The Great North-Western Conspiracy In All Its Startling Details
By I. Windslow Ayer
Public Domain Books
INSIDE VIEW OF A LODGE OF THE SONS OF LIBERTY IN CHICAGO–OPEN EXPRESSIONS OF TREASON–SIGNS OF THE TIMES–WAITING FOR REBEL VICTORIES–THE GREAT PEORIA PEACE MEETING–WHISKEY, TREASON AND GUNPOWDER.
Prior to July 1864, the information of the public or the authorities, in respect to the aims, intents and objects of the organized bands of home traitors, was very meagre and indefinite, for it was no easy task for detectives or loyal citizens to enter the portals of the Temples. True, enough had transpired at the investigations, and before military commissions in different sections of the country, to awaken a painful interest and unceasing vigilance on the part of loyal men. So well were these organizations guarded, that vigilance committees of their members were appointed with imperative instructions to report the names of all civic officers and detectives in the employment of the United States and Provost Marshals, and all persons, by whomsoever employed, who should attempt to obtain the secrets of the Order. So complete was the organization, that lists of names were reported and read at the weekly meetings, and the following day the names and descriptions of such officers were thoroughly circulated and reported to the brethren in other cities and towns, and as well might a belled cat hope to invade the precincts of rats and attain success, as for such a “spotted” individual to gain access to the Temples of American Knights and Sons of Liberty. Not a change was made on the police, not an increase or decrease of Provost guards, not a change of even the location of artillery in Camp Douglas, no change, however minute of interest to the rebels, was made but that it was reported and discussed within these nests and dens of treason.
It was attempted on several occasions by parties of loyal men, to ferret out and secure the secrets of the Order, but as well might an attempt have been made to possess the secrets of the Council of Ten, by the officers of the governments of Europe; it was almost impossible, and yet the developments upon the recent trials show conclusively, that had the task not been effected, the most terrible results would have ensued. With the desire to aid the Government to the extent of individual ability, it was not strange that when opportunity occurred, whereby all might be known, and that knowledge applied to the benefit of our bleeding country, that any loyal man would have availed himself of it, at any hazard. The writer found such opportunity, and waiving all personal considerations, undertook the task, trusting in God for success, and conscious that all good men would approve the motive, and that if for a time, reproach and calumny should cloud his reputation, or if perchance the assassin’s hand should execute the sworn purpose of the Order, as the penalty for surrendering them to the hands of our Government, the time would surely come when the motives and the acts would find that approval in the hearts of all honest men, as it did in his own. Confiding the information accidentally obtained to W.H. Rand, Esq., of Chicago, a gentleman whose patriotism and whose reputation needs no encomiums, he immediately advised the expediency of conference with the State Executive, and to the honor of Governor Richard Yates, it should be said, he fully realized the importance of acquiring reliable information of the plots of the secret ally of Jeff. Davis. By Governor Yates an introduction was given to Brig.-Gen. Paine, then in command of the department, and again full and unqualified approval of the course thus far taken, was expressed, with the urgent request to follow up every avenue of information in this direction. Gen. Paine issued an introduction to Col. B.J. Sweet, whom he declared to be a “model man and a model officer in every respect,” and in whom all confidence in so commendable a cause might be reposed. How nobly, how wisely and how well that gallant officer discharged his trust, all who have observed his course will concede, and that man whose heroism at the memorable battle of Perryville, and on other battle fields, will ever be held in grateful remembrance by his countrymen, has added new lustre to his name, and the hearty benedictions which will ever be invoked for the defender of Chicago–the noble Col. Sweet–attest the satisfaction and joy of the people, to know that his services in this most difficult and hazardous undertaking are appreciated by the General Government, and the star upon his shoulder will glitter brighter as time wears on, and Copperheads live only in history, an evidence of how low men may sink in the scale of morality, and a warning to all future time. For the writer to have hesitated in a course of duty so plain, and yet so distasteful would have been criminal, cowardly, and unworthy of an American citizen. The advantage gained was followed up unremittingly, by day and by night, for many weary months, regardless of all professional duties and personal considerations. It was at the outset found highly necessary, if not indispensable, to have the concurrence of one good, loyal man of marked qualification–one who was discreet, who had experience upon police duties, who was prompt, energetic, persevering, patient, fearless, and withal a strictly honest man, a citizen whose