Governor Morton and the Sons of Liberty
“From the beginning of the war, opposition to the government was nourished by a number of secret societies, controlled by men who sympathized with the South.”
The absurdities of expiring knight-errantry, as laid bare in the satire of Cervantes, were not more out of keeping with the spirit of his time than were the manufactured solemnity of the Knights of the Golden Circle and Sons of Liberty, their mystic conclaves, foolish ritual, and blood-curdling oaths out of keeping with the spirit of our own age and institutions. Rozinante, Mambrino’s helmet, the windmills, and the island of Sancho Panza were essentially no fitter subjects for satire than the midnight initiations in Indianapolis and in the woods of Martin County, the battle of Pogue’s Run, the storming of Fort Dodd, the warlike Sunday-school literature for the conversion of Hoosiers, and the proposed establishment of a Northwestern Confederacy, under the leadership of men who had neither the ability to organize nor the courage to fight. But their conspiracy was planned at a time when the national unity was trembling between life and death; when a formidable foe, animated by genius and courage, hung upon the borders of Indiana and invaded its soil. It was a time when a straw could turn the balance, and that which at other periods would have been a subject of scornful jest became dangerous, and demanded additional energy from those who had performed the tasks of Hercules in the effort to subdue the Confederacy.
Fortunately, at this time, there was at the head of affairs a man whose resources were equal to every emergency, who embodied in his own person the whole energy of the State, whose autocratic will supplied, even under republican institutions and in conformity to law, whatever was lacking in a disaffected legislature and an unwilling judiciary; a man who furnished, without aid from any other branch of the government, the means of carrying on the business of the State as well as the sinews of a costly war; a man who could hold a conspiracy like this, though it aimed at his own life, as a plaything in his hands, and even coerce it into his service. No one can read the history of these secret fraternities and not feel that, widespread as they were, there was not an instant in which they were not held securely within the grip of the War Governor of Indiana.
In the history of this conspiracy, as it was given to the public by the press and in the testimony at the treason trials, Morton’s name does not often appear. It was through the agency of others that each step was taken in the suppression of this revolt. It is only those who can look behind the appearance of things who know that the agents employed in the detection of these plots were the emissaries and confidants of one whose name is seldom mentioned in their reports; that they were men who had been his old clients and familiars; men whom he had employed separately to attend the conclaves of the conspirators, each having no knowledge of the others agency; men whom he met by out-of-the-way appointments, at different places in Indianapolis, and whose reports corroborated or disproved each other. It is only those who have examined the secret reports furnished to him at each step in the development of the plot who can fully understand how completely these organizations were at all times under the control of Governor Morton; how he played with them as a cat with a mouse; how, in many instances, he permitted them even to grow and develop, that he might fasten conviction the more securely upon them, and overthrow them utterly when the time should be ripe for the disclosure.
The history of the conspiracies in Indiana has never been so succinctly told as in the words of Morton himself in the United States Senate, on May 4,1876: —
“The State was honeycombed with secret societies, formerly known as the Knights of the Golden Circle, but later as Sons of Liberty. They claimed, in 1864, to have forty thousand members in the State; were lawless, defiant, plotting treason against the United States and the overthrow of the state government. In some counties their operations were so formidable as to require the militia to be kept on a war footing; and throughout 1863, and until the final explosion of the organizations in August, 1864, they kept the whole State in an uproar and alarm. So bold were their demonstrations in the summer of 1863 that General John Morgan, of Kentucky, was induced to invade the State with his forces, in the belief that there would be a general uprising in his support. In 1864, so numerous were these treasonable organizations, and so confident were they of their strength, that they matured a plan for a general uprising in the city of Indianapolis on the 16th of August, under cover of a mass meeting of the Democratic party, to be attended by members from all parts of the State. The plan, as shown by subsequent confessions of some of the leading conspirators, was, on that day, to release about seven thousand rebel prisoners confined at Camp Morton, seize the arsenal and arm these prisoners, overturn the state government, and take possession of the State. It was discovered sonic three weeks before the time fixed, and was abandoned by the leading conspirators, and orders were issued countermanding the march of their forces upon Indianapolis. Subsequently, the discovery and seizure of a large amount of arms and ammunition collected at Indianapolis for treasonable purposes, the seizure of the records and rituals of the order of the Sons of Liberty, giving the names of the principal conspirators, and the arrest of eight of the ringleaders had the effect to break up and destroy the power of the organization; and I regret to have to state that in the list of the principal members of the organization were found three of the state officers, in whose hands the legislature of 1863 had attempted to place the whole military power of the State. On the trial of the ringleaders before a military tribunal appointed by the President under the Act of Congress, some of them turned State’s evidence, and disclosed the full character and extent of the conspiracy. Four of them were convicted and three sentenced to death, one of whom was pardoned by President Johnson, and the two others, Bowles and Milligan, had their punishment commuted to imprisonment for life, but were afterwards released by a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States to the effect that a military commission had no jurisdiction to try them for the offense.”
With this for the text, let us develop somewhat more in detail the history of this conspiracy.
From the beginning of the war, opposition to the government was nourished by a number of secret societies, controlled by men who sympathized with the South. The members were bound by various oaths and obligations to oppose the so-called aggressions of the North, and to give all the aid possible to Southern rights. The language of these obligations was often ambiguous. Many were initiated who did not understand the terms used.
First, we find the Knights of the Golden Circle, a fraternity organized in the South prior to the war, which had members in Indiana at the outbreak of the struggle. Another society existed for a short time, called the Circle of the Mighty Host. We hear of some of its lodges as early as 1861. Then we have the Knights of the White Camellia, and, in 1863, the Circle of Honor. Then came the more extensive order of American Knights, which had an armed organization throughout the State, as well as in Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. The ritual of this order was changed after it had been exposed, and the order was then merged into the Sons of Liberty, which was still larger and more definitely insurrectionary in its purposes, and swallowed up all previous organizations.
