission sentenced her to ten years at the State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.[11]

Anne Fickle’s arrest and trial caused an outpouring of emotion. The Lexington Union’s coverage of the story in March 1864 strongly condemned Anne Fickle and Ann Reid, the two women implicated in the plot. After celebrating the fact that these two women were “on the swift road to justice,” owner and editor Henry Davis exclaimed, “Such women! They would strangle their own children to carry any wicked purpose their wicked hearts might conceive.”[12] From a completely opposite perspective, William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, one of Missouri’s most notorious guerrilla fighters, harshly condemned Fickle’s arrest and imprisonment. The guerrilla captain harangued Union Brigadier General Egbert B. Brown for his treatment of civilians, especially the arrest of women “for the deeds of men.” Anderson expressed his intentions of revenge in very vivid and explicit terms: If Brown did not release Miss Fickle and the other women under arrest in Lafayette County, he would “hold the Union ladies in the county as hostages . . . . tie them by the neck in the brush and starve them until they are released.”[13]

During the summer of 1864, things intensified to such an extent that some observers described the period as “a reign of terror.”[14] Who reigned supreme during this terrible time, however, became more difficult to ascertain as conflicts increasingly descended into cycles of revenge, in which all sides were guilty of committing atrocities. When several guerrillas raided Marshall, Missouri and burned down the courthouse in the fall of 1864, Lieutenant Colonel Bazel Lazear brought down the hammer on local civilians. In his fury, Lazear had an Arrow Rock man named Marshall Piper shot for harboring bushwhackers at his house and withholding this information from Union forces.[15] Lazear also initiated a widespread search of civilian homes in the area and subsequently arrested several women for aiding the guerrilla arsonists, among them were Sue Bryant, Elizabeth Stone, and Mary Kincheloe. These women were taken to the Gratiot Female Prison in St. Louis; all professed their innocence.[16]

Elizabeth Stone’s case, as opposed to that of Anne Fickle, reveals how difficult it was for Union officials to determine civilian disloyalty and to prosecute accordingly. Lazear was highly suspicious of Stone because he believed her father was a known guerrilla sympathizer and her family did “all in their power” to aid bushwhackers, so he recommended they all be “banished to beyond rebel lines.” Making matters worse, Elizabeth’s husband served as a private in the Confederate army; a fact she openly admitted.[17]

Despite the alleged evidence against her, Elizabeth vehemently denied aiding guerrillas. Lizzie professed she had not seen bushwhackers at the family residence since 1863, a residence she shared with her father and sister after the war began, and insisted that she and Mary had always been “strictly loyal.” Elizabeth declared her unwavering support for the Union, claiming “…I shall ever have that dear old Union which our Fore Fathers faught blead & died to establish and never would I as disgrace & demean myself as to do ought that would be in the slightest calculated to injure that glorious cause…” She also claimed she attempted to talk her husband out of joining the Confederate army, and when asked if she believed the South had “a justifiable cause for making war,” she pled complete ignorance of politics. Appealing to the prevailing conception of women’s lack of free will often proved to be a very useful strategy employed by women to avoid punishment.

Elizabeth’s claims must have had some basis in reality. After being held in prison for nearly two months, Brigadier General William Rosecrans recommended her release due to a lack of evidence. In his letter, Rosecrans condemned the arrest of “persons on base rumor” and suggested “that some efficient measures should be taken to prevent the arrest and forwarding by District and subordinate officers of prisoners unaccompanied by documented evidence to establish their guilt prima facie.”

These two cases exemplify the dueling impulses within the Union: to persecute civilians harshly or to prosecute them only with sufficient proof. In an effort to eradicate rebelliousness, Federal officials, like Lazear, frequently acted on rumor and hearsay from within the communities they patrolled, which sometimes led to the arrest of innocent individuals. Stone may have been innocent but she also could have been lying in order to escape confinement. Federal commanders constantly struggled to determine the truth. Nevertheless, the arrest of these women brought about a shocking change in women’s political and legal status that Americans failed to anticipate and only a few reluctantly embraced.

 

Elle Harvell is a graduate student in History at UCLA. She received the Paula Stone Legal Research Fellowship from the Center for the Study of Women in 2017.

 

Image:  “Civil War: as realized in the Desolation of Border Counties of Missouri during the operation of ‘General Order No. 11,’ issued by Brigadier General Ewing, from his Head Quarters, Kansas City, August 25, 1863,”  by George Caleb Bingham, 1865–1870

 

[1] Missourians living along the Missouri River during the Civil War would not have recognized the term “Little Dixie.” The name emerged over 100 years after settlers migrated to the region; in fact, it was not until the 1940s that historians ascribed the moniker to the multi-county region. Many still disagree as to exactly which counties constitute Little Dixie. For the purposes of this study, I have selected the counties of Lafayette, Howard, Boone, Saline, Callaway, Clay, Jackson, Ray, Cooper, Carroll, and Chariton to constitute Little Dixie based on three factors: antebellum slave ownership, cash crop production, and resistance to the Union during the Civil War.

[2] The word “secesh” emerged early in the war as a slang term for secessionist.

[3] Columbia Statesman, February 6, 1863

[4] McCurry claims that Civil War soldiers held a deep reluctance to see women as parties to war and believed the prevailing assumption that women were nonpartisan and apolitical. During the war, McCurry states, “the deeply held assumptions about women’s nature and proper role collided with a historically contingent set of developments bearing on their political behavior in the war.” Men confronted women engaging in political acts contrary to prevailing assumptions of women’s apolitical nature. Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, (Harvard University Press, 2010); 85-86.

