War of the Rebellion: Serial 033 Page 0044 MO., ARK., KANS., IND. T., AND DEPT. N. W. Chapter XXXIV

Search Civil War Official Records

The provost-marshal system is not of my planting or growth, but is now so old, deep-rooted, and wide-spread it cannot be summarily disposed of without danger of losses and disasters. It began in General Fremont's administration, by the appointment of Major McKinstry in this city, who was followed by Colonel McNeil and Captain Leighton; neither of them were properly in the United States service. From this it spread out through the whole department, and when I came in command Colonel Gantt was provost-marshal-general, and hundreds were elsewhere located; most of them not officers in the United States service, except by virtue of their appointment as provost-marshals. General Halleck had given the system a head by creating a provost-marshal-general, and issued some orders devolving specific duties on these functionaries, and, by a kind of common understanding, provost-marshals took charge of prisoners, watched contraband trade, discovered and arrested spies, found out rebel camps, and pursued and arrested the rebels in their neighborhoods. They operate with volunteers, militia, and police force, just as circumstances require, and in Southern Iowa and large districts of Missouri, where recruiting guerrilla agents strive to organize their bands, they are the only stationary, permanent official sentinels, who keep me advised and guard the public safety. Public arms, prisoners, contraband property, and forfeited bonds are held by them and properly disposed of, and immediate discharge would create loss and confusion where everything is now quiet and secure. For instance, the provost-marshal at Glasgow has 30 or 40 prisoners. At Columbia last Sunday the provost-marshal resisted an effort to rescue a parcel of most desperate prisoners-one a Confederate recruiting officer.

I send you the letter of Colonel Dick, my provost-marshal-general, to show other duties devolved on these men. Soon after my assuming command, I presented to the General-in-Chief the importance of more exact and uniform rules in regard to the system, and desired the matter might be taken up at Washington, but, in the absence of any instructions, I desired the provost-marshal-general to compile and construct some general and uniform rule of action. This he did in Orders, Numbers 35, which I suppose is the order disapproved by His Excellency the President. It contains the gist of a great many old orders and some new ones, but in the main it conforms to the current business of the system. No paper or person here has made complaints against the order, and I am surprised that such apprehension and immediate necessity should be presented at headquarters. As far as possible, action under the order is suspended, but I presume most of it will be found to be a mere condensation of our police regulations.

I have been urged to send away my regular volunteers, and have stripped portions of my department to comply with pressing demands elsewhere. To compensate for this, provost-marshals, taken from the Enrolled Militia, are earnestly endeavoring to keep me posted and maintain public tranquillity. If they are to have no supervision of trade, commerce, or anything but the discipline and government of the troops in the United States service, how am I to prevent contraband of war, guns, ammunition, and other supplies going into the hands of the guerrillas, and how am I to know what is doing or to be done in various parts of my district when I have no other command, and what am I to do with the prisoners and other rebels that are held either in fact or fear by these provost-marshals?

I regret that I am thus forced to defend a system I never did approve and have often condemned. I could not find either statute or military