UVA Unionists (Part 2): James Overton Broadhead

by Brian Neumann | | Tuesday, September 19, 2017 - 00:00

James Broadhead

As the seven Lower South states seceded in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election, Unionists in the Upper and Border South struggled to hold their fracturing country together. Many of these Unionists insisted the country could endure “half slave and half free”—as it had for more than eighty years—and they worked tirelessly to contain the crisis by finding a middle ground in the debates over slavery. Their efforts failed, however, because southern secessionists and hard-line Republicans refused to compromise, but also because of divisions within the Unionist ranks. Members of this Unionist coalition could vary dramatically in the nature and strength of their national attachment, and in their understanding of the relationship between slavery and Union. These divisions helped shape the secession crisis as well as the course of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The life of James Broadhead of Missouri encapsulates these tensions. He was a moderate, slaveholding Unionist who joined the Republican Party and served as provost marshal general for the Union army. After the war, however, he rejected Radical Reconstruction and broke ties with the party, becoming a leader of the state’s Conservative opposition.[1]

James Overton Broadhead was born on May 29, 1819, in Charlottesville, Virginia. He enrolled in the university in 1835, studying law, mathematics, and ancient languages. His family moved to St. Charles County, Missouri, leaving him to fund his own education, and Broadhead left UVA after only one year. He worked as a teacher in Baltimore until 1837, when his mother’s failing health prompted him to join the family in Missouri. Edward Bates, who later became attorney general under President Abraham Lincoln, hired Broadhead to teach his children. Impressed by the young scholar, Bates allowed Broadhead to read law in his office, and he was admitted to the bar in 1842.[2]

Bates became his friend and political mentor, and Broadhead followed him into the Whig Party in the 1840s. Broadhead was elected to the Missouri constitutional convention in 1845, the state house of representatives in 1846, and state senate in 1850. When the Whig Party collapsed in the 1850s, Broadhead became a Know-Nothing in 1856 and a Republican in 1858. He backed Bates’ candidacy during the presidential election of 1860. That February, he presided over a political meeting in Jefferson City that declared its support for the “preservation of the Federal Union AT ALL HAZARDS” and the “Supremacy of the Constitution and the ENFORCEMENT OF THE LAWS of the United States.” When Abraham Lincoln secured the Republican Party’s nomination in May 1860, Broadhead endorsed him for president. He argued that Democrats had subverted democracy in order to expand slavery into new territories. He insisted they had declared war on Mexico in 1846 “for the purpose of acquiring slave territory” and had “force[d] the institution upon an unwilling people” by supporting Kansas’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution in 1858. Lincoln’s election, he hoped, would preserve slavery “just where it is and as it is”—securing southerners’ constitutional rights, preserving the Union, and permanently settling the slavery issue.[3]

As the seven Deep South states seceded in the wake of Lincoln’s election, Broadhead realized that “to be quiet and resistless was to submit, and this we could not do.” In January 1861, he organized an Unconditional Union Party, and the following month he helped form a Committee of Safety to coordinate Unionist efforts in St. Louis. By April, the Committee had organized four regiments of volunteers for the Union army, and Broadhead was commissioned a major in the state’s Reserve Corps.[4]

At the same time, he served in Missouri’s 1861 Constitutional Convention, where he argued forcefully against secession. He observed that the “spirit of insubordination to established law is now prevailing throughout our country,” and he supported the federal government’s power to forcibly prevent secession. Although he himself owned slaves and was “willing to go as far as any living man to protect the institution of slavery,” he was unwilling to sacrifice Missouri’s economic future. He argued that slavery had hindered the state’s development by preventing economic diversification and discouraging white settlement. Secession, he predicted, would only intensify this process. Missouri stood at the center of the continent, and Broadhead envisioned a transcontinental railroad one day bringing white workers and wealth to the state—but only if it remained in the Union. Secession, furthermore, would destroy slavery in Missouri. While the state remained in the Union, it could invoke the fugitive slave law and appeal to the Supreme Court, which had ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” If Missouri seceded, however, it would lose these protections, and its slaves would inevitably escape into the “cordon of free States” that surrounded it. Within ten years, Broadhead argued, slavery in the state would cease to exist.[5]