How did these associations begin? It is said that, in 1855, one Charles C. Bickley, a native of Indiana, residing in the South, a man who espoused ardently the proslavery cause, endeavored to reduce to a more perfect state of organization the Southern Rights Clubs which existed in various parts of the slave States. After a constitution, by-laws, and ritual had been formed, he christened the new order “Knights of the Golden Circle,” and subsequently became its commander in chief. The several divisions were called “castles.” There were subordinate castles and state castles, the latter being represented by delegates in the Grand American Legion, from which body emanated the Articles of War governing the subordinate castles, and requiring military drill. The organization was at first intended to foster schemes of conquest. Its constitution set forth the annexation of Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua as among its chief objects. The idea of a slave empire surrounding the Gulf of Mexico, which should become to the New World what the Roman Empire had been to the Old, was the dream of many of these adventurers. They were outspoken in favor of a Southern Confederacy. “The North is vastly outgrowing us in territory and population. If we cannot get territory in the Union, we can out of it.” The fraternity was insignificant in point of numbers, but some of the wealthiest men of the South belonged to it. In 1858, the plan of organization was changed. The “castle” was divided into the “outer and inner temples,” and members were admitted only after probation sufficient to determine whether their political principles were such that they could be trusted. The order now began to acquire great antiquity. Regalia were provided; a close helmet surmounted by a crescent with fifteen stars represented the growing Confederacy. A skull and crossbones threatened death to abolitionists. There was a temple to the “Sunny South,” with the image of the noonday sun beneath the dome. Castles sprang up in the border States, and Northern men with Southern feelings knocked at the doors. There were three degrees, — military, financial, and governmental. In the first, the candidates were told that the field of their operations would be in Mexico, but that it was also their duty to offer their services to any Southern State to repel a Northern army. The members of this degree were called the Knights of the Iron Hand. The headquarters of the financial degree, made up of Knights of the True Faith, were to be at Monterey, where stores and munitions would be deposited. Into the third degree, composed of Knights of the Columbian Star, none were admitted unless born in a slave State; or if in a free State, the applicant must be a slaveholder. No Knight should acknowledge that he was a member of this degree except to a brother. Among the obligations was this: “I will use my best exertions to find out every abolitionist in my county, and forward the name of such to the commander in chief. If I know of any who is a stranger or traveler, I will inform the Knights of the Columbian Star in my county, and call them to meet in council, that proper steps may be taken for his exposure. … I will do all that I can to make a slave State of Mexico, and as such will urge its annexation to the United States. … Until the whole. civil, political, financial, and religious reconstruction of Mexico shall be completed, I will recognize a limited monarchy as the best form of government for the purpose, since it can be made strong and effective. To prevent the entrance of any abolitionist into Mexico, I will sustain a passport system.”
A plan for the conquest of Mexico was devised, and the Knights were to cross the Rio Grande by the 1st of October, 1861. But before that time they were busy about other matters, and the original purpose of the order was lost sight of in the conflict between the North and South. The Knights had been taking an active part in the presidential campaign of 1860. They used their influence to divide the Democratic party, and helped to promote the rupture which led to the separate nomination of Breckinridge. They were anxious to find out how many Northern men sympathized with the South, and believed that the vote for Breckinridge would show this, and that most of these voters might be counted upon as soldiers for the Southern army. A letter from Madison, Indiana, to Jefferson Castle, in Kentucky, promised a thousand men who would fight Northern aggressions to the death. One from Evansville promised that Vanderburg County would be good for a regiment. A letter from Washington, Indiana, said that there were thirty thousand men who would never compromise with Black Republicanism, and it was thought probable that the whole of Indiana south of the National Road would unite its fortunes with the South. The organization now rapidly extended. Members were sent to establish new castles. The original purposes of the order were no longer spoken of. The object now was to secure Southern rights. Castles were organized everywhere, in court rooms, stores, and barns. Preliminary degrees were instituted to try the soundness of the neophytes opinions. The candidate then entered the outer temple, where he was received according to a new ritual adopted in 1860. When Lincoln was elected, it was believed that the deliverance of the South had come. But the agents sent into the free States to establish castles found the time unfavorable, and their mission a dangerous one. The order was forced to confine its efforts mostly to the South. The ritual was by no means uniform; it was everywhere modified to suit the demands of the locality. In the border States, the initiatory steps were more gradual than in the extreme South. Members in the North were to act as spies, and, if possible, to raise companies of militia, to be turned over to the Confederate service. This effort was not successful. One Drongoole, of Martin County, Indiana, wrote to Jefferson Davis, declaring his ability to muster six regiments. Davis answered, commending his noble and patriotic endeavors; but the letter was intercepted, and Drongoole was roughly handled and sent South. The enthusiasm for the Union was then at red heat, and little could be done. Still there were a number of organizations scattered over Indiana.
