The Rebel Plot to Sieze Chicago

On election day, 1864, Chicagoans were greeted to a surprise headline in the paper:


Confederate agents and “Copperheads” (southern sympathizers), they claimed, had been captured in the act of planning to release the 9000 prisoners at Camp Douglas, the confederate prison at about 31st and Cottage Grove. The prisoners and conspirators would overwhelm the guards, cut the telegraph lines, and make sure no one in town voted for Lincoln at the ballot box in the process of burning down the city, just as General Sherman had burned Atlanta. Had the plot not been foiled by the gallant actions of Colonel B.J. Sweet, who had acted on information supplied by double agents, Chicago would had been laid to waste.

Some still say that if it had been successful, it would have been the first step in establishing a Northwestern confederacy, or forced England and France to recognize the CSA as a legitimate, independent county and supply them will military aid (it’s sort of odd to think of now, but in those days the South was desperate for approval from France).

As with anything to do with the Civil War, historians are sharply divided on where “The Northwest Conspiracy” was a genuine threat.  Some say the whole thing was a hoax dreamed up by Col. Sweet to make himself look like a hero, and by the Tribune to galvanize Union loyalists to vote for Lincoln on election day. Others say that it was a real conspiracy, and could have changed the tide of the war. These arguments aren’t new. Even as early as the day after the conspiracy was announced, many papers (especially Democratic-leaning ones) said it was all nonsense. Wilbur F. Storey of the copperhead Chicago Times said that if there was a conspiracy at all, it was probably just six people, four of whom were undercover detectives. The Times was an anti-Lincoln paper; he famously referred to the Gettysburgh address as “Silly, flat, dishwatery utterances” that must “make the cheek of every American tingle with shame.”

I spent most of today (prior to a ghost hunt at Camp Douglas) reading contemporary articles and wound up thinking that the truth lay somewhere in between (as it nearly always does). Memoirs written by people involved years later make it clear that there WAS a conspiracy, but it was probably just a handful of nuts, not hundreds of people. Several confederate soldiers and sympathizers HAD come to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention that summer, planning to cause trouble, but they scrapped plans in the summer and postponed them. Several did come back in November, but if they thought they had a huge support network in place, they were dreaming. But they were making plans, and at least one or two of them were leaking information to Col. Sweet. One problem with getting to the truth of the matter is that none of the people who later spoke of it seemed to be able to tell the story without turning themselves into either the hero who saved the Union at the last minute of the visionary who almost destroyed the Union.

Thomas Hines, a confederate spy who is sometimes thought of as a James Bond-like character (he was into planning covert confederate raids and escaped capture many times), had partnered up with a Chicago group called The Sons of Liberty who assured him that they’d get him hundreds, perhaps thousands, of copperheads to stage the raid. The head of the group, one Charles Walsh, was something of a b-rate conspirator, not the kind of guy who could have secretly drummed up an entire army.  Thomas Hines was great at escaping (he escaped Col. Sweet’s men by hiding in a mattress), but not really good at accomplishing the goals of his missions. 

It tends to pain me to admit that Wilbur F. Storey was right about anything, but the conspiracy really WAS mostly just a couple of idiots and some double-agents who led them on.  One analogy we might make is that this was a situation like having the recess monitor catch a bunch of second graders plotting to rub sticks together until they burned down the school.
above: Hines, who had once tunneled out of prison, and who would later make another escape after being mistaken for John Wilkes Booth.

Still, it’s always tempting to play “what if” with the Civil War. A mass break-out at Camp Douglas WAS an ever-present possibility. The prison was not particularly well guarded (prisoners outnumbered guards 10:1), and it seems possible that if Hines had picked better co-conspirators and had had a stroke or two of luck, the liberation of the prisoners could have become a reality, and the Battle of Chicago would have entered the Civil War history books. Just imagine – Chicago burned, a Confederate flag on the courthouse, an ironclad battleship cruising into Lake Michigan. By this time it probably wouldn’t have turned the tide of the war, but it could have dragged things out for a few extra months.

Will there be brochures on YOUR coffin?

This past weekend was our first Civil War tour. Many people wondered how the heck we’d fill up a tour with Civil War stuff in a city miles from the nearest major battle, but there’s an awful lot of stuff related to the war in Chicago (and, being Weird Chicago, we had plenty of cool stuff to talk about in the space between stops).

I always learn a lot of neat stuff when doing research for new tours, but the biggest shocker this time was that the grave of Stephen Douglas comes complete with brochures:

Douglas was an Illinois senator who introduced the Kansas Nebraska Act, which opened the door for slavery to expand into the North (he was pelted with produce in Chicago for it). In 1858, he debated Abe Lincoln in a series of famous debates on the expansion of slavery as part of their campaign for senate. Davis won, but lost the presidential election to Lincoln two years later.

His memorial is near the lake on 35th street – a massive pillar with a statue of him on top of it. At the bottom of the pillar sits the burial chamber, where one can walk right up to his sarcophagus and grab a brochure. It would be a pretty tacky place to put them, but, well, Douglas was sort of a jerk*, so I guess it’s a wash

* – Douglas’ exact views on race and slavery seem to have varied depending on what was convenient for him at the time. I’m not comfortable judging people from 150 years ago by the standards we have today – even Lincoln’s views on race were rather backwards by today’s standards. But the racial stuff Douglas put forth at the Lincoln Douglas debates was pretty harsh business. At the very least, the man was on the wrong side of history.

