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CAMP DOUGLAS 1864 CONSPIRACY

On November 8 1864, a serious plot named as "The Chicago Conspiracy" was devised by Southern sympathizers to assault and subsequently free some 8,000 Confederate prisoners of war incarcerated at the Union "Camp Douglas" prisoner of war camp in Chicago. Then, following this sudden stroke, they would quickly march on Rock Island, Springfield and Alton Union prisoner of war camps also based in the state of Illinois where there were a further 16,500 Confederate prisoners of war. Alongside 4,000 Confederate sympathizers from the Sons Of Liberty organisation based in Chicago who would initially liberate them, this would create a new Confederate army of approximately 25,000 mainly veteran soldiers. This army would then go on to capture Chicago and then attack the rear of the Union armies operating mainly in the South. It was planned they would also go on to seize the organised Northern Governments of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and create a Northwestern Confederacy. Currently, many historians are still arguing over whether the plot was actually real, feasible or perhaps an elaborate hoax which was unduly exaggerated and exploited so that certain Federal Officers would benefit. Whatever, this is the story of this infamous plot.

The Confederate Government had long harboured the creation of a Northwestern Confederacy and initial arrangements were already in place, prior to the plot, with a base of operations set up in Canada to achieve this. In the spring of 1864, Confederate agents were sent to plan escape attempts and attacks in the North. Three Confederate Peace Commissioners namely Jacob Thomas, C.C Clay and J.P Halcomb had already been sent by Richmond to Canada. Here they held numerous conferences and meetings with Southern sympathizers and organisations particularly Clement Vallandigham of Indiana and Charles Walsh of Chicago. With full knowledge of the plot, they oversaw the overall movement and entrusted the whole conspiracy to Captain Thomas. H. Hines (who had been second in command of General John Morgan`s famous raid North of the Ohio River) and Colonel St. Leger. Grenfell (an Englishman). Both had been sent by the Confederate Secret Service and they were to organise and plan the whole military operation. They worked both diligently and with great zeal. They were to encourage and recruit with both argument and money and particularly invigorate the timorous Sons of Liberty. They also contacted the Knights of the Golden Circle. Both these groups were at the forefront of pro southern resistance in Chicago against the Lincoln Administration.

Initially, there was to be a draft of volunteers in July 1864 with the Sons of Liberty being armed prior to an uprising being fixed for 24 July 1864. This part of the scheme was abandoned when the Union authorities heard rumours of a possible breakout. Captain Hines subsequently located himself in Chicago and personally became involved in the distribution of funds and the purchase of all the necessary arms required. The date finally fixed for the second attempt to liberate the Confederate prisoners was August 29 1864. This date was exactly the same as the National Democratic Convention in Chicago and it was envisaged that the presence of so many Sons of Liberty and pro southern sympathizers would not attract adverse comment or suspicion. The assault was also to coincide with an attack from the water by a group of Canadian refugees led by Captain J. Castleman. However, further suspicions had been aroused and Camp Douglas was reinforced with both an additional regiment of Infantry and a battery of Artillery. In addition, the actual organisation of the proposed assaulting force appeared to lack the necessary courage as only 25 volunteers reported. The plan was originally meant to attract 100 men but now 1,000 would be required due to the reinforcements at the camp. The assault was again temporarily abandoned.

The next date proposed for the assault on Chicago was November 8th 1864, the day of President Lincoln`s second election. All the same and necessary preliminaries were made but no water attack was planned. But this time, Chicago was to be burned, flooded and it`s banks raided and pillaged. Specific detachments were designated roles in starting fires, opening fire plugs, securing arms and attacking bank facilities. However, by this time, the Sons of Liberty and the other supporting Confederate organisations had been infiltrated by the United States Secret Service and the plans of Captain Hines were well known to the Federal Authorities. An efficient body of detectives was put upon their track and organised by General Sweet, the commandant of Camp Douglas. He had invaluable inside intelligence and assistance from a Colonel Langthorne ( an ex- Confederate who had taken the oath of allegiance without the knowledge of the plot`s organisers) and Colonel Shanks ( a Confederate prisoner turned "Turncoat" inside Camp Douglas) known as "The Texan".

Both Colonels Langthorne and Shanks were appalled by the sinister nature of the new plot as full details emerged and Shanks was allowed to escape from Camp Douglas and get into contact with the plot`s leaders and let them conceal him. All the time, both faithfully appraised General Sweet of the plans. And, as such, on the night of November 6th 1864, numerous simultaneous arrests were made and the majority of the conspirators were arrested and taken into custody. Of 106 men arrested, over half were later released. Captain Hines was also captured but escaped and travelled to Canada. The others were subsequently tried by the Military Commission at Cincinnati for conspiracy. The Englishman Colonel St. Leger. Grenfell was sentenced to be hung but this was later commuted to life imprisonment on the Dry Tortugas. He mysteriously disappeared some years later but whether he escaped or drowned has never been known. It is worth mentioning that his brother was a General in the British Army and repeated attempts to secure his release were made by the British Government.

After the exposure of the contemplated conspiracy, rebel agents immediately offered a reward of $1,000 in gold for the taking of Colonel Shanks (aka "The Texan") life and he was bitterly persecuted. In 1865, President Lincoln learnt of this and rewarded him with a commission as a Captain and he was moved to the plains to fight the Indians. He was the only former Confederate prisoner ever commissioned as a Federal Officer. With regards General Sweet, commandant of Camp Douglas, he was widely praised by the citizens of Chicago as well as the whole Union and was recognised by the Government with a promotion to Brigadier General.

Two overall factors led to the failure of this '. Firstly, General Benjamin J. Sweet, commandant at the camp, with only 900 troops to guard 8,000 prisoners, received prior warning and detailed intelligence that a plot was afoot and wired for further reinforcements. Another Union Regiment of Infantry and a battery of artillery was added to the guard and the increased vigilance destroyed all hope whatsoever of a successful break.

At the same time, the plotters themselves realised that simply setting the prisoners free would not make an army of them. They would need organising and properly arming. In addition, not enough volunteers could be persuaded to become involved in the initial assault. These issues created fatal delays before the eventual arrest and incarceration of the majority of the conspirators and the finality of the plot.

Article by Stewart "Goober" Douglas

Notes: The first ever use of the phrase " to hell in a hand basket" recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary occurred during an August 1864 Meeting of the Sons Of Liberty in Chicago. It is alleged that Judge Buckner Morris, a Circuit Court Judge of Illinois and the Sons of Liberty Treasurer who was later arrested said " Thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would send abolitionists "to hell in a hand basket"!

Sources: Wikipedia, Internet sources, George Levy "To die in Chicago: Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-1865" and Dennis Kelly "A History of Camp Douglas, Illinois, Union Prison 1862-1865".


The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Autumn 2013