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.

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