A riot we can be proud of!

We’ve had our fair share of riots in Chicago, from the beer riots on the Clark Street Bridge in the the 1850s to the riots at the chaotic Democratic convention of 1968. Most of them look like dark blots on our city’s history. But in 1854, we had a riot of which we can still be proud.

The riot was over a speech by Stephen Douglas, an Illinois congressman best remembered today for being Abraham Lincoln’s rival in the famous Lincoln Douglas debates. To understand the riot, you have to understand that the most bitter debate in American politics in those days was, as it had been since the days of the first continental congress, slavery. From the beginning, some states allowed it, and some didn’t. Every time a NEW state was added, they’d have to argue about whether to allow slavery there or not. Finally, to stop the debate, there came the Missouri Compromise, which stated that slavery would be legal in Missouri, but, after that, it wouldn’t be legal in any state north of the southern border of Missouri. This cooled people down for a while, though it also clearly made slavery into a North-South issue. The whole point of the Mexican American was was to add more southern states, so the slave-holding states would continue to outnumber the non-slave states. Abraham Lincoln nearly ruined his career by arguing against the Mexican-American war.

Anyway, one of the reasons it took so long for anything to be done about slavery was, well, that America was democracy. You couldn’t become president without appealing to the slave-holding states (at least at the time – Lincoln would go on to win despite not even being on the ballot in most of the South). When Stephen Douglas got it into his head that he wanted to be president, he thought he’d have to do something to make him more attractive to southern voted. Hence, he got behind the Kansas-Nebraska act, which did away with the Missouri Compromise and stated that any time a new state joined the union, they could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. Slave-holding states actually went so far as to send militia groups into Kansas to make sure that it made slavery legal in a series of battles that were sort of warm-ups for the civil war.

Then as now, the talk in Chicago taverns among old drunks was generally quite conservative. An abolitionist would be best off keeping his big mouth shut in the bars (even in the 1970s, on of Mike Royko’s pieces of advice on tourists who wanted to pass for locals was not to say anything enlightened about race in the bars). But the old drunks didn’t really represent the real mood of the city – all over the south, people sneered about “abolitionist Chicago.”

And, when Stephen Douglas came to town in 1854 to give a speech promoting the Kansas-Nebraska act at Market Hall (which stood at the current site of the Criminal Court building on Hubbard and Dearborn), people came out not to hear what he had to say, but to throw eggs and vegetables at him.

“In the melee that followed,” wrote the Tribune, “nearly everybody got another man’s hat.”

The Ghost of John WIlkes Booth

A few months after his capture and death, John Wilkes Booth was sited in McVicker’s Theatre, the Madison St. theatre where he had performed a couple of stints in Chicago. No one said it was a ghost, though – they simply said that it was evidence that he hadn’t really died at all. Conspiracy theories of this nature are still going around; for years, a mummified version of the REAL Booth was a big hit at carnivals.

In 1866, a seance to contact Booth’s spirit was held in a house on the West side. His ghost came when called (or, anyway, the medium made it SEEM as though he did – these things were pretty generally bogus) and his voice was heard, but he did not appear visually, since “the devil would not permit it.”

In any case, the “ghost” gave a whole new version of the assassination story, stating that he fired at Lincoln from the front, but that the President turned his head, which is why the bullet entered from the back. He also stated that he broke his leg not in the jump to the stage but by falling from his horse later (this, in fact, happens to be correct).

He went on to say that he had also planned to kill Vice President Johnson (which, in fact, was someone else’s job). He was most emphatically glad that he had killed Lincoln, but equally glad that he hadn’t killed Johnson, who he liked very much (which makes sense, since Johnson was probably the most racist president ever; Booth’s ghost was sure he would re-establish slavery). He wouldn’t support his re-election, though – he argued for McClellan (a Union general who spent most of the early days of the war sitting on his butt, then ran against Lincoln in 1864) or Robert E. Lee as the next President and even mused about a McClellan / Lee “dream ticket.”

He was then asked:
Q: “Are you in heaven?”
A: No.
Q: Are you in the other place?
A: Yes.
Q: Is there a devil there?
Q: Does he treat you rough?
A: YES! (the tabble jiggered violently here).
Q: Do you think you deserve it?

He went on to admit that he was a pretty bad actor (he was fairly eccentric in his portrayals of well known Shakespeare rolls, but the Trib called him a genius), but was just as good as his brother, Edwin (who was widely thought of as the greatest Shakespearean actor of the day), and went on at great length about President Johnson and the type of people who supported him in the form of “automatic writing” before disappearing abruptly.

Seances like these – with knocks on tables, etc – were all the rage around the time of the Civil War. Mediums found all sorts of fascinating ways to fake them, up to and including pulling cheese cloth out of their more nefarious orifices and calling them “ectoplasm.” Even the most die-hard believers knew that most of the “mediums” were frauds.