Even at this early day a Northwestern Confederacy was talked of, and when the news came that Sumter had been fired upon, and the whole North was one blaze of patriotism and indignation, there were still a few whispers uttered stealthily and secretly here and there among the enemies of the Union, several centres of disaffection in various parts of Indiana where sentiments in favor of the Confederacy might be safely spoken. Prominent among these were Orange and Washington counties, in the southern part of the State, — rough, hilly regions where civilization was half a century behindhand; neighborhoods where the roads were rough and almost impassable, where even to-day the traveler hears stories of outrages committed by local banditti, who find their refuge in caves and hidden places in the forests; uncanny regions where streams lose themselves in subterranean recesses, and wander for miles under the earth, with springs whose waters, impregnated with sulphurous deposits, are said to restore health to the afflicted, but which are certainly filled with noisome and unsavory ingredients to those who are whole. Among these regions, the French Lick Springs have gained much local celebrity. They are situated at a place which, until lately, has been distant from railroad communications. Here lived Dr. W. A. Bowles, a man of considerable wealth, who had served in the Mexican war as colonel of the second Indiana regiment, which had broken and fled at Buena Vista. He had married a Southern wife. He was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. His house was a rendezvous for those who sympathized with secession; and just after the fall of Sumter, he wrote his wife (then in Louisiana), in most execrable English, that his fear was that the Douglas wing of the Democratic party would go with the Black Republicans, and “if so,” he says, “our fate is sealed. You may be aware of our condition, but you cannot realize it. If Kentucky had gone out at the proper time, southern Indiana would have been with her to-day, if not the whole State.” On May 3,1861, he writes: “If things do not change very soon, we shall have fighting here in our midst, for many persons whom I supposed to be true to the South have been silenced, and are afraid to open their mouths in favor of Southern rights. Ayer, Charles Dill, and many others have come out for the North, and call all traitors who do not espouse the cause of the North. God knows what I am to do. If I leave and join the Southern army, my property will all be confiscated; and, besides that, my health is such that I fear I could render no service; but I have already sent some who will do service, and I expect to send more.” Later, he becomes discouraged about Kentucky, and writes: “Louisville is in a perfect tumult. The Abolition Party is very strong, and I think the worst consequences are in store for Kentucky under her policy of armed neutrality, which I think is a humbug. It is reported that a battle has been fought at Fortress Monroe, and that six hundred abolitionists were killed, and fifty on the Southern side; but I fear it is too good to be true. When the fighting commences, I think I shall go South.” But Bowles did not go South. Restrained by the fear of the confiscation of his property, or believing that he could be more useful if he stayed in Indiana, he became one of the leading spirits in the subsequent conspiracies, and was convicted in the treason trials and sentenced to be hanged. But of this more hereafter.
As the war went on, and the armies of the North suffered defeat, these little centres of Southern sympathy became more numerous, and the voices of the disaffected bolder and louder. The Knights of the Golden Circle now spread their organization over the State, and Governor Morton was confronted with treason at home. In May, 1862, the grand jury of the United States District Court reported that the Knights numbered some fifteen thousand, as estimated by members of the order; that lodges were instituted in various parts of the State; that among the signals was one invented for the use of such members as should be drafted into the army. The soldiers on the other side were thereby reminded of their obligation not to injure the person giving these signals, and it became their mutual duty to shoot over each other. The members of this fraternity bound themselves to resist the payment of the Federal tax, and to prevent enlistments in the army. In many neighborhoods where these societies existed, there was a failure to furnish a fair proportion of volunteers. Meetings were held in out-of-the-way places, in the woods, in deserted houses; members attended with arms; sentinels were posted to keep off intruders. The unwary were lured into the fold on the pretext that the purpose was the better organization of the Democratic party. Candidates were familiarized with the real object as they advanced through the degrees. Many who saw the evil tendency withdrew, but, owing to their obligations of secrecy and from the fear of violence, they were reluctant to expose their fellows. Some members of this grand jury, having learned the signals of the order, went to Camp Morton at Indianapolis, where, among the Confederate prisoners, they found that their signals were recognized, and they reported their discovery. This report was bitterly denounced by peace Democrats. Complaint was made that the members of the jury were making speeches over the State retailing what they had discovered. Subsequent developments showed that the facts were understated rather than exaggerated. The report excited much alarm. Disaffection with the administration had been growing. The draft came on in October, and intensified this feeling. In some places the conscription was resisted.
The election of 1862 resulted disastrously to the Republicans. There were Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, and at that time, in Indiana, the Democratic party represented violent opposition to the admninistration. An attempt was made in this legislature to investigate these secret orders. Various objections were made. An investigation would be useless, and would cost money. There should be no inquiry until facts had been discovered sufficient to prove the existence of such societies. The investigation should be before a judicial tribunal. The resolution was founded on rumors originating in the abolition Indianapolis Journal. The loyal people should not be insulted by investigations based upon malignant charges made by corrupt abolitionist leaders; the investigation would embitter partisan feeling, and cast a reflection upon the Democratic party. The most positive statements were made by Republicans of the existence of these societies, but Democrats answered that no one believed in them; that every man who indorsed the President’s proclamation was an abolitionist, and if it were treason to oppose the administration they were traitors, and abolitionists might make the most of it. The proposition to investigate was finally laid upon the table by a party vote.
While the legislature was debating, Governor Morton received information that the Knights were armed and talking of war at home. They declared that no deserter should be arrested, that abolitionists were to be exterminated, and that the Northwestern States, would form a government by themselves. About the time of the adjournment of this legislature, General Henry B. Carrington was appointed to the command of the District of Indiana. On the 26th of March, Governor Morton, by telegram from Washington, informed him that large shipments of arms had been made from New York to Indiana for insurrectionary purposes. Carrington at once prohibited the importation of weapons for such organizations, and issued an order restricting the sale of arms. The legislature having refused to investigate, Governor Morton determined to do this for himself. It made little difference to him whether or not there was a statute in such case made and provided. Treason was lurking in the State, and he intended to drag it to the light. On the 18th of April, Louis Prosser, a leader of the Knights in Brown County, killed a soldier, and was himself mortally wounded by Captain Cunning. Morton appointed a commission to inquire into the facts. Witnesses testified that their neighbors had been driven from home, houses had been burned, the lives of Union men threatened, soldiers shot, and that bands of men had been seen drilling and passing through the country fully armed. The agency of the Knights in these proceedings was clearly shown.
