Civil War travel passes: the Aggravation – and the Irony

civil war travel pass
Asa Moore Janney, Ellen Janney and Cosmelia Janney Civil War travel pass issued from the Winchester, VA Provost Marshal. Private collection.

Asa Moore, Ellen, and Cosmelia Janney were residents of Lincoln, Virginia. This travel pass shows that the three family members “with carriage” received permission to travel outside their home county of Loudoun, through the nearby Frederick county, a Federal occupied zone that was currently controlled by the Union Army’s 2nd Division, 8th Army Corps.

The Union army’s Provost Marshal was responsible for enforcing military regulations and laws governing both citizens and enlisted men. Among other things, the Provost Marshal oversaw a system of “travel passes” in zones where issues of spying, smuggling, desertion and sabotage were a problem. Citizens moving in and out of Confederate states through Union controlled and occupied zones were required to get permission from the Union army in order to travel outside their home area. The billboard shown below was posted when the Union military was in control of the district which included Loudoun County. The Union provost marshal’s office for the Harpers Ferry district was approximately 20 miles from Lincoln.

old union army poster provost marshall
Civil War poster warning of travel restrictions, requiring a Union army issued travel pass, in the Harpers Ferry military zone. Poster in private collection.

Asa Moore’s brother, Samuel M. Janney, traveled throughout the war on Quaker ministry business. He repeatedly left Virginia for “Washington city” as well as northern and/or western states. Because he was a prominent Quaker and known pacifist, as well as a Union sympathizer, Samuel M. Janney received an exceptional travel pass, shown below:

Samuel M. Janney’s travel pass written and signed by Abraham Lincoln. Facsimile printed in the “Worthy Friend” article written by Eliza Janney Rawson in May 27, 1899 Friends Intelligencer, Courtesy of Friends Historic Library, Swarthmore College

Of course, most citizens in Loudoun County, Virginia were not Quakers, not pacifist, and not Union sympathizers. Often citizen requests for travel were denied. But if the citizen could convince a Provost Marshal that their reason to travel was legitimate and not against the interests of the Federal government, most often the passes were approved. For example, Non-Quaker Silas Himes received a pass from the Harper’s Ferry Provost Marshal office.

harpers ferry virginia old union army document
Union Military travel pass signed by Captain Martin Rouzer, Provost Marshal office located in Harper’s Ferry. Courtesy of http://www.crossroadsofwar.org

It was ironic that so many border state citizens now needed permission to travel or go about their business. Travel passes had been common for generations: enslaved workers needed passes in order to move about on roads and public spaces. The requirement for white Southerners to receive permission to travel was an occasional Civil war inconvenience. However, enslaved men and women’s travel was closely monitored and restricted throughout their lives. Travel for them was often dangerous, subject to slave patrols and acts of random violence, even murder. An ACLU website has a rare travel pass for enslaved man “Barney” along with an explanation of how the pass system for slaves worked.

2 comments on “Civil War travel passes: the Aggravation – and the Irony

  1. Debra B Williams

    Were these travel passes ever used by their owners to assist enslaved people escape the south? if so, and if people were caught, what were the consequences?


    • By April 1862 the Union Army occupied much of northern Virginia, including Loudoun County. With the U.S. military in control, many enslaved men and women felt emboldened to escape into the Union military lines for protection. They frequently were put to work for the Union army, and by 1863 there were Union African-American military regiments.

      I’ve never seen evidence that travel passes issued to Southern citizens during the war were used to intentionally help blacks escape bondage. However, I have heard of cases where Southerners, having received a pass to travel into the North or to Washington, D.C. during the war, would have their accompanying enslaved workers take the opportunity while in this free zone to run off from Southern owners.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: