The Great North-Western Conspiracy In All Its Startling Details
By I. Windslow Ayer
Public Domain Books
TIME FIXED FOR THE UPRISING OR REVOLUTION–EXTENSIVE PREPARATIONS–DRILL AND DISCIPLINE OF CLUBS–OPEN THREATS UPON OUR STREETS–MASS MEETINGS AND TARGET PRACTICE OF TRAITORS–PREPARATIONS FOR THE NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION IN CHICAGO–WHY THE UPRISING DID NOT TAKE PLACE–PRICE BEHIND TIME–ANOTHER PERIOD FIXED–ALL READY AT THE CONVENTION–PROMPT AND TIMELY PRECAUTION BY COLONEL SWEET.
The approach of the time fixed for the general uprising, witnessed remarkable and very unusual activity among the members of the Sons of Liberty, who now saw vividly the complete realization of their wishes, and were all, rank and file, in obedience to orders, busy with preparations. Little did the busy bustling city know of the plans and movements on foot. The same activity in trade, the same hopeful spirit among Union persons, the same gatherings at amusements, the same busy hum of industry as ever; nothing gave evidence of the existence of the terrible plot so soon to culminate, and to destroy by a single blow the hopes of our people,–to inaugurate a reign of terror as fearful as any in the history of the war. Citizens met and congratulated each other upon Union victories, and upon the probable speedy close of the national strife, and at the firesides of home discussed the terrible ravages of war, and as they knelt at the family altar, thanked God that our own city, and our State, and our section of the Union, had thus far been spared the immediate horrors and desolation which ever mark the theatre of warfare. Who of all in our fair city, besides the guilty wretches who were plotting the ruin and slaughter, had even a foreboding of the trouble so nearly upon them. For rebels in arms to commit cruelties and barbarities would have been expected, but for the authors of our ruin to be our very friends and neighbors, persons associated with us in business avocations, in social relations, and in the enjoyment of the same general blessings with ourselves, surpassed belief; yet such was the fact, and the faces that beamed smiles upon us by day, and joined us in our congratulations for national victories, by night were hideous with the dark designs and murderous intent. The gunsmiths were busy, and trade in weapons of all kinds was brisk; revolvers and knives particularly were articles of demand. So brisk and yet so silently and secretly, was the arming of individuals carried on, that weeks before the Convention assembled, but few, if any, of the members of Copperhead organizations but were well armed, and many had arms with which to supply other persons who might be less fortunate than themselves. It was indeed a dark picture to look in upon a group of the Sons of Liberty in their secure retreats, in the quiet hours of night, cleaning, repairing and inspecting their muskets and revolvers, moulding bullets, and making other preparations, and realizing that the mission of these monsters was the murder of men who dared proclaim and maintain their devotion to the Union. Upon the streets treason became emboldened, as time rolled on, and not a few personal collisions occurred from its utterance.
All this while that contemptible print, the Chicago Times, was instilling treason into the minds of its readers, and doing all that it could to embarrass the Government, discourage patriotism, and to give aid and comfort to the rebels; our victories, with that sheet, were always unimportant; our cause was unholy; our President a despot; our Union soldiers were hirelings; our Union-loving citizens were abolition fanatics; Jeff Davis was a master spirit of the age; his generals the heroes of the Times; and rebel victories were events cheering and hope giving, as they presaged the close of the war and peace; peace at the sacrifice of the Union, of national honor, of national dignity and national interests. Such was the Chicago Times at that period–the darkest era in our history–and as well might we have looked for mercy from a hyena, or reason from a ghoul, as in the event of open insurrection in our city, to have looked to Wilbur F. Story, editor of the Times, to have endeavored to suppress the flames his incendiary print had for years been fanning into a blaze. And yet, citizens of Chicago and the West, this same Chicago Times, now, after the occupation of Richmond by our forces, and the surrender of Lee and all his forces, and the end of the rebellion is at hand, this same Chicago Times pretends to rejoice in our success, and some days turns a cold shoulder upon its old friend and patron, who has contributed to its circulation and prosperity for years–Jeff Davis–and really declares that his master’s cause is hopeless. Most noble Story, most patriotic Story, most consistent Story! Rather weep with the fallen fortunes of your masters. Flatter not yourself that the cloak of loyalty, which you have found it so convenient to fling around you, as our Union processions come marching along with thundering tread, that they will believe your conversion sincere and lasting; the cloak is not long enough to conceal your feet, and Union men will recognize the same Wilbur F. Story, and none will be so obtuse as not to discover under any disguise Bottom, the tailor. In the position of that Copperhead print, the state of mind of the Times man reminds us of an instance of what may be called poor consolation, A soldier of a division, after the command had run two days from the scene of an engagement, had thrown away his gun and accouterments, and alone in the woods sat down and commenced thinking–the first opportunity he had for doing so. Rolling up his sleeves, and looking at his legs and general physique, he thus gave utterance to his feelings: “I am whipped–badly whipped–and somewhat demoralized, but no man, thank God, can say I’m scattered!” And so, the Chicago Times, though kicked out of respectable society long ago, continues to print its daily issues, while from the scarcity of Copperheads all at once, since our recent glorious victories, we infer that they have been “scattered;” and as snakes cast their skins in the spring, so the Copperhead Times seems to have cast its own this season; but though it may appear in more pleasing garb with its present covering, let none forget that it is the same old Copperhead still. And the time will come when some enterprising showman will obtain and exhibit the last issue of that delectable sheet as the acme of treason and corruption during the war, and as an illustration of what villainy the mind of man may conceive, when he once turns against his country.
About the period of which we write, say a month prior to the Convention, informal meetings of the Sons of Liberty were frequent, and large numbers of the members often went out of the city on excursions, nominally for pleasure, but really for practice with fire arms. The most active preparations were made by the Democrats, resident of Chicago, to be able to accommodate their brethren from abroad, who would attend the Convention, or who would pay them an earlier visit; for the time of the uprising, it will be remembered, had been fixed for about the middle of August. The time assigned arrived, but “all was quiet on the Potomac,” and along the placid and fragrant Chicago. It was a complete fizzle, but not from want of harmonious action on the part of the Copperheads of the Northwest, but to the chagrin of the Rebel government, Gen. Price failed to make his appearance in the vicinity of St. Louis, or Buckner about Louisville. The disappointment and vexation of the Sons of Liberty was great, and it found expression in the peculiar style of oratory and diction, which Judge Morris had introduced into the Temple. The failure of the rebels to concur, as had been arranged, was for a time quite inexplicable and unsatisfactory to the most ultra secesh of the Temple. It was not easy to communicate with Price and Buckner, and much mystery and doubt hung over the failure. The leaders were in doubt as to the wisdom of rising at the Convention, some being in favor and others adverse to it. It was evident the leaders were not a little embarrassed, but they finally agreed that a large force of “bone and muscle” should be on hand in Chicago at the Convention, and if it was found that the War Democrats should be in the ascendency, and the Peace wing could get nothing–either platform or candidate–the uprising should occur at that time, but so confident were the Peace men that they should be able to have the control of the Convention, that Judge Morris and Brig.-Gen. Walsh, and other leaders, announced to the members of the Illini their entire belief that there would be no doubt of the success of the Peace wing, in that Convention, and if so, no insurrectionary movement would be expedient; but if the uprising did not occur then, it surely would at the time of the Presidential election, and in the time which would elapse between the Convention and the election, the most active and earnest efforts would be made to strengthen the numbers of the Temples of the Sons of Liberty, wherever they existed. Judge Morris had expressed the confident belief that no difficulty would occur at the Convention, but declared if they (the Copperheads) should meet with any interference, the most serious results would follow.
The rank and file who had been edified by such men as J.L. Rock, Charles W. Patten, James A. Wilkinson, L.C. Morrison, L.A. Doolittle, James Geary, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Dooley, Mr. Frank Adams, City Attorney, and many others were most impatient, and it was quite probable that a slight cause of offence with Union men would result in an open riot, that could not be suppressed till the grand aim of the Order was accomplished. About this time L.A. Doolittle, who was never tired of expressing his devotion to the distinguished exile Mr. Vallandigham, announced that Mr. V., who was Supreme Commander of the whole Order, would honor the Chicago Temple with a visit during the Convention, but that worthy could not find time to make the visit. As the excitement of the coming Convention seized upon the minds of those who were to participate in it, much speech making was done inside the Temples. At these meetings the writer particularly noticed two members, who seemed to have fallen into disfavor by the course which they had seen fit to adopt. One of these men was Christopher C. Strawn, a young lawyer of this city, of some education, a very fair order of talents, and who had seemed hitherto taciturn and reserved. Upon conversation with him we were astonished to find that he did not approve of the Jeff. Davis principles, and had no fellowship with any overt act of treason. He had been appointed a Brigadier-General, on the ground of his supposed ability, but early took occasion to express himself, in such a manner that his commission was speedily revoked. Mr. Strawn was, he declares, not in the clique who favored a revolution. Mr. Strawn was subsequently arrested, but he was soon released, and freely communicated truthful information to the authorities.
During the summer an event truly unfortunate for the Sons of Liberty took place, it being an exposť in the Chicago Tribune of the signs, grips, passwords, &c. of the order. This was a cause of great distress of mind. We remember that at a meeting about the 25th of August (Charles W. Patten presiding), the expediency of changing the signs, grips, &c. was considered, inasmuch as it would be unsafe to use them in public, but the lateness of the day, and the time drawing so near when the entire forces of the order would be called into requisition, it was not deemed expedient to undertake any change or modification. At this meeting Judge Morris made a speech in which he said that a demand had been made for arms seized in Indiana (as Col. Walker had proposed to do), and if the demand failed, the revolution would be begun in Indiana “as sure as there was a God in heaven or an abolitionist in hell.”
At a meeting of the Chicago Temple Sons of Liberty, on the eve of the Convention, we heard for the first time (and that from the mouth of L.A. Doolittle), a definite plan for the attack of Camp Douglas. Doolittle told how the camp was situated, and that it was accessible on two sides; that guns were in position on only one side, and the west side was referred to by him as being the weakest; he spoke of the common board fence which formed the enclosure, and of the ease with which the camp could be taken, and the vast importance of liberating the prisoners the first thing upon an uprising. The speech of Doolittle was variously received; many of the members were much interested; others who were in the higher degrees of the order were vexed beyond measure that Doolittle should be so stupid as to proclaim, in this public manner, a matter which really belonged to higher degrees of the organization to decide. One of the number, James Geary, a second-hand clothes dealer and broker on Wells street, who will receive further mention by and by, became so much incensed that he ordered Mr. Doolittle to his seat, declaring, with an oath, that Doolittle was telling too much.
At a meeting about this time, several of the members spoke upon the subject of releasing the prisoners at Camp Douglas. A map of Camp Douglas was exhibited by an individual present, who seemed to be a soldier. The map was a fine piece of work and had been made by a hand accustomed to such labor. Upon this map the precise position of the various departments, headquarters, cannon, &c., were laid down. There could be no shadow of doubt in the mind of any man not stupefied with whiskey, and possessed of common sense, that the details of the attack had been carefully considered by those who were most interested in leading it on.
It had for some time been the policy of the Sons of Liberty to unite with the Invincible Democratic Club and the various McClellan escorts in the city and elsewhere, and seek to become its officers, that in case of an outbreak it would be far better to be the controlling power, than to be controlled. This plan worked admirably, and the Democratic Invincible Club of Chicago became one of the most corrupt organizations outside the order of Sons of Liberty. Its secretary at one time was Charles W. Patten, who had been a Grand Seignior of the Chicago Temple, was also a member of the Grand Council, and had taken a very active part in the prosperity of the order, and was chairman of the committee to see that all the Sons of Liberty were armed. One of the officers of the above named Club was Capt. P.D. Parks, whose devotion to Jeff. Davis and good whiskey were noticeable features in his character. This Capt. Parks was captain of the Invincible Club and often made speeches in the Sons of Liberty Hall.
On Saturday the 26th August (two days prior to the National Democratic Convention), immense numbers of persons came flocking to Chicago, indeed at no former time in the history of the city was there such an influx of strangers; they came in the cars and in wagon trains, and on horseback. One county alone sent nearly a thousand men. It was a noticeable fact that almost all persons who came into the city were well armed, and some of them even brought muskets. Treason was now rampant, and it would not be difficult, in looking around upon the most unprepossessing groups, and to hear the language, to fancy one’s-self in Charleston, or some other nest of treason. From all the men who came to the city we did not, in a single instance, hear one good, hearty expression of Unionism, but our “Southern brethren and their rights,” and this “wicked war,” &c., &c., were the topics of conversation, and it was safe to set it down, that this was the Peace wing of that most remarkable bird,–Democracy of 1864.
The writer was in close communication with Col. Sweet, commandant at Camp Douglas, and by aid of our auxiliaries not an item of information concerning the hostile intentions of the party transpired, that was not known instantly by Col. Sweet,–special carriers or orderlies conveying our dispatches. It must not be supposed that our observations were confined to Chicago. Our channels of communication with the principal points in the West were unobstructed; our “telegraphic cable” was in fine working order, and if those wise heads for a moment fancied that Col. B.J. Sweet might be caught napping, they were the worst self-deceived men we have ever seen. Col. Sweet proceeded with all caution and celerity to make his arrangements, and we beg the Colonel not to regard it as a breach of confidence in us to say, that the guns were in such a position and so well managed, that had there been any attempt to have assaulted the camp, there would not have been able-bodied traitors enough left, to have carried the killed and wounded to secure retreats. Almost any officer, perhaps, less cool than Col. Sweet would have blustered about in such a manner as to have rendered himself not only positively offensive to the citizens, but would have placed the city under martial law, and doubtless precipitated the very event it was wise for a time to avert. Col. Sweet was cool, and managed the matter with the most perfect military ability and skill. He compelled everybody, friend and foe, to respect him by his dignified, gentlemanly bearing, and yet there was that about his appearance that told plainer than words, that while he was courteous, polite, kind and willing to do all in his power and consistent with his duty to preserve the peace, yet had an outbreak been begun, of all men in Chicago, rebels and sympathisers would prefer to get as far as possible from Col. Sweet, or the reach of his influence. This gallant officer had his men under such perfect discipline that a simple request, even when the men were not on duty, was obeyed with the alacrity as if it had been a peremptory order. The discovery that Col. Sweet was ready for them, which discovery was early made and duly reported, had much to do with the good order which prevailed in Chicago during the Convention.