- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

The charges were "conspiracy against the government of the United States, affording aid and comfort to rebels against the authority of the United States, inciting insurrection, disloyal practices and violation of the laws of war." The penalty: death by hanging.

When the U.S. government's star witness was called, the defendants paled as one of their own walked into the courtroom. The verdicts came fast guilty as charged. Three defendants were sentenced to hang.

It was September 1864. The military commission proceeding would come to be known as the Trials for Treason at Indianapolis. Union detective Felix Grundy Stidger, an ex-dry-goods clerk from Kentucky, had infiltrated the ranks of the Sons of Liberty (formerly the Order of American Knights).

Terrorist cells flourished in the North during the Civil War. Operating with secret handshakes and rituals, they had the moral and financial support of the Confederacy. Many in this broth of professionals, politicos, judges and rogue scientists shared a hatred of President Lincoln and his policies and a desire to destroy the North.

Amid the blood and mayhem of the Civil War, there was little debate as to the practicability of trial by military commissions, in part because of Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

Were it not for the bravery of Felix Stidger, acts of terrorism in major cities would have been rampant. He did not come easily to uncommon valor. In spite of the fact that Stidger was often unsure of his place in things and feared each day might be his last, he wrote: "When you go to fight the devil, go into his camp with fire, and do not be afraid of being burnt."

In 1861, while Stidger toiled as a clerk in tiny Bloomfield, Ky., a bucolic spot that lacked both a telegraph and a railroad station, seven states seceded from the Union. The anti-Lincoln population in Kentucky, a border state, raged at the idea of Lincoln's presidency.

In his memoirs, "Treason History of the Sons of Liberty," Stidger wrote, "After the election in November, the feelings and expressions of hatred against the North knew no bounds in that little town, in fact it could not have been more intense in Charleston, South Carolina. It was considered that I ought not to be so free with expressions of loyalty to the United States government, all of which made me more out-spoken and offensive in my expressions against disloyalty, rebellion and treason."

Although Stidger served in the Union Army for less than two years, his service to the obliteration of unconventional warfare lasted a lifetime. Almost no one knew what Stidger had done. "In the city of Louisville and State of Kentucky, where I was raised and well known by thousands of the citizens both of the loyal and disloyal element," he wrote, "there were but five persons that knew the actual business in which I was engaged."

By late 1862, after Stidger had enlisted in the 15th Kentucky Infantry, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's forces had invaded the state and blazed their way through his hometown. "I never saw dead men lay so thick," Stidger wrote, "as the rebels on the battlefield of Perryville after the Union dead had all been buried."

After the battle, in an act of generosity that was to be his entree into the terrorist ranks, Stidger gave his horse to Union Maj. Henry Kalfus, later a leader of the Sons of Liberty.

When Kalfus abruptly resigned from the Union Army, Stidger wrote that "since the consummation of the proclamation of President Lincoln for the freeing of the slaves of the South he declined to participate in a war of which the ultimate result was to be the freedom of the Negro."

In less than a year, Kalfus would give Felix Stidger his first contact with William A. Bowles, a leader of the Sons of Liberty. Stidger was to testify against both men in court.

When Stidger's mother became ill, he requested a discharge and returned home to a town that frequently was struck by Confederate guerrillas. Stidger and his brother were beaten and robbed in view of their mother as she lay dying. He volunteered for the U.S. government's secret service. Initially rebuffed, and at risk to his own life, he covertly gathered information from Southern loyalists in the town, which by now was under martial law, as was the rest of Kentucky.

By early 1864, war weariness in the North and the smell of defeat in the South split the Democratic Party into the "war" Democrats supporting Lincoln and the "peace" Democrats (Copperheads) favoring a negotiated settlement retaining slavery and the Confederacy's right to exist. An unholy alliance was formed between the Confederate apparatus in Canada and the leaders of the secret societies within the Union.

To establish a network of agents in Canada to join with Northerners sympathetic to the Southern cause, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Jacob Thompson, a state legislator and fellow Mississippian, to head the operation. His purses bulging with more than $300,000, Thompson recruited like-minded Northerners to perform acts of sabotage. Uneasy Union loyalists caught wind of these cabals and sent urgent word to local military posts for men brave enough to infiltrate the cells.

When Stidger heard that Brig. Gen. Henry B. Carrington, commander of the military district of Indiana, was looking for a "reliable Kentuckian for special and extra hazardous duty," he volunteered. With the help of former Maj. Kalfus, by now a leader of a local cell, Stidger worked his way into the order.

