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Trans-Mississippi Musings

TMM Bio: John McNeil

Posted by The Muse (themuse) on Oct 07 2018
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Brig. Gen. John McNeilBorn in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1813, John McNeil settled in St. Louis to ply his trade as a hatter. McNeil was president of the Pacific Insurance Company in St. Louis when the Civil War began. McNeil mustered in as colonel of the 3d Missouri US Reserve Corps Infantry. McNeil rose to the rank of brigadier general during the war. McNeil resigned his commission on April 12, 1865, and returned to St. Louis, where he held various positions: clerk of the criminal court, sheriff, inspector of US Indian service, and superintendent of US Post Office. McNeil was a key figure in 1870 when the Liberal Republicans split off from the Radical Republicans and nominated B. Gratz Brown as their candidate for Missouri governor.


“Peace hath her victories not less renowned than war.”

The vigor and activity which marked the career of General John McNeil, in the great civil war by which he became so widely known, has characterized him in civil life before the war and since. So, too, the positive character, firmness of purpose, and unfaltering adherence to his convictions of right, could be seen in all his course in private and civil life, as well as at the head of his command in the field. As early as 1844, he represented St. Louis in the Legislature, and before the war was president of a prominent insurance company, and vice-president of the Board of Underwriters. In all these positions, he was marked by his contemporaries as a man of thought and of will. Though never a violent partisan, he was always well informed and clear in his position upon all important political issues of the time, and he adhered to his principles in politics in that manly spirit which proudly spurns the behests of party when they conflict with convictions of right. We need not wonder, then, that upon the breaking out of the war between -the States, he was among the first to take a firm' stand. In the State of Missouri, and city of St. Louis, it was found that the adherents of either side were numerous, and, in many communities and neighborhoods, almost equally divided. The bitterness of civil war, in all its horrors, existed in Missouri; for, while in the other States the sentiment was almost unanimous for the one side or the other^ and the conflict was only between armies, yet in this State, it was carried on by neighbor against neighbor with the desperation of a personal combat. General McNeil's convictions caused him to engage on the Union side, and he served in the field to the close of the war.

His father, a native of New York, was a fur trader in the Canadas and the Northwest. While thus engaged, the subject of our sketch was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the 4th of February, 1813. When still a lad, he was sent to Boston to learn the hatter's trade, a business which, in those days, bore a near relation to that of his father. After learning the trade, he engaged in the business in the city of New York. In 1836, he closed out there and came west, visiting Milwaukee and other places in quest of a satisfactory location. St. Louis suited him, and he at once began business and sent for his wife, who followed him the succeeding year. His place of business was on Main Street, and he so conducted it as to win for himself the reputation of an honest and successful merchant. This was his occupation for twenty-five years, a period of time which brings us to the beginning of the war, when his services were demanded in another field.

A most portentous cloud was hanging over the future of our Western metropolis, when, early in May 1861, orders came to St. Louis, from Washington City, to muster in service forces for the defense of the Union. It was not many days before ten regiments had been mustered into service by the proper officer stationed at the Arsenal. McNeil was first elected captain of a company, and then, at the election for regimental officers which followed, was chosen Colonel of the Third Regiment of what was called the “United States Reserve Corps,” consisting of men enlisted for three months service, and made up from the Third, Fourth and Fifth wards of the city. McNeil was at once transformed into a soldier. With his command he moved into North Missouri to protect the railroad and to check the operations of General Harris, who was creating a diversion in favor of General Price. Of his operations then, perhaps the best idea may be gathered from a letter of Colonel Chester Harding, at St. Louis, to General Lyon, then lying at Springfield. He says: “You can imagine my anxiety, and afterward my relief, when I heard from that brave fellow, McNeil, that he had fought and had routed the rebels.”