From the convention floor, Broadhead made a passionate appeal for Union. The nation’s founders, he insisted, had “pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, to maintain the principles of republican liberty. Are we willing to do less?” As Congress struggled to develop a compromise that could hold the country together, Broadhead announced that he would “support almost any proposition which might be deemed necessary to bring peace to the country and preserve the integrity of the Union.” He championed several compromise measures that would restrict the expansion of slavery but guarantee the institution in the states where it existed. Ultimately, the convention voted 98 to 1 to remain in the Union, and Lincoln appointed Broadhead assistant U.S. attorney for Missouri that spring. He used his power to indict Missouri’s secessionist governor Claiborne Fox Jackson for treason for plotting to remove the state from the Union. Jackson fled Missouri in July, and the state convention appointed Hamilton Gamble, a staunch Unionist, to replace him.[6]

From November 1861 until August 1862, Broadhead served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. Lincoln’s announcement of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 alienated conservative Unionists in Missouri, prompting many to resign or desert from the United States army. Although Broadhead made no public statements on emancipation, he continued to serve the Union cause, and on June 8, 1863, he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the 3rd Cavalry, Missouri State Militia. The commission was mainly symbolic, and the following day he was appointed Provost Marshal General of the Department of Missouri, which encompassed Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, the Indiana Territory, and Southern Iowa.[7]

Missouri’s Unionist coalition began to fracture as the Union army turned toward “hard war.” While radical Unionists endorsed emancipation and hoped to punish the state’s Confederate sympathizers, their conservative counterparts endorsed a limited, less transformative conception of war. Although Broadhead helped organize the state’s Unconditional Union Party in 1861, by 1863 he had become a leader of the conservative Unionist faction. As Provost Marshal General, he worked to restore Missouri to a “condition of unqualified loyalty to the Federal Government,” but he treated the state’s Confederate sympathizers with moderation. According to his radical opponents, he declared that “every damned Abolitionist in the country ought to be hung.” When the Missouri legislature elected the state’s senators in November 1863, conservative Unionists supported Broadhead, while radicals endorsed St. Louis lawyer Benjamin Gratz Brown. Although Brown won on the first ballot, the results revealed the depth of the state’s political divisions: Brown received 74 votes, while Broadhead received 66.[8]

These divisions only intensified after the war. When Radical Republicans began disenfranchising ex-Confederates and empowering former slaves, Broadhead broke ties with the party. He joined Missouri’s Conservative Unionist Party, which supported President Andrew Johnson’s lenient plans for Reconstruction. In August 1866, Broadhead attended the National Union Convention in Philadelphia, which tried unsuccessfully to create a national conservative party under Johnson’s leadership. He condemned Radical Republicans’ vision for Reconstruction, insisting that Missouri no longer “possess[ed] a republican form of government” because Radicals had “deprived our people of both religious and civil liberty.” He quickly became a leader in the state’s Conservative Party, and a convention in Franklin County nominated him for Congress in the 1866 election.[9]

With Missouri’s ex-Confederates unable to vote in the election, however, Republicans secured a two-thirds majority in the state legislature and elected seven of the state’s nine Congressmen. The Conservatives never recovered, and Broadhead joined the Democratic Party by 1868. He served as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions of 1868 and 1872. In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Broadhead special U.S. attorney to investigate the Whiskey Ring scandal, in which whiskey distillers and Treasury Department agents conspired to defraud the federal government of tax revenue. The New York Times reported that Broadhead was a strong critic of Grant’s administration but was not “personally hostile” to the president himself. Broadhead’s investigation led to 110 convictions and the recovery of more than $3 million in taxes. In 1878, he co-founded the American Bar Association and served as its first president. He served in Congress from 1883 to 1885, and when his term expired, President Grover Cleveland appointed him special commissioner to France. He served as minister to Switzerland from 1893 to 1897 before returning to Missouri to become chair of international law at the St. Louis Law School. He died on August 7, 1898.[10]