Within a few months, he had climbed to the position of grand secretary of the local branch. At constant risk of exposure, Stidger sent dispatches back to Union headquarters, often using his brother as a courier. Stidger eventually became a grand commander of the Supreme Council of Kentucky's Sons of Liberty.

When the government decided to move on some of the leaders in order to abort plans for a tri-state uprising, Stidger was arrested at his own request as he accompanied his cohorts down a crowded Louisville street. His "escape" was announced to the detainees as they faced probable hanging for treason.

With most of the leaders arrested, Stidger's work as a mole was nearly finished. His ordeal as a government witness was just beginning.

Stidger testified that he had been present in a Louisville hotel room when Charles Bocking, a chemist and former Union soldier, had displayed a new weapon filled with a liquid incendiary: a more deadly version of "Greek fire," a napalmlike substance made of bisulfide that would ignite on impact.

Stidger also spoke of orders given to a fellow member called upon to assassinate a government undercover detective who had been initiated into the organization. Frantic to warn the man, improbably named Coffin, Stidger quickly delivered a dispatch to Union officials revealing the proposed hit.

Not able immediately to find Coffin, Stidger kept a rendezvous with three cell leaders, who ordered more of their conspirators to find the Union detective and kill him on the spot. Stidger proposed that he himself track Coffin and execute him. Stidger dashed through alleyways to his Union commander's office. Immediately, Coffin was snatched from a train and safely removed from the field.

From his seat in the cell's many meetings, Stidger told the court that the Sons of Liberty had plans to free 40,000 Confederate prisoners held at Fort Douglas in Chicago as well as other Northern cities. The goal was simple and deadly: to cause mayhem through conflagrations and armed uprisings in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio and parts of Kentucky that could be delivered to the Confederacy in one blazing sweep.

Stidger said the members of the order in Illinois were to concentrate at Chicago and Rock Island and release the Rebel prisoners. "They were then to seize the arsenals at those places and arm the released prisoners. The three Divisions in Illinois were to overtake the railroads and form forces with Jefferson Davis' 20,000 men from Missouri." Though the cell's leaders were poised to act, not enough armed men materialized to carry out such plans.

Undeterred, the terrorists planned another operation. In November 1864, 15 New York City hotels and the Barnum Museum were set ablaze by Rebel operatives sent from Canada with the blessing of Jefferson Davis and organized by Jacob Thompson and his Canadian network.

Using a Confederate-funded version of Greek fire, the arsonists bolted from hotel to hotel pouring the liquid incendiary over bedding piled in rooms and hallways. They lobbed the bottles onto wharves, setting small fires as they raced along city streets. Because of quick response by firemen and the terrorists' act of slamming hotel room doors behind them, depriving the fires of continuous oxygen, the city was spared a massive disaster.

It is probable that Stidger's dispatches to the government about the cell's experiments with Greek fire and the meetings between cell leaders in Kentucky and Indiana with Confederate agents were enough to forewarn the Union authorities of the New York fire plots.

Based on Stidger's information, military authorities raided the offices of cell members in Indiana and Kentucky and found guns, ammunition, assassination plans and incriminating documents. As a result, Bowles, Harrison H. Dodd and Lambdin P. Milligan were among a number of others charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government. When the sentences came down, lawyers for the defendants appealed their case to Lincoln. The president stayed their executions.

However, his assassination and the aftermath of rage obliterated any hope of freedom for the convicted men. The condemned men escaped the wrath of President Andrew Johnson when one of them, Milligan, claimed that because he was a U.S. citizen living in a loyal Northern state that had functioning civil courts, the trial and his conviction were illegal.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court under the name of Ex parte Milligan. After an arduous legal battle, the majority held that "Neither the President nor Congress could authorize trial of civilians before a military commission" in territories where the civil courts were open.

By 1866, Stidger was a marked man, running for his life to the end of his life. Followed for two years by hit men, forced to flee Kentucky, he moved to Mattoon, Ill., and finally to Chicago. He wrote "A Treason History of the Sons of Liberty" in 1903 and died in seclusion on May 11, 1908.

His laudatory obituary in the Chicago Tribune of May 15, 1908, referred to him as "the treason plot exposer" and said, "If he had passed away forty-five years ago, General Grant might have taken two more summers to have gotten to Richmond."

Jane Singer is a Civil War historian and lecturer living in California. The life and work of Felix Stidger features prominently in a book she is completing on terrorism in the Civil War.

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