[5] Historian Mark Neely found that over 46% of the 4,000 military commissions to punish treason held during the war occurred in Missouri. Mark E. Neely, Jr., Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); 44.

[6] Confederate guerrillas, irregular combatants unattached to any standing army, emerged in Missouri in 1861 primarily to combat Jayhawkers and Red Legs, irregular abolitionist forces from Kansas. By 1862, Confederate guerrillas, or bushwhackers as they were also known, targeted Union militia forces in lightning raids into towns, shooting down civilians, burning down homes and businesses, and stealing property and goods. They were also instrumental in destroying railroads and telegraph wires to prevent Union transport and communication. Guerrillas skulked in the densely wooded Missouri landscape and hunted for Federal scouting parties, living off of the civilian population. Often, guerrillas forced their way into homes demanding food and supplies at gunpoint, leaving civilians powerless to resist. Historians have established the existence of a friendly guerrilla “supply-line,” however, among Missouri’s southern sympathizing citizenry. Joseph M. Beilein, “‘The presence of these families is the cause of the presence there of the guerrillas’: The Influence of Little Dixie households on the Civil War in Missouri,” M.A. Dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2006.

[7] Treason is the only crime specified in the U.S. Constitution. Treason is defined as “levying war” against the United States or “adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” A conviction for treason requires two witnesses or a confession. The Constitution of the United States of America (Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc., 1987; Barnes and Noble Books, 1995); 38; William Blair, With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2014); 2. Prosecuting civilians for treason, regardless of sex, finally received official sanction in April 1863 with General Orders, No. 100, more commonly known as Lieber’s Code, which recognized “no difference on account of the difference of sexes, concerning the spy, the war-traitor, or the war-rebel.” John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2012) Appendix, 387.

[8] War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (70 vols., 128 books. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901) Series I, vol. 22, Part II, 102 [hereafter cited OR].

[9] Columbia Statesman, March 11, 1864.

[10] Anne Fickle’s role in the conspiracy appears to have been undeniable. Captain Blunt gave Anne thirty dollars in gold and a metal-cutting file to pass on to the prisoner, Hinton, who would first use the gold to bribe the Union prison guard; but if bribery failed, he would then use the file to cut his chains and the guard’s throat. Thomas P. Lowry, Confederate Heroines: 120 Southern Women Convicted by Union Military Justice (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 2006); 29. Meanwhile, Blunt had already convinced Union soldiers James Burns and William Sabins to aid in Hinton’s escape. Unbeknownst to the conspirators, however, Sabins had betrayed them by reporting the conspiracy to his superior officer, who set up a rouse of his own. On the night of November 21, Lieutenant Kesinger had already stationed troops in the woods surrounding the jail. When Hinton attempted his escape, private Sabins shot and killed him before he could even open the door. Private Burns, shocked and perplexed, ran to join Blunt hiding in the woods nearby. A squad of Union soldiers sprung the trap, shooting and killing Burns and wounding Blunt, who successfully made his escape but not without first shooting down Union private William J. Asher on his way out of Lexington. Bruce Nichols, Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, Vol. III (North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014); 54. Note: Most of the sources covering these events differ drastically. I chose to rely mostly on Nichols account since his work thorough and extremely reliable.

[11] Anne was sent to the penitentiary at Jefferson City with a ten-year sentence but was pardoned by order of the President Jan. 30, 1865. http://www.civilwarstlouis.com/Gratiot/prisonernotes.htm#AnnieFickle Accessed 5/10/17. An article in the Columbia Statesman on July 22, 1864 stated Anne Fickle “had been tried by military commission, and sentenced to three years imprisonment in the Alton military prison, and to be employed as cook for the prisoners.”

[12] Columbia Statesman, March 11, 1864.

[13] OR, Vol. 41, Part II, 76-77.

[14] John N. Edwards, Noted Guerrillas; or, the Warfare on the Border (St. Louis: Bryan, Brand, and & Co., 1877); 364.

[15] Lazear labels Marshall Piper “a notorious rebel,” accusing him of harboring bushwhackers at his home on August 7 and failing to inform the Union militia of their presence. OR, Vol. 41, part I, 219-220; Contrary to Lazear’s claims, a Saline County History published over twenty years after the war, described Marshall Piper as “universally regarded as a harmless and very excellent man, and one who had taken no part in the war whatever. He was always peaceful and inoffensive, and his execution was not only a regret, but a surprise to all who knew him.” History of Saline County, Missouri, carefully written… (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Company, 1881); 307. By September of 1864, Lazear’s actions in August came under investigation due to accusations of wonton plunder at the hands of his troops. He adamantly denied the charge, even arguing that his actions helped ease the tensions in the county, claiming, “I am willing to rest under the censure particularly when I know that I have the heartfelt thanks of Genuine Union men of Saline County.” “The Civil War Letters of Colonel Bazel Lazear,” Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, p. 52.

[16] Lazear mentions arresting five women after the burning of the courthouse but he does not provide names. Lazear arrested Sue Bryant, Elizabeth Stone, and Mary Kincheloe within a day of each other, which led me to surmise that these three women were the women Colonel Lazear arrested after the destruction of Marshall. Another prisoner may have been Lucy Sheridan. OR Vol. 41, Part I, 219-220. Sue Bryant describes the arrest and transport to prison in full detail in Reminiscences of the Women of Missouri by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Missouri Division. (Jefferson City: Hughs Stephens Print, Co., 1913); 273-275.

[17] Union Provost Marshals’ File of Papers Relating to Individual Citizens (Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Missouri), F1270.

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