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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Paine, Col. Halbert E. (1826-1905)


b. Chardon, Ohio, February 4, 1826
d. Washington, D.C., April 14, 1905

Col. Halbert Paine commanded the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry during the Civil War and served three terms in U.S. Congress. He is best remembered for disobeying orders to return fugitive slaves to their owners and refusing to burn down the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Successful Lawyer

Paine graduated from college in Hudson, Ohio, and briefly taught school in Mississippi. He returned to Ohio in 1847, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. After practicing law in Cleveland for a decade, Paine moved to Milwaukee in 1857. In 1859 he formed a law partnership with Carl Schurz.

Civil War Service

In May 1861, Paine was commissioned colonel of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry (later changed to a cavalry regiment). After initial service near Baltimore, the regiment moved by sea to the Gulf of Mexico, where Paine led them in battle at New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Grand Gulf, Mississippi, during 1862. His regiment then spent time controlling occupied territory in the Lower Mississippi Valley for most of 1862 and 1863.

Arrested for Protecting Slaves

On June 11, 1862, Col. Paine refused to obey an order requiring officers to return runaway slaves to their owners. He was arrested and confined at New Orleans. Two months later, his commanding general was killed at the Battle of Baton Rouge. Paine was released from prison and put in charge of the city. When ordered to burn it to the ground, he again refused to comply but avoided arrest by persuading his superiors to his point of view. When the city was evacuated, he ordered the state library moved to New Orleans for safe-keeping.


Paine was promoted to brigadier general in March 1863, and led his brigade in the assault on Port Hudson that began May 26, 1863. On June 14 Paine was in front of his troops urging them forward when he was shot from his horse. Wounded in the leg, he lay on the field under heavy fire from morning until after dark, when he was finally removed. By the time he reached doctors in New Orleans, his left leg had to be amputated.

After convalescing in Milwaukee for a month, Paine returned to service in September 1863 as a military attorney in Washington, D.C. When Confederate troops threatened the city in July 1864, Paine requested and was given command of a combat unit for a brief period. He was then assigned to home front duties and returned to Milwaukee in October 1864. He was brevetted major general of volunteers on March 13, 1865, and resigned from the army on May 3.

Postwar Career

Almost as soon as he reached home, Paine was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he supported the Radical Republicans. He was twice re-elected, and his total service ran from 1865-1871. Afterward, he established a law practice in Washington, D.C., where he worked until his death in 1905. Paine was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Links to Learn More

Biographical sketch on pages 988-991 of E.B. Quiner’s "Military History of Wisconsin" (Chicago, 1866)

Contemporary accounts of Col. Paine's refusal to return slaves

View original documents related to Col. Paine

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography (Madison, 1965); Quiner, E.B. Military History of Wisconsin (Chicago, 1866).]
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