West Bogan (Trial of)

Bound in slavery on a cotton farm near Helena (Phillips County), West Bogan fought and killed his subjugator, Monroe Bogan, with an ax the morning of December 15, 1863. After many months in jail and a court sentence to hang, Bogan’s case was presented by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt to President Abraham Lincoln on the fresh legal grounds of the Emancipation Proclamation. Bogan was ultimately seen as having acted in self defense and freed, but the rest of his life remains a mystery.

Two weeks after the murder, West Bogan was discovered by plantation neighbors hiding among the thousands of former slaves in the contraband camps around Helena. They handed him over to Union troops. Bogan was held at a Helena jail, where he awaited his trial for over a month under the watch of Union troops. His three-day murder trial was heard before a military commission beginning on February 1, 1864. Few records remain, but a sketch of the scene on file at the National Archives and Records Administration shows were Monroe Bogan’s body lay, just southwest of the ten slave houses near “the main road.” According to the 1860 census, Monroe Bogan’s plantation was in Planters Township between Barton (Phillips County) and Oneida (Phillips County) along Lick Creek.

The military commission found Bogan guilty and sentenced him to hang. General Napoleon Bonaparte Buford approved the findings but recommended Bogan’s sentence be commuted to hard labor at a northern penitentiary before execution. Due to mitigating circumstances, General Frederick Steele, commander of the Union troops in Arkansas and based in Helena at the time, suspended the sentence three months after the verdict and forwarded the case to the president through Holt.

In a May 30, 1864, letter to Lincoln, Holt notes the mitigating circumstances for suspension. The killing took place near the slave quarters during broad daylight when West Bogan was “on his way to his day’s task.” Monroe Bogan, Holt wrote from testimonials, was a “cruel and exacting master” who “forced his slaves to labor night and day, and frequently on Sundays, giving them no holiday or resting time.” One witness also testified that Monroe was prone to “whipping someone every day.”

A field hand named Tom went on record for the prosecution as having heard West Bogan declare his intention to kill Monroe Bogan “because his master was going to kill him for running about and going away from home.” It was also offered into evidence that Monroe Bogan had expressed, “only the night before, his intention to whip the prisoner on the following day.”

Maria Bogan, possibly the sister of West, testified that she was sitting in her cabin at the time of the homicide and heard her children say that “master was trying to whip Uncle West.” She then saw West Bogan strike two blows with the ax to Monroe Bogan’s neck.

In the letter to Lincoln, Holt noted: “The administration of the Government must and does recognize the colored population of the rebellious States, as occupying the status of freedmen….It is, therefore, held that Munroe [sic] Bogan, when he met his death, was in violation of law and right holding the prisoner in absolute slavery—not only holding him in slavery but also imposing upon him ceaseless toil and cruel punishments.” Lincoln replied with the decision “sentence disapproved” on July 8, 1864.

Recitation of the entire case can be found in the 1865 book The Political History of the United States of America during the Great Rebellion by Edward McPherson. Mark Neely Jr. writes about the case in his 1992 book Fate of Liberty: Lincoln and Civil Liberties. Elizabeth Leonard also discusses it in her 2011 book Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky. Amy Murrell Taylor describes the case in the spring 2013 issue of The Civil War Monitor’s “Casualties of War” section.

West Bogan largely disappears from the historical record after these events. No trace of him is found in the Freedmen’s Bureau records, and neither is he listed in Union pension records. However, three of Bogan’s fellow slaves were found by Taylor as having joined the First Arkansas Infantry–African Descent, which later became the Forty-sixth U.S. Colored Infantry.

For additional information:
“Casualties of War: Monroe Bogan.” Civil War Monitor 3 (Spring 2013): 20–21.

Leonard, Elizabeth. Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

McPherson, Edward. The Political History of the United States of America during the Great Rebellion. Washington DC: Philp & Solomons, 1865. Online at http://archive.org/details/politicalhistorylc00mcph (accessed October 21, 2021).

Neely, Mark, Jr. Fate of Liberty: Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

John Lovett
Hot Springs, Arkansas


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