A Union Awash in Conspiracies
By Nicole Etcheson
The Knights were founded in the 1850s by George W.L. Bickley, a phrenologist and doctor who had relocated from Indiana to North Carolina in the 1840s. Originally, the organization promoted a Southern version of Manifest Destiny, the extension of a slave empire into Central America. The Knights, organized into local chapters called “castles,” supported filibustering, or the armed invasion of Latin American countries to acquire slave territory for the United States, and secession. The historian David C. Keehn believes the Knights, who included lawyers, politicians and doctors, were involved in raising men and arms to help Southern governors seize forts in their states. In 1860-61, the Knights were, according to Keehn, the “strong arm of secession.”
As the war progressed, the Knights took root among Midwesterners; Indiana was, according to the historian Jennifer Weber, the “hotbed” of the conspiracy. In Putnam County, Ind., men drilled at night in isolated rural areas. The local Republican newspaper called these “the midnight prowlings” of “the treasonable and traitorous … Knights of the Golden Circle,” and accused the Knights of mobbing and intimidating draft officers. In July 1863, Bickley was arrested in New Albany, Ind., as a Confederate spy; he spent the rest of the war in prison, although he never came to trial. (The historian Frank Klement, the leading critic of Republican conspiracy theories of that era, said that was intentional: Trying the feckless Bickley would have revealed that the Knights posed no real threat.)
An 1865 cartoon drawing a connection between the Knights of the Golden Circle and Lincoln's assassination.Credit Library of Congress
Bickley’s arrest didn’t stop the Knights, though. In 1864, the Confederate government hoped to use them to set off an uprising to influence the Union presidential elections. The uprising was timed for late August so as to coincide with the Democratic National Convention, to be held in Chicago. Confederate agents had met in Canada with Midwestern members of the Knights; Capt. Thomas H. Hines, an officer in the Confederate Kentucky cavalry, was to lead the insurrection. The plan, which got into the advanced stages but was never carried out, called for coordinated uprisings in Illinois and Indiana, the liberation of Confederate prisoners from camps in Chicago and Indianapolis, and perhaps even the creation of a Northwest Confederacy — a separate Midwestern government that would ally with the South.
The Knights were not the only underground organization to gain notoriety in the Midwest. Early in the war another organization, the Sons of Liberty, emerged in parts of the Union in opposition to what they believed was a threat to civil liberties posed by the Lincoln administration. The Sons were strong in areas of the Midwest, such as Indiana and Illinois, which had been settled from the Upper South, but it is unclear whether sympathy for the South — the belief that abolitionist Republicans had brought on a war in order to emancipate the slaves — meant actual willingness to aid the Confederate cause. Republican politicians used a fear of the Knights to place any organization that was critical of the war effort into the same treasonous column.
The line between the two groups was hard to discern. So-called mutual aid societies helped draft resisters, but so, allegedly, did the Knights and the Sons of Liberty. At the same time, a member of the Sons admitted that “It was the general idea that it was necessary to arm to resist the encroachments of the Administration.” He left unclear whether resisting encroachments meant just obstructing the draft or went as far as an armed uprising against the United States government. Even the adjutant general of Indiana, W.H.H. Terrell, concluded that many members of the Sons “never knew the treasonable schemes into which they were intended to be driven.” Still, Terrell insisted that among the rank and file, “there was not one who did not know that the object of the Order was to assist the rebellion and resist the Government.”
That didn’t stop politicians from fearing, and hounding, the Sons of Liberty. Gov. Oliver P. Morton of Indiana was convinced that the state was filled with armed traitors, and that the Sons intended to assassinate him. In particular, he targeted Harrison H. Dodd, a printer, active Democrat and the grand commander of the Indiana Sons of Liberty. Like many antiwar Democrats, Dodd argued that Republicans had shut down civil liberties, including harassing Democrats at the polls, in the name of the war effort. But while Indiana Democrats largely agreed with Dodd’s assessment of the Morton and Lincoln administrations’ tyranny, most were not prepared to engage in armed resistance. In early August 1864, after Dodd proposed such resistance at a meeting of the Sons, appalled Democratic Party leaders made him promise not to act.
