During the Civil War, Missouri was such a lawless place that it was often difficult to bring offenders to justice for criminal behavior that, during normal times, would surely have resulted in arrest and prosecution. Indeed, in many places throughout the state, civil law basically ceased to exist, at least for long stretches of the war, and martial law was often a poor substitute, especially when the crimes were politically motivated and the victim happened to be on the opposite side of the military tribunal called to investigate the crime, which was many times the case. Specifically, it was hard for a Southern sympathizer to get justice in a system run by Union military officials. (The Confederate-allied Missouri State Guard instituted its own version of martial law early in the war in places like Springfield, but the South’s control of southern Missouri proved brief. For most of the war, when we talk about martial law in Missouri, we’re talking about Union military law.) Besides, the state was so overrun by roving bands of ruffians that, regardless of political considerations, citizens were often afraid to testify about a crime for fear that they might be the next target of the brigands. Of course, the roving bands were often affiliated, at least loosely, with one side or the other in the war, but my point is that it wasn’t always a distrust of the justice system that made people reluctant to testify. Often it was a very realistic fear for their own safety.
The case of Austin Blankenship, who was murdered near Cole Camp in Benton County in the summer or fall of 1863, serves as an example. After receiving complaints about this and other outrages, including two other murders, committed in Benton County about the same time, Union officials appointed a board of officers to investigate the alleged crimes, which were said to have been perpetrated by Federal officers, soldiers, and citizens (presumably against Southern sympathizers). The board began its investigation on November 9 and filed its report with General Egbert B. Brown, commanding the Central District of Missouri, which encompassed Benton County, on December 14. The officers said they had interviewed nearly every prospective witness that might have knowledge of Blankenship’s murder or any of the other crimes and that they had been unable to find even one person who was willing to testify, because everyone was “terrified by the bloodthirsty deeds so recently committed.” The witnesses told the board that they had reason to believe that, if they testified about the outrages, they would be shot and their buildings burned. Some of them said that they were even afraid to ask questions of their fellow citizens about the crimes and were glad to remain ignorant, feeling that the less they knew about the outrages, the better off they would be.
The only people willing to testify were Blankenship’s wife and a small boy, who were present when Blankenship was killed. However, all the wife could say with certainty was that the members of the gang were wearing Federal uniforms and that there were about eight or ten of them, although only three entered the house. The boy was so frightened by the experience that he was unable to offer any valuable evidence.
There seemed to be a general feeling that the killers of Blankenship were four members of the 8th Regiment, Missouri State Militia, who were known to have been in the Blankenship neighborhood on the night he was killed, and because the other two men were killed on the same night as Blankenship, it was supposed that they were killed by the same four men. However, the investigating board felt they did not have enough specific evidence to get a conviction; so they did not recommend charges be brought against the four men, one of whom was Jasper Mitchell.
Despite the recommendation of the board, General Brown forwarded the report to the Department of Missouri headquarters at St. Louis with a suggestion that the investigation be continued and that the prospective witnesses be called to St. Louis, where they might feel freer to give testimony than they would at home. The report was promptly returned to Brown, however, with a request for additional information. Specifically, officials in St. Louis wanted to know the date on which Blankenship was killed.
What happened after that is unknown, but apparently the four suspected killers were never brought to trial.