Sixty suspicious-looking men had arrived in Chicago. They carried no baggage. They wore odd clothing and spoke with strange accents. Our security forces had been notified of their presence. The strangers were being closely watched. They might be terrorists!
That was the front page story in the Tribune. But take a look at the date--November 6, 1864. That’s right–148 years ago. The Civil War.
The strangers had come into town from downstate on the Illinois Central Railroad. Though they said little, their speech identified them as Southerners. Adding to the mystery was their clothing. Most of them wore butternut-colored shirts or pants similar to Confederate army uniforms.
On the city’s South Side, at 31st and Cottage Grove, was Camp Douglas. Originally built as a military training post, it had been converted into a prison for captured Confederate soldiers. About 10,000 men were interred in the camp.
Since summer, rumors had spread through the city that rebel sympathizers were planning to storm the prison and free the inmates. Now it was going to happen. November 8 was Election Day. The conspirators would use the confusion of that day to carry out their plot!
Early on the morning of November 7, military authorities conducted simultaneous raids and arrested 150 suspected plotters. Some of them confessed. The scope of the Chicago Conspiracy then became clear.
On Election Day evening, a force of 400 men would attack the camp. The prisoners would be liberated and given weapons. Then they would invade Chicago, rob the banks, and burn the city to the ground.
That was only part of the plan. Rallying local anti-war groups to their cause, the conspirators’ new army would attack other prison camps and free more men. The goal was to form a Northwest Confederacy in Illinois and the surrounding states. Faced with a war on two fronts, President Lincoln would be forced to make peace with the rebels.
A military court eventually put eight conspirators on trial. Three men were found guilty of various offenses and given prison sentences. One of these men later escaped. The other two were pardoned by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.
Some recent historians have asserted that the Chicago Conspiracy never had a chance of success, and was blown out of proportion for political reasons.