Travel Documentation in the American Civil War

Travel Documentation in the American Civil War

How freely could people move about the countryside during the American Civil War? What kinds of documents were needed for travel? Were there differences in travel requirements between the Union and the Confederacy?

Travel Passes

The American Civil War was a unique affair, fought between literate people of largely the same ethnic make up, over political arguments that only partially mapped to geography. Telling friend from foe when not in uniform was incredibly difficult. Nevertheless, both the North and the South saw the necessity of restricting the movement of its citizens lest freedom of movement gave aid to spies, saboteurs and smugglers. This was made even more difficult by the fact that the United States’ was founded on liberty, with certain rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution.

Freedom of movement was not restricted until the front lines had defined themselves after the battles of Bull Run in Virginia and Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. Up until then, both sides figured the conflict would be a short, sharp affair with the rebellion crushed or secession succeeding by Christmas of 1861. The rich and powerful in Washington travelled to Manassas, Virginia to view the first major battle of the war as it unfolded (and helped clog the roads when the Union army routed). Prior to that, officers moved freely from any point in the North to the Southern states as they resigned their commissions in order to join secessionist forces. No attempt was made to stop this flow of trained military personnel, or the important information about troop buildups and fortifications they took with them.

As the front lines formed, both sides saw the danger in unrestricted movement across the border, and both sides responded in the same way. In order to travel across the border, citizens needed travel passes, or “passports”.

A travel pass was a document signed by an official, usually the local provost-marshal. It was an officially printed document with the name of the person to whom the pass was granted handwritten in the appropriate place. The document declared the purpose of the trip and where the person was allowed to travel. These were presented for viewing to train conductors and to any military pickets that the person might come across. Confederate travel passes were printed on the cheap, locally produced brown paper that was in common usage due to shortages.

Passes were required by regular citizens who needed to cross the lines from North to South, or from South to North, in order to show that they were not spies or smugglers. Travel passes were also given to soldiers discharged from the army, captured soldiers who were paroled, and soldiers on leave (furlough), so that they would not be picked up as deserters.

Travel Passes and the Union

The Union required a pass to travel into the South as of August 19,1861. At the same time, U.S. citizens required a passport to travel out of the country. Bureaucratically, the passes were the responsibility of the State Department, until the War Department took them over after March 17, 1862. At that point, it was no longer a requirement that citizens needed a passport to leave the country. They, of course, still needed a pass to travel into the South.

It wasn’t until 1863 that the Union required a travel pass for someone to enter the Union from the South. Indeed, escaped slaves and free blacks who managed to avoid Confederate patrols slipped across the border with little fanfare. Until 1863, so, too, did Confederate spies.

Except for passes given to soldiers on leave or upon discharge, etc., the Union didn’t require travel passes within its own boundaries. This was true even after the Union initiated the draft.

Passports were required of foreigners travelling into the U.S. Foreigners who declared their intention to become naturalized Americans could obtain a U.S. passport from March 3, 1863 until the act of Congress was repealed on May 30, 1866. Here is an example of a pass issued to a paroled Confederate soldier by the Union provost-marshal in Richmond, Virginia on April 20, 1865.

Travel Documentation in the American Civil War

Official pass issued to paroled Confederate soldier C.B. Keeling for travel to Norfolk, Virginia. Issued by the U. S. Office of Provost Marshall General, Richmond, Virginia, by order of Brigidier General M.R. Patrick. April 20, 1865 (

Able-bodied men travelling near the army might be detained on presumption of desertion. Certificates were issued to show that the gentleman was not fit for service, or had paid a substitute to serve in his stead if he was drafted. Here is an example of a certificate signed by a substitute (Phillip Seibert) who agrees to fight for another man for payment of $300.

Travel Documentation in the American Civil War

Certificate signed by a substitute (Phillip Seibert) who agrees to fight for another man for payment of $300. (

This is a certificate issued for Albert Roxbury, stating that he is not eligible to fight. The certificate has a place to fill in the state where it was issued and the reason Roxbury is able to get out of conscription. In this case, it is because Roxbury provided a substitute (click on the image to see a larger version).