During the summer of 1861, Colonel McNeil was Post Commandant and Provost-Marshal of St. Louis under Brigadier-General McKinstry. The business of dragooning a town was by no means congenial to him, he preferring rather the operations of the open field. He was soon after appointed Colonel of a cavalry regiment, and the next season, 1862, opened a vigorous campaign in Northern Missouri. This campaign terminated with the battle of Kirksville. His antagonist. General Porter, was a man of courage and energy, and fertile in resources. After his disaster he crossed the Missouri river with a body-guard of a single man.

In December 1862, McNeil was ordered into Southeastern Missouri to protect the State against invasion from the direction of Arkansas. The next spring General Marmaduke moved up from Little Rock with a formidable force of four brigades, estimated at about ten thousand men. McNeil moved into Cape Girardeau with twelve hundred men and six guns. The garrison already there augmented his force by five hundred men and four guns. Marmaduke summoned the place to surrender, giving half an hour for consideration. McNeil replied promptly that he required no time for consideration: that he should hold the place. A desperate tight followed, in which the garrison succeeded in resisting the assault made upon it, and Marmaduke withdrew.

The next fall, Shelby came into Missouri. Passing rapidly through the northwest corner of Arkansas to the east of Fort Smith, he advanced through Western Missouri to the river at Boonville. General Brown encountered him at Arrow-Rock, when a desperate fight ensued, that lasted until they were enveloped in darkness. General McNeil was in St. Louis, having been detailed here as presiding officer of a court- martial. Setting out at once for his post at Lebanon, he gathered such force as he could, and advanced on Bolivar, where he hoped to intercept the retreat. Shelby was ahead of him, but he followed on, taking- prisoners, but not overtaking the main body, until at last, after reaching Arkansas, he gave up the pursuit and moved up the river to Fort Smith. This movement closed operations for the year 1863, and he was designated to the command of the Army of the Frontier, vice General Blunt, relieved.

The next season he reported to General Banks, and was assigned to the District of Lafourche. The district extended from New Orleans to Texas, and was menaced by that wily and dangerous foe, Dick Taylor. Early in August he returned to Missouri, and reported to General Rosecrans, who had taken command of the Department of Missouri. Coming up on the steamboat “Empress,” she was fired into, and placed in a desperate position. The passengers who were military men assisted the officers of the boat in extricating her from her perilous position. Foremost among these was General McNeil. On his arrival. General Rosecrans complimented him highly in an order referring to it, but he declares the chief credit to have been due the pilot and engineer, and other officers of the boat. Soon after, he was appointed to the command of the District of Rolla, with headquarters at Rolla. From there he marched to Jefferson City, and saved the capital when endangered by the movements of Price. He afterward joined his force with that of General Brown, and participated in the series of actions and pursuit which ended in the destruction of General Price's army. After this campaign, the last of the serious fighting in Missouri, he was appointed to the command of Central Missouri, which he retained until his resignation, in April 1865. Immediately upon hearing of the surrender of Generals Lee and Johnson, he was anxious to put off his uniform and lay aside the occupation of the soldier. After the acceptance of his resignation, he was appointed Clerk of the Criminal Court, which office he held for twenty months. In 1866, he became a candidate for the sheriffalty of St. Louis, and was elected. In 1868, he was re-elected to the same position. At the expiration of his two terms, he retired to private life. In politics he has always been a Liberal Republican, and, as such, participated in the policy and led the movement which resulted in the election of Carl Schurz to the United States Senate.

Consistent and able, always true to his own convictions, and those neither weak nor ill-defined. General McNeil was, during the most exciting and dangerous time through which our State has ever passed, one of the most conspicuous figures in the formation and enforcement of a policy which, in the end, became dominant. A man of a high order of courage, prompt and persistent, hindered b}' no romantic sensibility nor love of popular applause, he displayed an aptitude and genius as a soldier, not usually found in men chosen from civil life. In the consideration of his character, we must add to the fitful period which now forms a part of his history, the patient years of his civil life. In the details of every-day affairs he was not impatient, and when, in the operations of war, he was confronted by dangers seen and unseen, he was undisturbed.

