Despite Hannibal's movement toward “civilization,” it was not a happy-go-lucky existence for everyone in Hannibal. The Negro population of the town, whether slave or free, black or mulatto, was under constant watch, never allowed the opportunities of its white counterparts. In Marion County, whose largest town was Hannibal, more than twenty-three hundred slaves were kept. In addition, forty-two “free” blacks were in residence, former slaves who were either able to purchase their freedom or were declared free in the last will and testaments of their now-deceased owners.


When Missouri was admitted to the Union as a state in 1821, slavery in the area expanded greatly. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 determined that Maine could join the Union as a “free state” (making the enslavement of Negroes illegal) and, in an effort to balance power in the Senate, allowed that Missouri be deemed a “slave state.” Many slaveholders from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky moved into the region of northeast Missouri in search of new land specifically because they could maintain ownership of their slaves. Northeastern Missouri became known as “Little Dixie” because of the volume of southerners who poured into the state after 1820.


Not everyone in Missouri was supportive of slavery, however. Abolitionists were present in Missouri, calling for the slaveholding system to be abolished for the ultimate emancipation of every slave. Hannibal’s abolitionists, who worked clandestinely, helped the Underground Railroad by transporting runaway slaves across the Mississippi River from Hannibal into the free soil state of Illinois. It is rumored that they would hide the runaways in the underground limestone caves found throughout Hannibal.

Right: Children photographed in Hannibal, circa 1860

Courtesy Library of Congress

Union soldier photographed in Hannibal

Confederate Captain George Bates, son of Hannibal's founder Moses D. Bates, Sr.

Federal land grants provided to the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Company in the early 1850s for the railway’s construction had come with conditions, one of them being the right to transport Federal (Union) troops without restriction. Thus, from the first day of the Civil War, the railway was a vital asset to the Union and, therefore, a major target for destruction by the Confederacy. Bushwhackers were blamed for early attacks on trains running along the Hannibal & St. Joseph line through the spring and summer of 1861; they fired blindly into cars suspected of carrying Federal troops, even when the cars were mainly filled with civilian passengers. In addition, bushwhackers and volunteer Confederate troops were encouraged to sabotage the railways themselves. Tracks were taken apart or rail beds damaged, and base supports of trestle bridges were cut or burned surreptitiously. In the latter instance, a train would be driven onto the bridge before an engineer realized that it had been compromised. On September 3, 1861, an act of sabotage culminated with a westbound train driving off a collapsing Platte Bridge outside Kansas City, killing twenty and injuring over one hundred people.


In order to defend the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad and keep steamboat traffic under control on the Mississippi, Union troops occupied Hannibal throughout the war. From his brigade headquarters in Quincy, Illinois, Major General John C. Frémont, U.S. Army, reported on July 27, 1861, “I hold Hannibal with one company of Palmer’s Fourteenth Illinois and three ill-disciplined companies of home guards.” It is possible that John Tobin, father of Margaret Tobin Brown (aka "Unsinkable" Molly Brown) served in this capacity as a member of one of Hannibal’s “Home Guard” details. This unit  later became Company I, Tenth Missouri Infantry, who worked along with a unit of local volunteers assigned to protect the railroad line. The town was placed under martial law, and no one could enter or exit the city limits without a pass.


The Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad would survive the war. When the Civil War finally ended, Hannibal was battered and bruised but its citizens would eventually work out their differences and get back to work. Soon, Hannibalians would find themselves celebrating great prosperity as their town began to enter its Gilded Age.


Hannibal’s political landscape differed from the rest of Marion County and Little Dixie because of its business interests. For the city to maintain its growth, the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad was essential, and cutting ties with the Union meant also losing access to Northern investment, raw materials and markets, all of which had defined and supported the city’s success. Even slaveholders understood the ramifications of this choice, since the local economy did not function in a way that would simply blend in with the South if secession occurred.


Divided loyalties within the city created unrest and suspicion. In addition to calls from both Federal and Confederate governments for volunteer militia, local residents formed their own groups, both Union and Confederate, to defend their interests if attacked (some of which were initially kept secret in order not to harm the participants’ businesses). Business and consumer confidence plummeted; the city of Hannibal mirrored the state in that it maintained an uneasy balance between order and a siege mentality among its residents. At the same time, runaway slaves found by Federal troops were returned to their masters, even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 (the border state of Missouri would not officially approve emancipation until January 1865).



Do You Know:


The Union Army used the high ground of Lover's Leap to defend their troops in Hannibal

In an obvious show of force, on June 18, 1861, Colonel R. F. Smith and his Sixteenth Illinois Infantry planted their largest cannon, nicknamed “Black Betty,” high atop Lover’s Leap, not only to have the best shot from the high ground but also as a conspicuous visual demonstration of their firepower.