All through the State, wherever this feeling of disaffection existed, it was attributed to the Knights of the Golden Circle. Thus, when, on May 2, 1863, in the county of Wayne, one hundred men galloped through the town of Centreville, shouting for Jeff Davis, and a telegram was sent to Morton that armed Butternuts were parading the streets, public rumor at once connected this with the Knights of the Golden Circle. General Hascall sent on a detachment, and sixteen were arrested. A number of the leaders were compelled to mount a platform used for the pump, in front of the old courthouse at Centreville, and then and there to take an oath of allegiance wholly unknown to the statutes, which was improvised and administered by Lewis D. Stubbs, justice of the peace, who had come over from. Richmond for the purpose.
It was during this year that the feeling inspired by these orders reached an absurd culmination in the “battle of Pogue’s Run,” when numbers of armed men, who came to Indianapolis with the intention of exciting an insurrection, were deprived of their weapons by a handful of soldiers, and threw away their pistols and ammunition into the waters of the stream, or concealed them in the clothing of the women by whom they were accompanied. It was due largely to the encouragement which these orders had given that Thomas H. Hines invaded the State with a handful of men, in June, and was followed in July by a larger force under General John Morgan. The river was crossed. Morgan advanced to Corydon, to Salem, to Vernon, but he did not meet with the expected assistance. The whole State was aflame, and he found troops surrounding him on every side. It was not long before he crossed the line into Ohio, where he was captured and sent to the Ohio penitentiary, from which he subsequently escaped.
The Knights of the Golden Circle ceased to have an existence under that name in the fall of 1863. Apart from the general restlessness which they inspired, and the Confederate hopes Which they encouraged, they had really done but little. It was principally as the precursor of the later and more extensive order of American Knights and Sons of Liberty that this organization was important. The order of American Knights was established in the summer and fall of 1863. Harrison Dodd, who was elected Grand Commander for Indiana, was a man of romantic disposition, intensely fond of every sort of mystery. He had been an active member of the Know Nothing party, and one of the chief functionaries of the Sons of Malta. The initiations into that fraternity conducted by him are described by surviving members of the order as “most impressive.” The ritual of the order of American Knights was turgid and rhetorical, and gave full play to Mr. Dodd’s peculiar talents. Here are some extracts from the instructions to neophytes: —
“Divine essence dwells in man, is individualized in him, and exists eternal when his body of the flesh shall have resolved itself into its original elements. Hence the true man is divine, immortal, and cannot attain perfection in the body that passeth away.”
“In the economy of the intellectual world there are found degrees of capacity, which arise mainly from physical development; which result from, and are adapted to, the peculiar influences of material nature which surround the man. The superior intellectual and physical development must progress, nor must be impeded, but aided, by the inferior and imperfect, even should the subjection of the inferior to a condition of servitude to the superior be necessary to secure such aid; that servitude, however, being so qualified and regulated by enlightened sentiment and wise and humane haws that, while it aids the progress of the superior, it shall at the same time advance the inferior, by subduing and refining influences, toward complete civilization. Hence, the servitude of the African to the white man, imposed and regulated by wise and humane statutes and by suggestions of refined public sentiment, should promote the advancement of both races, and is approved by the sanction of Divine Economy.”
Having thus put slavery upon a sound basis, the lecture to the neophyte undertakes a similarly logical exposition of constitutional law. He is told: “Whenever the chosen rulers, officers, or delegates to whom the people have entrusted the power of the government shall fail or refuse to administer the government in strict accordance with the letter of the established and accepted compact, constitution, or ordinance, it is the inherent right and the solemn and imperative duty of the people to resist the usurpations of their functionaries, and, if need be, to expel them by force of arms. Such resistance is not revolution, but is solely the assertion of a right, the exercise of all the noble attributes which impart honor and dignity to manhood. Submission to power or authority usurped is unmitigated debasement in an entire people; and the debasement is increased in degree according to the degree of progress which a people shall have attained before the usurpation began, and shall enlarge its measure of shame while the submission continues.”
The weak, including orphans and women, next receive the consideration of the order, and the neophyte is told that “the virtues which Divinity hath implanted in our holier natures, and which are inculcated and enjoined by the precepts of religion, must be cherished by the brotherhood;” and finally: “Our swords shall be unsheathed whenever the great principles which we aim to inculcate and have sworn to maintain and defend shall be assailed, or in defense of the oppressed against the oppressor. Thus shall we best illustrate our worthy name and the high behests of our worthy order. Amen.”
In the obligation of the candidate for initiation is contained the following: —
“I do further solemnly promise that I will ever cherish in my heart of hearts the sublime creed of the Excellent Knights, as explained to me in this presence; that I will inculcate the same amongst the brotherhood, will, so far as in me lies, illustrate the same in my intercourse with men, and will defend the principles thereof, if need be with my life, whensoever assailed, — in my own country first of all. I do further promise that my sword shall ever be drawn in defense of the right, in behalf of the weak against the strong, wherever truth and justice shall be found on the side of the weak, and especially in behalf of the oppressed against the oppressor. I do further solemnly declare that I will never take up arms in behalf of any monarch, prince, potentate, power, or government which does not acknowledge the sole authority of power to be the will of the governed expressly and distinctly declared, saving, however, a single instance, where a government shall exert its highest power and authority in raising a people from a condition of barbarism or anarchy to a degree of civilization and enlightenment until they shall be equal to the noble work of constructing a government of their own free choice, founded upon the principles of eternal truth. …
“I do further solemnly declare and swear, in the presence of these Excellent Knights, my witnesses, that I now plight each and every of these my solemn vows, without reservation or evasion of mind whatsoever, and with full knowledge and understanding, and with my full assent, that the penalty declared against any violation of any or either of these my vows and promises will be a surrender of my body to the tribunal of the order of American Knights, to be burned and its ashes strewn upon the winds, if it shall be so adjudged, and my sword and the emblems and jewels with which I have been adorned in honor shall be forged into one mass and thrown into the sea, and my name shall become a byword amongst the brotherhood, to be pronounced only with anathema and scorn. Divine Presence, approve my troth, and ye, Excellent Knights, hear and witness my plighted vows! Amen!”
