Optimism sprang anew as temperatures warmed, birds chirped and flowers bloomed, welcoming another spring’s arrival. However, in 1864, as the war entered its fourth year, attention focused on the cloud of uncertainty hovering above the Confederacy.
The previous July, Yankees smashed General Lee’s northern invasion at Gettysburg while General Grant cleared the final main obstacle in the Mississippi River by capturing Vicksburg. In northern Georgia, General Sherman now eyed Atlanta’s vital railroad hub.
Even more critical than the South’s diminishing geography was her lack of men to fill the dwindling ranks and her diminishing supply sources for those soldiers. The manpower disparity continued widening as formerly enslaved people and free blacks, in addition to the neverending stream of European immigrants, constantly refilled the Union ranks.
Toward the end of April, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of State Judah Benjamin met again with peace emissaries Jacob Thompson and Clement Clay to discuss a solution. During this final meeting, just prior to the commissioners’ departure to Canada, they finalized strategy for a broad-based plan, eventually known as the Northwestern Conspiracy, which could very well change the tide of war.
Sever the head of the Yankee serpent, the Southerners believed, and the enemy would lose its sense of direction, and in short order, the war. The Confederacy’s plot focused upon a series of clandestine operations designed to create havoc far behind the Union lines, build discontent with the Lincoln administration and even refill the ranks of their shrinking army.
While the North’s vast industrial complex continued supplying its numerically superior army and navy, the cost of war in dollars and blood was taking its toll on the Northern populace. If a Democratic peace candidate could unseat the Republicans and Lincoln in the fall election, Southerners believed independence could become a reality.
However, covert activity had long been perceived as diametrically opposed to the Southerners’ chivalrous images of themselves. Attitudes changed in the late winter of 1864, with the discovery of alleged orders captured during a bungled Union raid, igniting the controversy known as the Dahlgren Affair. The instructions apparently ordered the release of Union POWs incarcerated in Richmond prisons, the capture of Confederate heads of state and even the sanctioned elimination of those civilian leaders if capture proved impractical.
If the Confederates chose to fight the war under these new rules endorsed by the enemy, a number of avenues opened to assail the Yankees.
That summer, the Rebels unsuccessfully attempted to send a parcel, containing unwashed blankets used by smallpox victims, to the Lincoln White House. In October, Confederate operatives robbed two banks and set fire to the small town of St. Albans, Vermont. On Thanksgiving weekend, five fires simultaneously ignited in New York City hotels, in an attempt to burn down the metropolis. Near Buffalo, in early December, Southern agents attempted to free high-ranking Confederate officers by derailing a train suspected of transporting them from Johnson’s Island to Fort Lafayette in New York City.
The most ambitious plan called for releasing Confederate soldiers from northern prisons. If successful, these freed men could replenish the South’s thinning ranks, not to mention the chaos thousands of newly freed soldiers roaming through enemy territory would create. The latter action could even draw Union troops away from the lines facing Robert E. Lee in Virginia.
Camp Chase, in Columbus, held as many as 9,400 prisoners. In Indianapolis, Camp Morton confined over 5,000. Johnson’s Island at one time incarcerated 3,250 officers, which proved very appealing.
The contingent of Confederate peace commissioners took full advantage of Canada’s geographic location to cautiously launch operations into the northern United States. The South still longed for recognition from Great Britain, forcing operations to move ahead delicately, so as not to jeopardize existing relations with the British. Equally cautious, Northern agents suspicious of Southern agents avoided aggressive actions which might antagonize the British.
Richmond designated Jacob Thompson, former Secretary of the Interior under President James Buchanan, as the civilian head of the entire operation from New England to the Mississippi River. Captain Thomas Henry Hines served as military leader and answered directly to Thompson.
Union forces captured Hines, a Kentuckian, along with many of Morgan’s raiders, during their foray into Ohio in the summer of 1863. Many credited Hines for engineering the daring escape, which freed John Hunt Morgan and others, including Hines, from the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus later that year.
Each bloody battle in 1864 served to magnify Southern weaknesses while intensifying Northern discontent with the escalating war. The Confederate contingent sailed toward Canada, confident conditions favored a successful launch for the Northwest Conspiracy, commencing with the liberation of Camp Chase POWs, in conjunction with the Democratic Convention, convening in Chicago that summer.
Randy Koch is a local author, chairman of the Erie County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and President of the Erie County Historical Society.
This is the first of three articles documenting the failed plot to free Confederate prisoners from Johnson’s Island on Sept. 19, 1864.