Halbert E. Paine
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Basic Information

Colonel Halbert Eleazar Paine was not one of the more famous officers to serve in the Civil War, but he had in interesting career, perhaps most notable for two occasions where he placed his conscience above his orders.

He was born in 1826 in the town of Chardon, Ohio. He attended college in Hudson, Ohio, and for a while was a teacher in Mississippi, before going into law. For about a decade, he practiced law in Cleveland, before relocating to Milwaukee in 1857. In 1859 he went into partnership with Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who had fled Prussia following the failed revolutions of 1848 and who went on to become an important reformer and statesman in America, and a leader in the early Republican Party.

When the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861, Paine entered the 4th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment as a colonel. During the war we saw combat in lower Mississippi and Louisiana, participating in the Vicksburg campaigns and in the battles of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He also coordinated anti-guerrilla activities in the lower Mississippi River valley.

In June of 1862 Paine was ordered to return runaway slaves who had taken refuge among his troops back to their owners. He refused, writing to his commander: “What will be their fate if delivered up to claimants or hunters is easy to predict.” He was arrested for disobeying orders and spent two months in prison. He was released, however, when his superior was killed in battle, and Paine was placed in charge of the Union-occupied city of Baton Rouge.

Confederate forces threatened to re-take the city, and Paine was ordered to burn it to the ground to keep it from falling into rebel hands. Again, Paine refused, but this time was able to persuade his commanding officer to agree with him. Instead, Paine relocated the city's library to New Orleans for safe keeping.

In 1863 the 4th Wisconsin Regiment was reorganized as a cavalry unit, and Paine was promoted to brigadier general. On June 14, while leading his men during an assault on Port Hudson, he was shot from his horse and trapped by heavy fire on the battlefield. By the time he was able to receive medical attention, his wounded leg had to be amputated.

After convalescing, Paine returned to service as a military attorney. He was briefly given a combat command in 1864, but for the most part spent the rest of the war serving on the home front. He returned to Wisconsin and was brevetted to the rank of major general.

Upon leaving the army, Paine was elected to the U.S. Congress representing the 1st Congressional District of Wisconsin. He served three terms in the House of Representatives, from 1865-1871. After leaving office, he established a new law practice in Washington D.C. and was later appointed U.S. Commissioner of Patents by President Ulysses S. Grant. He seems to have had an interest in science, reflected by his work on a bill authorizing weather observations in the interior of the continent, and his support of utilizing new technologies like typewriters in government agencies.

Later in his life, he published two books about election law based on cases in which he had been involved. He also wrote a collection of memoirs about his experiences during the war, titled A Wisconsin Yankee in Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General, which were published posthumously a century after his death.

He died on April 14, 1905 in Washington and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


2. Paine, Col. Halbert E. (1826-1905) — Wisconsin Historical Society article

Game and Story Use

  • In a historical or time-travel campaign set during the American Civil War, Colonel Paine might be an interesting character to meet.
    • The players might be soldiers serving under him in Louisiana.
  • The ethical questions Col. Paine faced during the war are ones which players might conceivably come up against.
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