When authorities raided Dodd’s office soon after, they discovered boxes labeled “Sunday-school books” that contained revolvers and ammunition. Dodd and six other Democrats were arrested: J.J. Bingham, editor of The Indianapolis Sentinel; Dr. William A. Bowles, the founder of the first Knights castle in Indiana; Horace Heffren, editor of The Salem Democrat; Stephen Horsey; Andrew Humphreys, a former state legislator; and Lambdin P. Milligan, a lawyer.
Morton insisted that the imminent threat of an uprising required the arrests. Democratic critics, and later historians, have noted that the ensuing trials served as excellent Republican political propaganda, constantly keeping the equation of Democrats with treason before the voters. The trials lasted from September through December — in other words, throughout the entire state and national election cycle.
In mid-September, a military commission convened to try Dodd. He protested, to no avail, that as he was a civilian, the court lacked the authority to try him. A few days before the state elections in October, Dodd escaped and fled to Canada. Gen. Henry Carrington, the commander of the military District of Indiana, announced that by escaping, Dodd had confessed his guilt, and instructed Hoosiers to “rebuke this treason. The traitors intend to bring war to your homes. Meet them at the ballot-box, while Grant and Sherman meet them in the field.” Dodd was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to hang.
Bingham, however, was released after agreeing to testify for the prosecution. Heffren also was freed. Bowles, Horsey and Milligan were convicted and sentenced to death. Andrew Humphreys was also convicted but sentenced to imprisonment and hard labor.
Many historians believe that the arrests were largely political in nature; Governor Morton, running for election, certainly exploited the Sons for political capital by tying them to the much more dreaded Knights. Morton’s Democratic opponent was a former state attorney general, Joseph E. McDonald. While Morton admitted that his old friend McDonald was not a member of the Sons, he charged that half the Democratic ticket and most of McDonald’s supporters were members. Morton was so confident of success that he traveled to other states to campaign for their candidates. He won the election by 20,000 votes.
Having done so much to secure the convictions of the conspirators, Morton now asked for mercy. In 1865 he sent John U. Pettit, the speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, to Washington to request that President Andrew Johnson commute the sentences. On Morton’s behalf, Pettit argued that the war was over, the civil courts were functioning and Indiana did not want to be the first state to carry out a military execution. “The rebellion had been put down,” Morton explained. “The great peril had passed by.”
Lambdin P. Milligan became the most famous of the convicted conspirators. Although his life had been spared, his attorneys brought his trial by a military commission before the United States Supreme Court, which found, in ex parte Milligan, that a civilian cannot be tried by a military court in a jurisdiction where the civil courts are still in operation. The prisoners were released in April 1866. Milligan sued for damages and, in 1871, a jury awarded him $5.
Ex parte Milligan has been hailed by some as a bulwark of civil liberties, protecting citizens from arbitrary trial by military authorities. In practice, the Milligan decision has not been broadly used. During World War II, the Supreme Court upheld the military trial of a Nazi saboteur who was an American citizen on the grounds that by fighting for Germany, he had become an enemy combatant and therefore no longer merited the protection Milligan offered. More recently, most of those tried before military commissions in the war on terror were not American citizens, and therefore did not come under ex parte Milligan. Even in ruling that Yaser E. Hamdi, an American citizen captured in Afghanistan, had the right to challenge his detention, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor distinguished between prisoners taken in a war zone and Milligan’s civilian status.
Historians have long debated the seriousness of the Sons’ conspiracy, and even the threat posed by the Knights themselves. Emma Lou Thornbrough concluded that Dodd and the other conspirators were engaged “in a treasonable, if harebrained plot,” but suspected that Morton and the Republicans exaggerated the danger for political effect. Frank Klement went the farthest in impugning Republican motives, insisting that Morton and Carrington built “KGC aircastles” in order to rally voters to the Union cause, and that the Sons “existed more on paper” — especially the papers Carrington issued — “than in practice.” But recently, that conclusion has been rolled back, a bit, and historians such as Robert H. Churchill, Stephen E. Towne and Jennifer Weber have argued that the Sons of Liberty posed a real threat. Weber points out that reports of the 1864 uprising were so prevalent throughout the Midwest, and came from sources without political interests, that “it is nearly impossible to believe something was not afoot.”
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Nicole Etcheson is a professor of history at Ball State University and the author of the prize-winning “A Generation at War: The Civil War Era in a Northern Community.”