In the social circle he is always genial and companionable. His neighbors, without distinction of party or creed, esteem him warmly; those who differ with him always honoring the convictions he entertains, because of his honest, open and manly avowal of them. Few men possess, in so rare a degree, the power of terse and forcible expression of a thought, and, though not an orator, General McNeil is always able to impress an audience favorably by means of short, pointed, solid, and earnest sentences. As he is firm in his convictions in all other things, so he is firm in his friendships: no changes of fortune or circumstances ever influence him to abandon a friend. Among those by whom he is most intimately known, he is esteemed as charitable, humane and kind, and few men are more highly blessed in the affectionate and intellectual surroundings of his family relations.

How little the world knows of the real character of the men who, in public life, perform acts which call forth the bitterness of an opposing party! McNeil is not an exception to the rule, and perhaps few men have been more persistently abused by a class of our people than General McNeil. No one can truthfully charge him with even entertaining a malicious feeling toward a human being in the world. When those he deemed his country’s enemies were to be met, he believed in striking hard and effectually. Holding, with Sherman, that “war is cruelty and cannot be refined,” he sought to inforce all its laws with rigor, and to conquer an early peace.

If he was apparently severe while in command in North Missouri in 1862, he was, in the light of the laws of war as recognized by civilized nations, and the orders under which he acted, really mild and humane. Under these laws and orders, guerrillas who had repeatedly violated their parole, and who had no right to be called “Confederate soldiers,” were liable to be shot, and it was a duty incumbent on him to enforce the law and obey his orders. He acted by the orders of Generals Halleck, Curtis and Schofield. He knew the orders and acts of Napoleon's generals in Spain and Portugal, and their great antagonist, Wellington. He knew the orders of General Scott in Mexico, and of General Kearney in New Mexico, in reference to the treatment of guerrillas. He also knew the orders of General Kirby Smith, of the Confederate army, issued in Kentucky in 1861; and his conduct was in accordance with such laws, precedents and orders. The confirmation of all these precedents is found in the latest European war, in the treatment of the “Francs-Tireurs” in France by the Prussian army. That McNeil acted from conviction of duty is abundantly proven by the consistency of his course. He meted out the same treatment to guerrillas, without distinction as to what cause they pretended to espouse. When in command of the Army of the Frontier in the fall of 1863, he ordered the “mountain boomers,” in Northern Arkansas, to come in and be regularly enlisted in the United States service or lay down their arms, under penalty of being treated as outlaws and pursued to extermination. How that brave and enterprising Confederate soldier, General Shelby, treated this class of men, is related in “Shelbv and his Men.” At Caddo Gap, Arkansas, he executed Captain McGinnis and thirty-one men.

When, in August 1862, McNeil sent in his resignation, General Schofield returned it indorsed:

The services of Colonel McNeil are too valuable to the State and too highly appreciated at these headquarters to admit of the approval of his resignation at this time. It is, therefore, hoped that he will withdraw his resignation, at least until the peace of Northeastern Missouri shall be so far restored as to permit his retirement from the service without serious loss.

But the people of Northeast Missouri did not know how he was esteemed at headquarters, and eight thousand of them signed a petition to President Lincoln, asking to have McNeil sustained in what he did. This they did after he had left Northeast Missouri and gone to the Southeast and to Arkansas. When he was notified that ten Colonels of the Union army were held as hostages at Richmond for his rendition to the Confederate Government to answer its charges of illegal warfare, he wrote President Lincoln that he desired a safe-conduct to Richmond in case his brother officers were not released, or were likely to suffer on his account.

At the close of the war. General McNeil came forward among the first men to offer, in the spirit of the brave man who would not harm a fallen foe, full and free pardon, reconciliation and restoration of rights to all who were willing to obey the constitution and laws of the country.


Reavis, Logan U. “General John McNeil.” In Saint Louis: The Future Great City of the World, 457–62. St. Louis: Gray, Baker & Co, 1875.


Last changed: Oct 07 2018 at 7:45 AM