The lecture given to the candidate for the third degree is much the same in its purport: —
“In the Divine Economy, no individual of the human race must be permitted to encumber the earth, to mar its aspects of transcendent beauty, nor to impede the progress of the intellectual or physical man, neither in himself nor in the race to which he belongs. Hence, a people, upon whatever plane they may be found in the ascending scale of humanity, whom neither the divinity within them, nor the inspirations of divine and beautiful nature around them, can impel to virtuous action and progress onward and upward, should be subjected to a just and humane servitude, a strict tutelage to the superior and energetic development, until they shall be able to appreciate the benefits and advantages of civilization. …
“The Caucasian or white race exhibits the most perfect and complete development of humanity. Hence, the noblest efforts of that race should be directed to the holy and sublime work of subduing, civilizing, refining, and elevating the wild and savages races wheresoever found; nor should those efforts cease until the broad earth shall bloom again like Eden, and the people thereof shall be fitted to hail the dawning light of that millennium which the inspiration of that divinity within us has pictured to our hopes, and whose transcendent glories are even now glowing upon the vision of calm, serene, undoubting faith.”
The obligation contained the following:
“I do further solemnly promise and swear that I will ever cherish the sublime lessons which the sacred emblems of our order suggest, and will, so far as in me lies, impart those lessons to the people of the earth, where the mystic acorn falls from its parent bough, in whose visible firmament Orion, Arcturus, and the Pleiades ride in their cold, resplendent glories, and where the Southern Cross dazzles the eye of degraded humanity with its coruscations of golden light, fit emblem of truth, while it invites our sacred order to consecrate her temples in the four corners of the earth, where moral darkness reigns and despotism holds sway. … Divine Essence, so help me that I fail not in my troth, lest I shall be summoned before the tribunal of the order, adjudged, and condemned to certain and shameful death, while my name shall be recorded on the roll of infamy! Amen.”
But the life of the order of the American Knights was brief and barren. It was found that its priceless secrets had been discovered by the government; so the members were reorganized as “Sons of Liberty” at a Grand Council on the 22d of February, 1864, and C. L. Vallandigham was elected Supreme Grand Commander of the United States. The political principles of this last body were more definitely defined than in the earlier fraternities.
“The government designated the United States of America has no sovereignty, because that is an attribute belonging to the people in their respective state organizations, and with which they have not endowed that government as a common agent. … That government can exercise only delegated powers hence, if those who have been chosen to administer it shall assume to exercise powers which have not been delegated, they should be dealt with as usurpers. … It is the inherent right and imperative duty of the people to resist such officials, and, if need be, to expel them by force of arms. Such resistance is not revolution, but is solely the assertion of a right. … It is incompatible with the history and nature of our system of government that official authority should coerce by arms a sovereign State. … In a convention of delegates elected by the people of a State is recognized the impersonation of the sovereignty of a State; the declaration of such a convention is the ultimate expression of this sovereignty.”
Those who are familiar with the theories and formulae of the secessionists will recognize the identity of these doctrines with those of Jefferson Davis and the other Southern leaders.
The Sons of Liberty were, in fact, a continuation of the order of American Knights; but the colloquies and lessons were changed, and the members of the old order were not admitted unless they were considered worthy. The new body was now greatly enlarged. It had an extensive membership in Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri, and in the summer of 1864 it was claimed by Vallandigham that in Indiana it had no less than 40,000 members. The figures given by the Grand Secretary for Indiana are not so large. He testified that, in September, reports from forty-five counties showed a membership of 18,000. Dodd was Grand Commander for the State, and Dr. W. A. Bowles, Lambdin P. Milligan, Andrew Humphreys, and one Yeakle were “major-generals,” commanding the four districts into which the State was divided for military purposes. In June, John C. Walker was elected in Yeakle’s place, and Horace Heffren (a man who had distinguished himself at the outbreak of the war by violent secession harangues in the legislature, and who had afterwards recanted and been appointed by Morton to a military command, but had resigned and returned to his original secession views) became Deputy Grand Commander for the State. Judge Bullitt, of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, was Grand Commander of that State, and Felix Stidger, who turned out to be a United States detective, was elected Grand Secretary for Kentucky. There were two bodies, one within the other: one a civil organization, to which the mass of the members belonged, the purpose of which was political (to promote the success of the Democratic party); and the other a military organization, which had for its object the establishment of a Northwestern Confederacy, and failing this, the members were to join their fortunes with the South. Many did not belong to this second body, but the leaders belonged to both, and active steps were taken to organize the military department. Some of the belligerent schemes of the order were fantastic. Dr. Bowles proposed to have nine companies of infantry, one company of lancers, and one section of artillery to comprise each regiment. The lancers were to have a hook “to punch with,” and “a sickle to cut the horses’ bridles,” so that the enemy would become confused, and if a charge were made when they had no way of getting their horses out, they would be easily “mashed up.” The military department was to be controlled by a secret committee of thirteen, appointed by the Grand Commander, whose names were to be known only to him. The committee on military organization reported at a meeting held on June 14, in Indianapolis, in the fourth story of the building occupied by Dodd as a printing establishment. They recommended that the order should equip as rapidly as possible. But the question arose, how were they to be armed? Some proposed to raise the means by taxing the members; others, by subscription; others, that the members should arm themselves. They finally came to the masterly conclusion to let each sub-district arm as best it could. This was before they had received the large sums afterwards paid by the Confederate commissioners in Canada. Bowles claimed that he had his command organized and divided into regiments and companies, except in one district. They were drilling “at such snatched times as they could get.” When the time came to act, however, these regiments did not appear.