Travel Passes and the Confederacy

The Confederacy required travel passes between the North and the South at about the same time as the Union.

On April 16, 1862 the Confederacy passed the first Conscription Act, requiring that all men aged 18 to 35 join the army, and those already serving for a one year enlistment period had to continue to serve until the end of hostilities. At that point, the Confederacy required travel passes for anyone travelling throughout the South on railroads. According to Confederate secretary of war James Seddon, this was to stop “the passage of dangerous or disaffected persons”. In other words, it was deemed necessary to limit the movements of deserters and draft dodgers, with the hoped for benefit of stopping spies and smugglers. The Confederacy did not require passes for travelling on foot, or by private conveyance (horse, carriage, etc.).

Southerners didn’t take kindly to the travel pass system. It reminded them too much of a similar system used by slaves travelling for their masters. They also saw it as needless bureaucracy that reduced liberty while removing able-bodied men from the front lines. They generally despised conscription and figured that men who would only fight through conscription were useless soldiers anyway. Regardless, there was little pressure to do away with the travel pass system. Like the North, the Confederacy required passports for foreigners entering the country.

As in the North, able-bodied men near an army were likely to be considered deserters or draft dodgers. In the Confederacy — due to severe manpower shortages — there was a greater likelihood that a man would be detained if he couldn’t prove why he wasn’t in uniform. Like the Union, though, the Confederacy had exemptions from the draft which required the issuing of certificates of exemption.

There was a so-called “twenty negro law” where a man with 20 slaves was exempt from serving. Later, this was reduced to 15 slaves. There were strategic professions which were considered as important to the Confederacy as fighting. And, of course, men could be exempt due to physical or mental disabilities, though it was not uncommon for these to be ignored. Communities could petition to have someone exempt, if they felt that the person was needed for the well being of the community. Eventually it became harder to get exemptions, as the Second Conscription Act (September 27, 1862) extended the age range to 18 to 45, and the Third Conscription Act (February 17, 1864) further extended the age range to 17 to 50.

Travel Documentation in the American Civil War

The Confederate government issued standardized printed forms which not only included a description of the slave but instructed military officials to give them free passage. “Afro-Confederates” served as soldiers or “colored servant” to officers.

Regardless, men could still be exempt from service. Foreigners serving in the army, for instance, were not subject to conscription. This may seem odd, that a foreigner who volunteered for the Confederate army could leave the army when his enlistment was up while his Confederate-born comrades could not. It was widely speculated that the government had to exempt foreigners in order to provide a pool of men from which the rich could obtain substitutes.

Confederates had a special problem when they were paroled or discharged from the army. As the war progressed, more and more Confederate territory fell to the Union. Discharge papers — which acted as their own travel pass — were necessary to cross the lines into Union-held territory in order to go home.

Such was the case of William Watson, a Scotsman serving in the 3rd Louisiana Infantry. After one year in the army, Watson returned to his home in New Orleans, which required him to present his papers to the Union provost-marshal in Baton Rouge. Without the papers, he was subject to arrest as a potential spy.

This is an example of a certificate of exemption issued in the state of Texas on December 27, 1862. It was issued for John Vogle, a 38 year old wagon maker (an exempt profession).

Travel Documentation in the American Civil War

Travel Documentation in the American Civil War

…of the County of Caldwell, State of Texas, having made oath that he is a Wagon Maker and is now actually engaged in that business and that on that account he is exempt from Conscription by virtue of the Act of Congress, I, OO Leavy, Enrolling Officer, Caldwell County, do hereby certify that the said John Vogle will remain exempt from Military Duty as a Conscript during the period that he shall remain a Wagon [sic] Maker or until [sic] further orders.

The Provost-Marshal

While travel passes could be issued by high-ranking army officers (generals, usually, or their staff), and by state governors, most passports were issued by a provost-marshal.