His colleagues published a series of memorials praising his “ardent love for the Union.” They described the deep divisions within the South during the secession crisis, recalling that Broadhead’s family in Virginia denounced him as a traitor to the South. Throughout the crisis, however, Broadhead rejected the uncompromising radicalism of southern secessionists and northern abolitionists and embraced a conservative vision of compromise. His experiences, both during and after the war, reflect the tension and instability of the Unionist coalition and the supreme difficulty of finding a middle ground in the debate over slavery.[11]

Brian Neumann is a PhD candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at UVA. His research examines the social, political, and ideological dynamics of Unionism in South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis.

Images: (1) James Overton Broadhead (Library of Congress). (2) A closeup of the 1860 Federal Census "slave schedule" showing that Broadhead owned two slaves (U.S. National Archives).


1. For a discussion of Unionists’ struggle to develop a compromise over slavery, see Daniel W. Crofts, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2016).

2. “James Overton Broadhead,” Report of the Twenty-First Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association (Philadelphia: Dando Printing and Publishing Company, 1898), 683-685; A Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Virginia, 1835-1836 (Charlottesville: Chronicle Steam Book Printing House, 1880). See also Kirby Ross, “James O. Broadhead: Ardent Unionist, Unrepentant Slaveholder,” Civil War St. Louis, available from http://www.civilwarstlouis.com/History2/broadheadprofile.htm.

3. “Presidential Electors,” Glasgow Weekly Times (MO), 23 October 1856; “Opposition Mass Convention of Missouri,” Glasgow Weekly Times, 8 March 1860; “Republicanism in Missouri,” Fremont Weekly Journal, 19 October 1860.

4. James O Broadhead, “St. Louis During the Civil War,” published in NiNi Harris, A Most Unsettled State: First-Person Accounts of St. Louis During the Civil War (St. Louis: Reedy Press, 2013).

5. Journal of the Missouri State Convention Held at Jefferson City and St. Louis, March 1861 (St. Louis: George Knapp & Co., 1861), 114-123. According to the 1860 census, Broadhead owned two slaves (“James O. Broadhead,” 1860 U.S. Federal Census—Slave Schedules, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed on Ancestry.com).

6. Journal of the Missouri State Convention, 233; James O. Broadhead, “Early Events of the War in Missouri,” War Papers and Personal Reminiscences, 1861-1865 , Vol. 1 (St. Louis: Becktold & Co., 1892), 1-28.

7. James O. Broadhead, “War Between the States – Federal History,” Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis, Vol. 4, ed. William Hyde and Howard L. Conard (St. Louis: The Southern History Company, 1899), 2425; Ben Loan,; St. Louis Democrat, 10 June 1863; Henry W. Scott, “James Overton Broadhead,” Distinguished American Lawyers, With Their Struggles and Triumphs (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1891), 89-91; “Third Cavalry, Missouri State Militia,” Journal of the Senate of the State of Missouri (Jefferson City: J.P. Ament, 1863), 294; James O. Broadhead, Carlos S. Greeley, and Amos E. Yeastman to Samuel R. Curtis, 27 December 1862, The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

8. “Inclosure [sic] No. 2,” 3 October 1863, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. 1, Vol. 53 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898), 582; The Commonwealth of Missouri: A Centennial Record, ed. C.R. Barns (St. Louis: Bryan, Brand & Co., 1877), 450.

9. “Visit of Delegations from the Philadelphia Convention to the President and General Grant,” Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), 22 August 1866; “The Conservative Convention at St. Louis,” Daily National Intelligencer, 9 July 1866; “Political Items,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 September 1866.

10. Richard Dillworth, Cities in American Political History (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2011), 231-232; “James Overton Broadhead,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, available from http://www.bioguide.congress.gov; “The Whisky Ring Trials,” The New York Times, 12 December 1875; “James Overton Broadhead,” Report of the Twenty-First Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association (Philadelphia: Dando Printing and Publishing Company, 1898), 683-685.

11. In Memoriam: James Overton Broadhead (St. Louis: Legal Publishing Company, 1899).