reputation was above reproach; that man was found; he was Robert Alexander. After brief consideration, Mr. Alexander gave to the writer his hearty and earnest concurrence. Nothing was left undone by him that could further the hazardous undertaking, and personal gratitude for his ready acquiescence, which we tender to him, will meet with a ready response in the hearts of all good citizens. It is now Thursday evening in July 1864. We will now ask the reader to go again with us up those long, tedious flights of stairs to the outer rooms of the “temple” of the Sons of Liberty in Chicago. We left the room before with the remembrance of only a hole six inches in diameter for a full sized Copperhead to crawl through, but we shall have better success this time. Advancing to the aforesaid door, and giving three distinct raps, the slide, which we find covers the hole from the inside, is moved up, and a live, full-grown Copperhead peers through the orifice. “We whisper the word “Peace,” or “Peoria,” or whatever the monthly pass-word is, and the door is open, and we find ourselves within the vestibule of the temple, surrounded by a little group going through the preliminary exercises of initiation. We see the candidate and sponsors, with hands uplifted, and listen to the very poor reading of an officer, from the ritual, and giving the new comer his first dose of States’ sovereignty and secession. This is so mystified and clouded with high-sounding words that the poor devil nods at every time the reader stops for breath, or to expectorate tobacco juice, and the ceremony is concluded, and the candidate, respectable for the good clothes which he wears this night as a rarity, follows his conductor to another door, where he hopes for admission, the only impression on the candidate being, that his right arm is weary from being elevated so long, and that he is coming rapidly into good fellowship with men of high judicial standing, who propose to give Abolitionists and Lincoln particular “hell under the shirt tail.” Again they knock and are challenged by an inside guardian, who lectures the newly fledged Son, who having nodded sufficiently, is conducted to the Ancient Brother in the West, so that the Son, reversing the order of nature, begins rising in the West. The “Ancient Brother” is a better reader, for here we find brains for the first time, as it is the leaders, as we have already said, who do all the thinking, unless, perchance, the simple wretches find themselves in Camp Douglas, where they begin thinking for themselves. While the Ancient Brother is reading to the attentive comer, now happy in the thought that he has taken himself in out of the draft, let us survey the sanctum sanctorum; but first let us advance to the centre of the hall, where we find a piece of dirty oil cloth the size of a door mat, and stepping upon this, with body erect and turning our back upon the Ancient Brother, we find ourselves facing the Grand Seignior, who, on our first introduction, is Judge Morris; we salute, which we do by applying the palm of our right hand to the lips, then turning the hand to his seigniorship and bringing our left hand across the breast, which salutation being returned by the Grand Seignior, who sits upon a raised platform and wields a gavel, we take seats wherever our sense of cleanliness will permit, and where we hope there may be no traveling minute messengers conveying ideas from one man’s head to another. On the north side of the room is another platform and desk, where a guardian sits and addresses the candidate, who is supposed to lose his way and to be set right by this guardian, and even if the candidate is thoroughly sober he may be excused for losing his way, for it is a matter of much doubt whether he was ever in such a labarynth of words as he has just heard from the Ancient Brother, who, having given the man some pretty strong obligations, to endorse and support the policy of Jeff. Davis, together with an intimation that if he ever exposes any of the secrets, he may expect to suffer all sorts of penalties, and told him to fancy he had just received an acorn, the emblem of the order–he now sits down quietly in the pleasant consciousness that “we have got one more good voter on our side.” The guardian of the North having put the new Son on his way, he appears in the East, reflecting his effulgence all around. The Grand Seignior now rises from his seat, drops his gavel and explains the mysteries of the initiation, giving him another dose of secession, about as much as the poor fellow can carry; tells him how to challenge a brother, concluding by giving the grand sign of distress, which is by raising the right hand and calling out “Ocoon” three times, which he says is made up of the name of Calhoun, whose name is mentioned with great reverence. Thus closes the ceremony of initiation. “Considerations for the good of the Order” being the next order of business, speeches are made by some of the older heads to make the new one feel at home. This “feast of reason and flow of soul” over, other business is transacted, and the temple is closed, the Grand Seignor occasionally expressing a few words of caution, saying that but few members must be present at the meetings at this hall, as the presence of too great numbers will excite suspicion and lead to arrest. The next weekly meeting similar events occur, but new faces