Martial Law

The meaning of “martial law” is the military taking control over what would normally be regular civilian functions. For example, martial law occurs in the wake of a natural disaster to impose order on what might otherwise become the hysterical masses. In some countries, governments may use this control as a way to enforce their power over the general public. To explore this concept, consider the following martial law definition.

Definition of Martial Law


  1. The imposition of military control over the general population, usually during wartime or in the wake of a natural disaster.


1773     in the U.S.

What is Martial Law?

In the U.S., martial law is normally the country’s last resort insofar as gaining control over a situation. This is because it is the act of using military forces to keep the general population under control.

The government may use this type of control during wartime, after a natural disaster, or during any other times of potentially extreme crisis. However, as detailed below, this often makes conflicts worse, not better, which is why the U.S. government refuses to rely on it unless it becomes absolutely necessary.

President Lincoln’s Use of Martial Law

President Lincoln’s use of martial law came about in April of 1861 during the American Civil War. President Lincoln’s use of martial law, and suspension of habeas corpus, was the result of a situation in turmoil. Specifically, Washington, D.C. was left undefended at the start of the Civil War, when rioters in Baltimore, Maryland disrupted the railroad sending reinforcements to the capital.

Because of this, it had become dangerous for Congress to convene. As a result, Congress could not declare war nor impose military control, making President Lincoln’s use of martial law a kind of defense for an area that was unable to defend itself.

Some saw this suspension of habeas corpus as unconstitutional. Therefore, Congress later created the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863. This then allowed the president to suspend habeas corpus across the entire U.S. He also declared that anyone found to interfere with the draft, discourage someone from enlisting, or aid the Confederacy subjected himself to this type of control.

Examples of Martial Law in the U.S.

Throughout history, there have been many martial law examples that illustrate how the government responds to extreme crisis. However, in many of these martial law examples, involving the military in civilian conflicts only makes things worse.

Illinois Mormon War

The Illinois Mormon War began in 1843, when the state of Missouri tried to deport Mormonism founder Joseph Smith for the alleged attempted murder of Lilburn Boggs, the state’s governor. With the help of members of his church, Smith escaped arrest, and he received a discharge in the Municipal Court of Nauvoo, where he served as mayor. People in Carthage felt he was abusing his power and asked Governor Ford to use the military to take Smith into custody.

Governor Ford declined, and a group of ex-Mormons published a paper to call out Smith for his alleged abuse of power. Smith added to the fuel that became the Illinois Mormon War when he ordered the destruction of the paper. Citizens accused Smith of attacking free speech, and the police charged Smith with inciting a riot. The Nauvoo courts dismissed this charge as well.

Smith ultimately declared martial law, which Ford then abolished. Smith had escaped to Iowa, but police arrested him for treason against the state of Illinois for declaring military control. A mob murdered Smith while he was awaiting trial, and a series of conflicts then developed, which historians later coined the Illinois Mormon War.

Utah War

Tensions arose between the Utah territory and the federal government, when President James Buchanan and many highly-placed politicians in Washington D.C. became alarmed by the way the Mormon people elected their governing officials. These tensions came to a head in 1857, when President James Buchanan dispatched U.S. forces to the Utah Territory.

This move ultimately led to what historians have since come to refer to as the Utah War. In September of that year, Governor Brigham Young declared martial law in the state of Utah. He also ordered all residents living in Salt Lake City to burn down their homes and flee to Provo. All the while, the Mormons were hassling the incoming army, fearful that the U.S. had called in the military to destroy them.

The Utah War spawned several provisions. Those who were traveling to Utah from California and Oregon bound were especially troubled by one such provision. This one stated that because such control existed in the Utah territory, no one could pass through, or from the Utah territory without a permit. Eventually, Alfred Cumming replaced Brigham Young as the state’s governor, bringing the war to a close.

Colorado Coalfield War

The Colorado Coalfield War is a good example of martial law going wrong. In 1913, conflicts in Ludlow, Colorado grew worse, to the point where the government called in the Colorado National Guard in the hopes of ending the Colorado Coalfield War.

It worked for a while, however the national guard troops eventually started taking sides, making the conflicts worse. The governor declared martial law, which ultimately led to the Ludlow Massacre, which continued until President Wilson sent federal troops in. This is what ultimately ended the Colorado Coalfield War.

Things That Can Happen During Martial Law

Sometimes things that can happen during martial law only escalate a situation and make things worse. Some of the things that can happen during martial law include:

  • The confiscation of weapons or food supplies
  • Imposition of a curfew
  • Restrictions on the right to free speech
  • The forcible removal of a person from his property
  • Forced imprisonment

These martial law examples of things that can happen during martial law showcase why the government avoids using it at all costs unless they can no longer avoid it. Most find that asserting military control over domestic populations is a dangerous situation to be in, particularly because a citizen’s constitutional rights are void until it is over.

The best way to survive a martial law situation is to obey orders and listen to authority. Someone who protests the situation is putting himself at risk of imprisonment at best and death by shooting at worst.

Martial Law Example In Hurricane Katrina

Contrary to reports made at the time, an example of martial law that wasn’t actually declared during Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. News outlets had reported that the government had declared military control in New Orleans, Louisiana in the aftermath of the category VI hurricane that had devastated the area earlier that week. The storm brought with it sustained winds of 135 mph, storm surge, and deadly flooding.

Despite the fact that many citizens resorted to violence and looting in an effort to survive while they waited for help in the wake of the storm, the governor did not declare martial law. The Associated Press reported in September of 2005 that the Governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, had refused to allow the federal government to take over control of the National Guard. Instead, Governor Blanco relied on James Lee Witt, the former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to organize relief efforts.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.