The clumsy character of the organization and its utter lack of efficiency were shown in many ways. In May, 1864, Bowles talked confidentially with Stidger, a man whom he had never seen before, in regard to the secrets of the order, without testing him to see if he belonged to it. Heffren sent William P. Green to Chicago to a meeting of the Grand Council, and Green fell into the hands of detectives, who secured Heffren’s proxy, and Green never got to the Council at all. Again it was found that the sanctuaries of the order had been invaded. It was ascertained that one Coffin, who had been in the confidence of the leaders, was an agent of Governor Morton, and a detective, and at a meeting of the State Council on June 14, at Indianapolis, it was decided that Coffin should be killed. On the following day there was to be a meeting at Dayton, Ohio, to be addressed by Vallandigham. It was learned that Coffin would be present. Dodd asked what members would volunteer to go with him and put Coffin out of the way, but most of the members did not know Coffin. McBride, of Evansville, knew him, but was so situated that he could not go on this trifling errand. Bowles and Dodd went, but Coffin was not to be found. He had been advised of his danger by Stidger, who was present at the conference, and who was apparently as eager as any for his “removal.” One of the purposes of the Sons of Liberty was the destruction of government property. One Bocking, of Cincinnati, had made an invention which he called “green fire.” He showed it to Bowles and others, and two hundred dollars were given to him to serve his necessities. Bowles, with Bullitt, Dodd, and one or two others, spent one Sunday in Indianapolis experimenting with this invention. There was a hand grenade and a machine with a clock for setting boats and government buildings on fire. “Nothing would put it out.” Bowles said that some stores in Louisville, as well as two boats, had been destroyed by it, and that the Confederate government would pay ten per cent for property thus destroyed.
But the most important work to which the order devoted itself was a conspiracy with the Confederate authorities for a general “uprising,” for the purpose of seizing the Federal arsenals, releasing Confederate prisoners, overthrowing the state government, and organizing a Northwestern Confederacy.
In 1864, the outlook for the South was dark, and discouraging. Vicksburg had fallen. The States west of the Mississippi had been severed from the main body of the Confederacy. Tennessee had been abandoned. Lee had recoiled from Gettysburg, and the lines of Grant were rapidly closing about the Confederate capital. A great portion of the Southern territory was occupied by Federal forces, and could no longer furnish supplies. The conscription had forced into the army nearly the whole male population of the South. The only hope seemed to be in an uprising at the North, which would release the Confederate prisoners, and turn the Federal forces back for the protection of their own territory. There was much disaffection in the North. There were bitter complaints of arbitrary arrests and military executions. This feeling was well known to the authorities at Richmond. Jefferson Davis accordingly appointed a commission of three persons to visit Canada, and negotiate with such persons as might be relied on “to aid in the attainment of peace.” Jacob Thompson, C. C. Clay, and J. P. Holcombe were appointed commissioners. But peace was not the only thing they sought, and Captain Hines was detailed for special service, to collect Confederate soldiers in Canada, and with them, if possible, to release Confederate prisoners confined at different places in the North. The Confederate government left to his judgment and discretion the means to be employed for effecting “any fair and appropriate enterprise of war consistent with British neutrality.” The instructions to Mr. Thompson were, that if he failed in his efforts for peace he should adopt measures calculated to cripple the military power of the Federal government by destroying stores and stopping supplies.
When Mr. Thompson arrived in Montreal, on May 30, he endeavored to induce the newspapers to urge a cessation of hostilities; but the press was adverse, and nothing could be done. Then followed the negotiations with Horace Greeley, which had no better success. Mr. Thompson then conferred with Vallandigham, who represented that the Sons of Liberty were 300,000 strong, and that the members of this order desired that the war should cease, and that the Federal army should be withdrawn from Southern territory. Some of the leaders wanted to establish a Northwestern Confederacy, but this desire was not universal. Mr. Thompson encouraged the idea, and offered aid in the shape of money and arms and arranged for the distribution of funds to be used in arming the organization in the different counties. He had strong hopes of the success of the movement; but the Confederate commissioners had to await the action of the Sons of Liberty. Vallandigham returned to Ohio, and made speeches to stir up resistance.
The 20th of July was the time first fixed for the “uprising.” The state officers were to be deposed, and provisional governments created. But when the day drew near, the Sons of Liberty found that they were very weak from lack of organization and discipline, and the time of the outbreak was postponed until August 16. A council was held at Chicago, and a statement made of the situation. Money had been captured from a United States paymaster on the Red River, and they could have the use of it. Ohio would be cared for by Vallandigham. Dodd had met Commissioner Thompson at the Clifton House, Niagara. He would send couriers to the major-generals of the several districts in Indiana, and they were to send messengers into the various counties, and the counties were to notify the townships. The forces of southern Indiana were to meet near New Albany, under Bowles; those of Illinois at Rock Island, Springfield, and Chicago, and, having seized the arsenals at these places, they were to march on St. Louis. In Indiana, the main body was to be concentrated at Indianapolis, and the capture of the state capital was left to the special care of Dodd. A political meeting would be called at that place. The members would come in wagons, with arms secreted in the straw. When a certain signal was given, they were to seize their arms and march on Camp Morton, release the prisoners and capture the guards. The prisoners were to be armed, and the guards held as prisoners. A detail was then to be sent to “take care of the governor,” and they were to seize the railroad to Jeffersonville, and use the cars to transport the prisoners and arms.
Dodd returned to Indianapolis, and communicated this plot to his trusted friends. He suggested that J. J. Bingham, chairman of the Democratic State Committee, should call a mass meeting at Indianapolis on the 16th, but Bingham refused. Matters were then brought to the knowledge of the Hon. Joseph E. McDonald, Democratic candidate for governor, who at once declared that the thing must be stopped. Michael C. Kerr came up from New Albany, and related to Bingham the scheme for the uprising, and said that Dr. Athon, secretary of state, was involved in it. Governor Morton was to be captured, and Athon made provisional governor. Athon was visited by Bingham and Kerr, but declared that he knew nothing of it.