The provost-marshal was a military officer whose duties spanned those of a morale and discipline officer, a chief-of-police chief, and a magistrate. The provost-marshal was responsible for preventing straggling, rounding up deserters (from both his army and the opposing army), and for detaining prisoners-of-war, but his sphere of influence also extended into the civilian arena. The suppression of looting fell to the provost-marshal. So, too, did the control of civilian establishments in the vicinity of an army that might hurt discipline and troop effectiveness (i.e. hotels, saloons, and brothels). What today would be considered counter-insurgency duties were the responsibility of the provost-marshal: he was allowed to conduct searches and seizures of private residences, arrest those accused of spying, and curtail movement by issuing travel passes to citizens. He was also the official to whom citizens bore their complaints.

Every army had a provost-marshal. So, too, did military departments and military districts (the temporary regions the country was carved into during the war). Troops — often under-manned regiments — were assigned to work under the provost-marshal as the “provost guard”.

To receive a travel permit, a petition had to be mailed to the local provost-marshal or presented to the provost-marshal’s office in person. At Petersburg, Virginia, for instance, a provost-marshal office was set up at the train station to handle the issuance of travel passes for passengers changing trains.

There was very little transparency in the issuing of cross-the-lines travel passes. Neither the Union nor the Confederacy issued guidelines as to who was considered “dangerous” and should not receive a pass, and who was considered “safe”. Furthermore, it was left up to the discretion of the local officials as to who should receive a pass and under what conditions. Some officials required petitioners to take an oath of allegiance, while others did not. Some officials carefully poured over every petition, while others were mere rubber stamps.

Still others were willing to hand out travel passes for the right price. Such was the case of Brigadier General John Henry Winder, the provost-marshal of Richmond, Virginia. While he was the chief counter-intelligence officer in arguably the Confederacy’s most important city, he was notoriously corrupt. Anyone could get a travel pass for the sum of $100, regardless of their character. One Union spy received a travel pass after purchasing a new uniform for Winder. Winder employed rowdy and unsavory men to do his bidding. It was said that his offices were “repulsive by the smell of whiskey”.

Few Confederate travel pass applications survived the war and the burning of Richmond, but a good sample of Northern petitions survived. Most of the people applying for cross-border passes were women intent on seeing family members in Southern states. The typical petition included a declaration of the woman’s loyalty to the Union, often accompanied with a written character reference. This was even the case when the woman was trying to travel South to join up with her husband, though the petition didn’t explain why the husband was now residing in the Confederacy. Other petitioners needed to cross the border to seek medical attention, search for missing family, or to retrieve the bodies of a dead relative.

It was trivially easy to obtain a pass for Inter-state and intra-state travel within the Confederacy. All one had to do was apply in person at the provost-marshal’s office. Unless there was an obvious reason to suspect the petitioner was a spy, the worst that could happen was the petitioner would be denied. Even if someone didn’t have a pass when asked to present one by a conductor, the punishment was simple removal from the train. If the person was without their pass while the train was in motion, they would be removed at the next stop.

The men who enforced the regulations were often self-serving with an inflated sense of importance. Texas senator Williamson S. Oldham relates a story about a trip home to Texas from Richmond. While changing trains at Mobile, Alabama a lieutenant almost refused him access to the train. Oldham had refused to dump an arm load of blankets and cloaks on the platform in order to produce his pass at the lieutenant’s immediate request. Soon after, the lieutenant refused to let an old man — a Mr. Conrad, a congressman from Louisiana — board the same train. Mr. Conrad had a pass from Brig. Gen. Winder in Richmond, but the lieutenant forced him to obtain another pass from the local provost-marshal.

See also the related posts at the end of the article, where you will find also a Confederate States of America Passport.


Jewett, Clayton E., and Oldham, Williamson S., Rise And Fall of the Confederacy: The Memoir of Senator Williamson S. Oldham, CSA (University of Missouri Press).
Taylor, Amy M., The Divided Family in Civil War America (UNC Press).
The Editors of Time-Life Books, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations, part of the Time-Life Books “The Civil War” series (Time Incorporated).
Various, The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume IV (The Blue and Grey Press).
Watson, William, Life in the Confederate Army (Louisiana State University Press).

By Allan Goodall, (c) 2009

Travel Documentation in the American Civil War

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