appear at every meeting, that is to say, the greater number of members who were present last week are absent this week, and others take their places. The Chicago Times, however, is well represented at most of the important meetings. There were about two thousand members of the Sons of Liberty in “good and regular standing” in Chicago alone, at the time they were let down. By careful arrangements we were able to have reports from the different temples throughout the most important points in the Northwest, and carefully noted the chief business and obtained the list of members, all of which has been as carefully placed in the hands of the authorities of the War Department, and months ago much of the information was imparted to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, in command of the Northern Department, who was pleased to express his highest appreciation of the services rendered, and a desire to have the investigation thoroughly made, that indisputable facts might be obtained, that truth and justice might be promoted and the interest of the country thereby protected. So thorough and searching has been the investigation that every man of any note in this order, in almost every locality where this moral cancer has existed, is known and may consider himself in future upon his good behavior. It was the policy of the Sons of Liberty, which they observed as far as it was possible for them to do, to obtain positions of trust in the army, upon the police, in the courts, in railway offices and telegraph stations, in the office of Provost Marshals, post-offices, departments of government, both local and general, indeed, so completely did they carry out this plan, that they made their boasts that they were represented upon all the railroads running out of Chicago, and it was not an unusual thing for them to report matters of the various departments just mentioned. One member of the Chicago Order, as appeared in evidence before the military commission, traveled over the North wherever he desired, on the pass of a Provost Marshal in Indiana, his business being to aid in the organization of Temples in the different sections of the West. So rapidly did they increase in numbers, that Judge Morris estimated the number in Illinois alone at 80,000 members.
It was a rule of the organization, that its members should all be well armed and skilled in the use of weapons. The rapidity of increase in numbers, rendered them conscious of their strength, and they became openly defiant and talked treason upon the corners of our streets, and wherever little groups of people assembled. The mob spirit was excited, and all were ready for mischief whenever opportunity offered; and while all were bound to wait submissively till their leaders should give the signal for revolution, still many were restless and impatient for the hour to come, and hoped that they would not long have to wait. The suppression of the Chicago Times was an auspicious moment for them, and they made capital of it. They were never tired of talking of Vallandigham, and while that worthy staid in Canada he was very serviceable to the Order, as John Rogers was of more service to the church dead than while living. Vallandigham made an excellent martyr and an accomplished exile, but as an active member at home, old Doolittle, or Charles W. Patten, or James A. Wilkinson, or J.L. Rock, or Obadiah Jackson, Jr., Esq., or even Mrs. Morris herself, was worth two just like him. Why he could not have staid in Canada for the good of the cause, we cannot understand. What a Mecca was Windsor, and how great was Mahomet, but alas, when the great, the Hon. Clement Vallandigham relapsed into the three-cent fourth-class lawyer, in the little one horse city of Dayton, “what a fall was there my countrymen.” No more pilgrimages, no more dinners with the great exile, no more texts of “arbitrary arrests” to preach from, that could draw as Val used to draw.
The reception of the news of a victory by the rebels, was always an occasion of rejoicing among the Sons and Knights, and in the exuberance of their joy they shouted their treason in all sorts of places, and at all seasons. They assumed to be peace men, and yet were always ready for a quarrel. It became evident to all who kept posted in politics, that there would be a wide division between the different wings of the Democracy at the coming National Convention, and a most determined effort was to be made by the Peace faction, to control the action of the Convention, and long before the assembling of that body, newspaper strife had commenced between them, and it was hoped, and so it proved, that like the Kilkenny cats, they devoured each other. With Peace in their mouths and contention in their hearts, the “unterrified” resolved upon a great meeting, to be held in Peoria. It was a “big thing.” The Chicago delegation took for the calumet of peace several boxes of fire-arms, so that if opportunity offered they might conquer a peace. Whiskey and gunpowder were other elements of that meeting, and as the escape of gas in petroleum wells, so noisy for a time, finally subsides, so after the ebullition at Peoria, Brig.-Gen. Walsh, and all the Chicago delegates, returned home, bringing with them their fire arms, without breaking bulk, and these weapons were carefully deposited, where they could instantly be obtained at the time of the uprising.