A meeting of prominent Democrats was held in McDonald’s office. They determined that the project must not go on. Kerr said that he had come up on purpose to stop this revolutionary scheme, and that if it could not be stopped in any other way the authorities should be informed of it. Dodd insisted that “the government could not be restored” without revolution, and that an appeal to the ballot box was folly; but before the conference broke up it was agreed that the conspiracy was to go no further. The authorities, however, were not to be informed of it. But this was unnecessary. They knew all about it. Governor Morton and General Carrington had long been upon the track of the conspirators. Morton was notified that arms and ammunition had been forwarded to Dodd by the Merchants’ Dispatch, marked “Sunday-School Books.” Dodd’s office was searched, and 400 navy revolvers and 135,000 rounds of ammunition were found.
Let us now return to Canada. It was on the 22d of July that the Confederate commissioners, with Hines and Castleman, had met the representatives of the Sons of Liberty, and the time for the uprising had been fixed for the 16th of August. But the delegates from the order feared that the military authorities would suppress the movement, unless Confederate forces were sent into Kentucky and Missouri to occupy the attention of the soldiers. Another conference was held on the 7th of August, and the date of the uprising was further postponed until the 29th of the month, when the Democratic National Convention would assemble. This convention would be the best cover for their action. The Confederate agents insisted that this postponement should be the last. They would furnish abundant means to bring the men to Chicago, but they would then attempt to release the Confederate prisoners confined in that city, and at Indianapolis and Rock Island, whether the order acted with them or not. Delay added.to the danger.
The Sons of Liberty were irresolute. Their timidity contrasted oddly with the vigor and military promptness with which Hines and Castleman insisted on immediate action. The leaders of the order were to bring its members to Chicago to attend the convention. A large sum of money was furnished by the Confederates, but many of the agents who were to distribute it pocketed the funds, and very few men came. The Sons of Liberty in Indiana had been suppressed at the meeting in McDonald’s office, and did not appear. The Confederates came to Chicago, believing that, with any sort of coöperation, they could successfully attack Camp Douglas in that city, and that, with the 5000 prisoners released—for whom arms had been provided—and 7000 more at Springfield, joined by the Sons of Liberty, a formidable force could be marshaled. Information had been conveyed to the prisoners of the intention to release them. Chicago was thronged. Hines and Castleman met the officers of the order the night before the convention; but the men employed to bring the members together failed, and the courage necessary for the outbreak was wholly wanting. Hines and Castleman proposed, on the following day, that the Sons of Liberty should furnish 500 men to liberate the prisoners at Rock Island, and take possession of that town and Springfield; but the members of the order found that they had important business at home, and the project collapsed.
In the mean time the officers of justice had been upon the track of the conspirators, and their designs were thoroughly exposed. On the 1st of August, the ritual of the Sons of Liberty was captured by the provost-marshal in a law office in Terre Haute. On August 22d, the correspondence of Grand Commander Dodd was overhauled, and the secrets of the order were held up to the scorn and ridicule of the public. The discoveries are thus described by a contemporary commentator: —
“Among the rubbish we find schedules of their first degrees, their second degrees, their third degrees, their oaths, obligations, invocations, — a strange medley of blasphemy and innocence past credulity. Who, for instance, can imagine that a man of reasonable sense, consenting to initiation in the order of the Sons of Liberty, would stand up, after the mystical three raps at the subterranean wicket, and hear his sponsor, in answer to the sepulchral ‘Who cometh?’ gravely respond, ‘A citizen we found in the hands of the ‘sons of despotism,’ bound and well-nigh crushed to death beneath their oppression. We have brought him hither, and would now restore him to the blessings of liberty and law.’ How many of those who have, by the official report, gone through this mummery ever imagined they were in the hands of the sons of despotism until some impudent demagogue informed them of the alarming fact? Not one, we venture to affirm, of all these thousands who have gone through this miserable form, standing in the ‘vestibule of the temple,’ the right hand under the left arm, the left arm under the right, the four fingers over and the thumb hidden under the right arm, and, with his hands crossed on his bowels, representing the belt Orion. And yet this is but the beginning of the end. Having so forsworn himself, and surrendered his volition to the absolute despotism of the inner circle, wherein are the contrivers who pull the strings to move their puppets, he is thus charged: ‘Son of Liberty, thy journey is well-nigh accomplished. Somewhat yet remains, and the sons of despotism will beset thy path and aim to turn thee back, peradventure will seek thy life. Then put thy trust in God and Truth. Still, the journey leadeth due East, until thou art held by the Guardian in the South, who will further instruct thee. Beware lest thou bear thee towards the North too far and lose thy way; as well, also, take heed lest the South entice thee too far thither. We have a trusted, faithful guide on either side thy way, who, true and constant to his behest, perchance may hail thee. Receive what he shall offer, and give earnest heed to all his words. Son of Liberty, be thy watchword Onward.’
“And why travel East?” says the commentator. “Is it the source of all light? So is it the source of despotism and absolutism. There—due East—rises the everlasting figure of the New England Yankee.”
