Netherworld of War: The Dominion System and the Contours of Federal Occupation in Kentucky
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Netherworld of War:
The Dominion System and the Contours of Federal Occupation in Kentucky

From his home in Jefferson City in August 1861, Missouri attorney general J. Proctor Knott, grumbled to his mother at home in Lebanon, Kentucky, a more-than-rhetorical question. He wondered whether "Kentucky and Missouri [would] become parts of the great centralized despotism to which our government is so rapidly drifting, or whether they be destined to remain the cherished homes of Constitutional liberty after the present ravaging storm shall have passed by." Knott, well-versed in the law in both states and watching it suffer in each, in fact perceived the rapid wartime erosion of civil liberties that impinged upon residents of these loyal slave states and which resembled, even preceded, similar such intrusions on the populations of the occupied parts of the seceded states. Within months, he found himself removed from his position, disbarred, and imprisoned briefly for refusing to take the newly mandated oath of allegiance to the Missouri convention government. Two years later, he returned to his old Kentucky home, paroled by Federal officials, unemployed, and outraged.1 [End Page 327]

What Knott saw in Missouri and Kentucky were measures by the Federal military that sharply categorized a deeply divided populace. Around him, he saw developing a dominion system of sorts, a knot of counterinsurgency measures initiated, although never routinized, by both state and Federal governments and implemented by low-level, often volunteer, post commanders. Together, they sought to establish control of a "chaos of incendiary elements," as Henry W. Halleck referred to the local, often-armed populations in border slave states whose true loyalties were often uncertain and ephemeral. Largely with Lincoln's assent, military leaders there often tolerated the subversion of civil liberties at the local level as part of the broader prosecution of the war. The official neutrality of Kentucky allowed secessionism to exist alongside Unionism, a situation made worse by there being no mechanisms for precise measurement of either. Federal commanders recognized almost immediately that their greatest challenge, as department commander Jeremiah T. Boyle put it, was to "sift" the mass of residents around their commands, determining their allegiances, and pressuring or punishing those who supported the Confederacy. If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, the price of neutrality was even steeper. The calculus of loyalty and disloyalty would soon drive both armies and state governments beyond simply keeping the peace. It would require in these states "a stronger hand," as Halleck wrote—a hostile occupation of an ostensibly loyal state.2

With its purpose being the need to distinguish loyal from disloyal residents, the dominion system rested on six pillars. First, military districting at once focused and diffused military command, trying to [End Page 328] regularize the myriad of orders and regulations that soon blanketed district commanders' offices while at once affording them latitude to implement policies. Each district would contain a series of garrisoned towns, occupied by squads of Federal troops, generally cavalry, who were themselves supported by the local Home Guards or state militia. Second, unconditional Unionist informants provided these Federal, state, and Home Guard commanders with names and often lists of known or suspected secessionists, compiled evidence against them, and led them to their homes, often miles from the towns through, in, or on woods, hills, and ridges, for investigation, questioning, or arrest. Third, provost marshals, generally civilians with and without military rank but not technically subordinate to the local garrison commander, had a wide range of powers and responsibilities by which to maintain order within the localities in which they served, including policing their town and its environs, issuing travel passes and various permits, fielding complaints and arbitrating disputes, and acting as liaison between the post and the municipal government. Fourth, oaths of allegiance and surety bonds, which provost marshals administered and cataloged, required civilians to attest both in writing and viva voce before witnesses that their loyalty either always had been or hitherto was to the state and Federal governments. If they refused, they were levied for guerrillas' damages to Unionists' property and deaths or banished to the Confederacy, their property often confiscated. Fifth, the Federal authorities assumed...