Confederates to Attack Camp Douglas, Free the Prisoners?

November 6, 1864 (Sunday)


“The city is filling up with suspicious characters,” wrote Col. B.J. Sweet, “some of whom we know to be escaped prisoners, and other who were here from Canada during the Chicago convention, plotting to release the prisoners of war at Camp Douglas.”

Benjamin Sweet had overseen the ins and outs of Camp Douglas since early May, and since his reign began, conditions in the prison had deteriorated, as he cut rations, enacted harsher punishments, and general ruled from his Chicago office as a loathsome tyrant.

And it was from his Chicago office where he began to become paranoid of a possible prison break. This wouldn’t have been the first attempt by the Rebels to free their comrades, so his suspicions were understandable. However, in a letter written upon this date, he posits that he had “every reason to believe that Colonel [Vincent] Marmaduke, of the rebel army, is in the city under an assumed name….” He went on to name several other officers he believed where following Marmaduke’s supposed footsteps.

“I am certainly not justifiable in waiting to take risks,” he continued, “and mean to arrest these officers if possible before morning. The head gone we can manage the body. In order to make these arrests perfect, I must also arrest two or three prominent citizens who are connected with these officers, of which the proof is amble.”

At the center of this supposed plot was the Sons of Liberty, a descendant of the feared (though mostly impotent) Knights of the Golden Circle. Those who were believed to have Southern-sympathies were often accused of being part of this organization, and Sweet wished now to arrest them.

From General John Cook, commanding the department from Springfield, Illinois, Sweet received permission to arrest two Confederate officers posing at citizens of Chicago – Maj. Morrison Maurice and Capt. Thomas Sevia.

But it was from neither Maurice nor Sevia where the plans to free the Camp Douglas prisoners sprang. Such machinations came from Capt. Thomas Hines and Charles Walsh, who lived near the prison. They selected November 8th – Election Day – as the best time to enact their plan.

Early in the month, Hines and a number of his men did enter the city of Chicago. These were the agents noticed by Sweet. Armed with only an order to arrest Maurice and Sevia, and seemingly without any knowledge of Hines, Sweet ordered the arrest of Charles Walsh, as well as Buckner Morris, a judge thought to be a member of the Sons of Liberty.

Three squads would be sent. The first to capture Walsh, the second for the judge, and a third to track down the scads of Rebel soldiers believed to be posing as vagabonds (supposedly led by Hines).

But so much of this suspicion was unfounded. While Hines arrived in Chicago in late summer for the Democratic Convention, he immediately understood that if there ever was a chance to free the prisoners from Camp Douglas, he had missed his opportunity. Others apparently involved in some plot, such as Vincent Marmaduke, were merely caught up in the paranoia.

Add to this yet another plot. Supposed “reliable men” claimed that they overheard a stranger talking to a notorious Copperhead, saying “I am one of Forrest’s men. Forrest has been in disguise alternately in Chicago, Michigan City, and Canada for two months; has 14,000 men, mostly from draft, near Michigan City. On 7th of November, midnight, will seize telegraph and rail at Chicago, release prisoners there, arm them, sack the city, shoot down all Federal soldiers, and urge concert of action with Southern sympathizers.”

This incredibly tall tale was untouched by Sweet, but Joe Hooker, now commanding at Cleveland, Ohio, had only this to say: “It is all stuff.” Nevertheless, he sent two companies of troops to appease Col. Sweet, though he required them to be returned to him the day after the election.

Camp Douglas
Camp Douglas

The next morning (the 7th), the squads sent out by Sweet would round up a number of Confederate officers and sympathizers, though oddly not the two officers named in his arrest order. Nevertheless, the prisoners included Charles Walsh.

The column, led by Col. Lewis Skinner, forced their way into the Walsh house in the early morning, arrested him and searched the place, one of the soldiers making off with $550 of Walsh’s own money. According to Sweet’s report, his men seized “two cart loads of large-sized revolvers, loaded and capped, and two hundred muskets and a large quantity of ammunition.”

In Skinner’s testimony, however, he made no mention of such items – a curious detail to simply forget. In fact, in testimony given after the raid, the commander of said raid claimed that he saw no weapons or ammunition of any kind.

With these men under arrest, a trail was set for January, during which each of the supposed conspirators plead not-guilty. Charles Walsh, despite Skinner’s testimony, was sentenced, along with another, to a term of five years in the Ohio penitentiary. A few others, including Marmaduke, were found innocent, but two others, Charles T. Daniels and George St. Leger Grenfel, were sentienced to death by hanging.

All did not work out exactly as planned for the Federals, however. Walsh was set free along with another, one, a man named Anderson, committed suicide while in prison, and another escaped during the trial. The only one left, Grenfel, who was to be hanged, had his sentence commuted to life in prison. He escaped three years later and was never recaptured.

If this whole plot seems like a completely confusing mess, that is because it was. What exactly happened or was about to happen is even today unclear. More than likely, Col. Sweet exaggerated not only the conspiracy, but also the weapons cache. There was, as General Hooker quickly determined, never a threat to the prison. More than likely, Sweet just wanted to flex his muscles, which resulted in the suicide of one victim and the near death-sentences of two others. These men, of course, were indeed Southern sympathizers, though any plot to overthrow the prison was long ago abandoned.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 3, p678, 694-695; Rally ‘Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War by Theodore J. Karamanski; A History of Chicago, Volume II: From Town to City 1848-1871 by Bessie Louise Pierce; “Copperhead Activities” by Dr. John W. Miller. — Also, I’d like to apologize for the random and haphazard nature of this post. The story got away from me. It was frustrating and complex. It also involved the St. Albans Raid, which I didn’t want to get into. []
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Confederates to Attack Camp Douglas, Free the Prisoners? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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