We must pass rapidly over the final scenes. In these, the principal part was played by the ministers of public justice, and the members of the order were most unwilling actors. The order had been exposed. The thing to be done now was to make an example of those who had participated in the conspiracy. General Carrington, who had collected most of the evidence against the accused, was in favor of trying them in the federal courts; but Secretary Stanton and Governor Morton determined that more drastic measures were required. It was necessary to inspire terror in their hearts to prevent a repetition of plots which, however awkwardly they might be managed, were a continual source of danger. So General Alvin P. Hovey took charge of the Department of Indiana, and it was determined to try the conspirators by court1 martial. He instituted a military tribunal for the trial of Dodd, the Grand Commander of Indiana, who had just been arrested. The trial began on September 22. The defendant objected to the jurisdiction of the commission, claiming to be a citizen in no wise connected with the army. Major Burnett, the judge advocate, supported the jurisdiction of the tribunal by the President’s proclamation of September, 1862, ordering insurgents and their abettors to be tried by courts-martial. Charges were filed for conspiracy in organizing these secret societies for the purpose of overthrowing the government, seizing the arsenals, releasing Confederate prisoners, inciting insurrection, and resisting the draft. Mr. Dodd was thunderstruck upon finding that the first witness against him was Felix G. Stidger, a man who had been in his confidence, and who, as he now learned for the first time, was a detective. Several witnesses testified, when the case came to an abrupt termination. Dodd had petitioned General Hovey to be allowed to occupy a room in the post-office building instead of being confined in the military prison. About four o’clock on the morning of October 7, he escaped by means of a rope conveyed to him by a ball of twine which had been left by his friends. The street lights were darkened, and he slipped away unobserved. He remained hidden for some time about Indianapolis, and finally escaped to Canada. The question of jurisdiction was argued in his absence, and the case was submitted to the court for its decision. This decision was not announced. It was generally understood that Dodd had been found guilty and condemned to death, but, the body of the delinquent not being accessible, the judgment could not be executed. Bowles, Humphreys, Heffren, Milligan, and Horsey were now arrested. Bowles had said that he could successfully resist any attempts to take him, but he was quietly seized, early one morning, at his residence at French Lick Springs, and removed to Indianapolis.
A new commission was detailed for the trial of these men. It convened on October 21. The same charges were preferred. The participation of Bowles and Milligan in the conspiracy was very clearly shown by the testimony of the detective Stidger; of Clayton, a bona fide member of the order, who was terrified into giving reluctant evidence; of Harrison, the Grand Secretary of Indiana, who also told what he knew for the same reason; as well as of Bingham, editor of the Indianapolis Sentinel. There was a stampede of all who had been connected with the order. Every one seemed anxious to preserve the integrity of his own skin by giving evidence to convict his associates.
Their leader had slipped down a rope and run to Canada, and the rest proposed to purchase safety as best they might. A surprise was in store for the defendants. Heffren, the Deputy Grand Commander, had been sitting with the others and taking part in the defense. On the afternoon of the 4th of November, the judge advocate, at the opening of the court, said that all proceedings against him were withdrawn, and he was released from arrest. He was immediately placed upon the stand as a witness for the prosecution. He was evidently much terrified, and eager to save his own life at the expense of others. His appearance is explained by his own testimony that “upon that morning, before dinner, he had a conversation with Governor Morton and General Hovey, which was confidential.” Heffren had sought an interview with Hovey, because, to use his own words, he wanted to get out of the scrape, and he even testified to conversations with his own confederates while in prison. The case against Horsey was not quite so strong as that against Bowles and Milligan, while the evidence against Humphreys was weaker still. Jonathan W. Gordon made an elaborate argument against the jurisdiction of the court. Mr. Ray discussed the facts in behalf of Humphreys and Bowles. For Humphreys lie made a strong argument, denying any complicity in military and insurrectionary schemes, and claiming that the order itself was not a conspiracy. For Bowles he was able to do little more than to make a plea in mitigation, and commend him to the mercy of the court as a man broken in age. But the commission considered that this was no time for mercy. The defendants were all found guilty. Humphreys was to be imprisoned for life; Bowles, Milligan, and Horsey were sentenced to be hanged. In the case of Humphreys, the general commanding the district substituted confinement within the boundaries of two townships in his own county. The attorneys and agents of the men sentenced to death visited Mr. Lincoln, asking him to modify or revise the sentences, and he gave assurances that he would spare their lives; but before he took any action he was assassinated, and Andrew Johnson succeeded, with the full determination of “making treason odious.” He approved the sentences.
Petitions for a writ of habeas corpus were prepared, addressed to the United States Circuit Court, which court certified a difference of opinion as to the jurisdiction of the commission. In the mean time, Bowles, Milligan, and Horsey were to be hanged on May 19. All efforts to secure a commutation or postponement of the sentence were unavailing. On May 1, it was announced that Bowles and Milligan were writing confessions of the conspiracy which would implicate prominent men not yet connected with it, and there was great anxiety.
Meanwhile, Judge Davis visited Indianapolis, and had a long and earnest talk with Governor Morton. The judge thought it was clear that the commission was illegal, since the courts of Indiana were open, and martial law had not been proclaimed.
Morton had hitherto taken no part in the effort to have the sentences commuted, but he now declared that he did not intend to have the blood of these men on his hands, and he recommended the President to commute their sentences. He sent several communications to Mr. Johnson: one, on May 13, by General Mansfield; another by the wife of Milligan.
Finally, John U. Pettit was dispatched to Washington, and at his solicitation, first a suspension, and finally a commutation, of the sentences were secured. This excited great indignation throughout the State. President Johnson and Governor Morton were bitterly denounced for cheating the gallows. Some of the more violent of the papers even went so far as to declare that this commutation was corrupt; that money had saved the necks of these men from the halter; and some even pointed out a house on Meridian Street which was to be transferred to Morton in consideration of his services. But a better sentiment soon prevailed, and these idle stories were silenced. The application for habeas corpus was finally decided by the Supreme Court in favor of the defendants. The war was now over. The example of the execution of these men by military authority was no longer needed. Law had resumed its sway. The court decided that the military commission had no jurisdiction, as Indiana was not in a state of war, and the courts were still open.
The accused were therefore discharged, and with their release the history of the Sons of Liberty in Indiana comes to an end.