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1864 October 29: Report of Judge Holt on the Great Conspiracy

November 2, 2014

The following is from The Prescott Journal of October 29, 1864.

Highly Important Revelations.

Great Conspiracy against the Union.

Secret Armed Organization to Defeat the Gov’t. and Aid the Rebels.

Official Report of Judge Holt, of Ky.


Names of Persons Concerned in Plot.

The official report of Hon. JOSEPH HOLT, Judge Advocate General, upon the mass of testimony in the possession of the Government respecting secret associations and conspiricies [sic] in some of the free States, by traitors and disloyal persons, contains many startling revelations.  We have already laid some portion of the testimony in the DODD [Harrison H. Dodd] trial before our readers.  These showed the character and aims of these conspiracies.—Mr. HOLT’S exposition as it is now complete and detailed, is yet more startling.  We have only room for a synopsis :

This secret association first developed itself in the West in the year 1862, about the period of the first draft, which it aimed to resist.  It went by various names :  “Mutual Protection Society,” “Circle of Honor,” “Knights of the Mighty Host” and “Knights of the Golden Circle.”  In the summer and fall of 1864,it was somewhat modified.  STERLING PRICE, in consequence of the exposure of some of its signs and secret forms, instituted as its successor in Missouri, a secret political association, which he called the “Corps de Belgique,” or “Southern League.”  CHAS. L. HUNT, then Belgian Consul at St. Louis, was his principal coadjutor.  In the autumn of the same year, the “Order of the American Knights,” was instituted in many parts of the North by disloyal persons, prominent among whom were C. L. VALLANDIGHAM [Clement L. Vallandigham], of Ohio, and P. C. WRIGHT¹ of New York.  The Order in Indiana has boasted that its ritual came direct from JEFF. DAVIS [Jefferson Davis] himself.  The “Corps de Belgique” subsequently became a Southern branch of the O. A. K.  This Order finding that detectives were on its track was remodelled into “the Sons of Liberty ;”  in Illinois it styled itself the “Peace Organization,” in Kentucky the “Star Organization,” in Missouri the “American Organization.  A similar Society in New York, styled itself the “McClellan Minute Guard.”

Mr. HOLT next details its form of organization.  The first “Supreme Commander” of the “Sons of Liberty” was P. C. WRIGHT, editor of the New York News ;  his successor was C. L. VALLANDIGHAM.  The organization is a military one, having Generals, Colonels, &c., among its officers.  Judge HOLT says :

The greater part of the chief and subordinate officers of the Order, and its branches, as well as the principal members thereof, are known to the Government, and, where not already arrested, may regard themselves as under a constant military surveillance.  So complete has been the exposure of the secret league, that, however frequently the conspirators may change its name, forms, passwords and signals, its true purposes and operations cannot longer be concealed from the military authorities.

It is to be remarked that the supreme council of the Order, which annually meets on February 22d, convened this year at New York city, and a special meeting was then appointed to be held at Chicago on July 1st, or just prior to the day then fixed for the convention of the Democratic party.  This convention having been postponed to August 29th, the special meeting of the supreme council was also postponed to August 27th, at the same place, and was duly convened accordingly.  It will be remembered that a leading member of the convention, in the course of a speech made before that body, alluded approvingly to the session of the Sons of Liberty at Chicago at the same time, as that of an organization in harmony with the sentiments and projects of the Convention.

It may not be observed, in conclusion, that one not fully acquainted with the true character and intention of the Order might well suppose that, in designating its officers by high military titles, and in imitating in organization that established in our armies, it was designed merely to render itself more popular and attractive with the masses, and to invest its chiefs with a certain sham dignity; but when it is understood that the Order comprises within itself a large army of well-armed men, constantly drilled and exercised as soldiers, and that this army is held ready at any time for such forcible resistance to our military authorities, and such active co-operation with the public enemy as it may be called upon to engage in by its commanders, it will be percieved [sic] that the titles of the later are not assumed for a mere purpose of display, but that they are the chiefs of an actual and formidable force of conspirators against the life of the government, and that their military system is, as it had been remarked by Colonel Sanderson,² “the grand lever used by the rebel government for its army operations.”

In regard to its strength, the actual numbers of the Order have, it is believed, never been officially  reported, and cannot, therefore be accurately ascertained.  Various estimates have been made by leading members, some of which are no doubt considerably exaggerated.  It has been asserted by delegates to the supreme council of February last, that the number was there represented to be from 800, 000 to 1,000,000 ;  but Vallandigham, in his speech last summer at Dayton, Ohio, placed it at 500,000, which is probably much nearer the true total.  The number of its members in the several states has been differently estimated in the report and statement of its officers.  Thus, the force of the Order in Indiana is stated to be from 75,000 to 120,000 ;  in Illinois, from 100,000 to 140,000 ;  in Ohio, from 80,000 to 100,000 ;  in Kentucky, from 40,000 to 70,000 ;  in Missouri, from 20,000 to 40,000 ;  and in Michigan and New York, about 20,000 each.

The Order, or a counterpart, extends through the South, including large numbers of guerrillas.  In March last the entire armed force of the Order North, capable of being mobilized for effective service, was represented at 840,000.  These figures doubtless were greatly exaggerated.

Judge HOLT then gives a summary of its rituals, signs, passwords, &c.  A favorite secret password is “Nu-oh-lac,” or the name of Calhoun spelled backward.


The “Declaration of Principles,” which is set forth in the ritual of the Order, has already been alluded to.  This declaration, which is specially framed for the instruction of the great mass of members, commences with the following specious proposition :

“All men are endowed by the Creator with certain rights, equal as far as there is equality in the capacity for the appreciation, enjoyment and exercise of those rights.”

And subsequently there is added :

“In the Divine economy no individual of the human race must be permitted to encumber the earth, to mar its aspects of transcendent beauty, nor to impede the progress of the physical or intellectual man, neither in himself nor in the race to which he belongs.  Hence, a people, upon whatever place they may be found in the ascending state of humanity, whom neither the divinity within them nor the inspirations of the divine and beautiful asture around them can impel to virtuous action and progress onward and upward, should be subjected to a just and humane servitude and tutelage to the superior race, until they shall be able to appreciate the benefits and advantages of civilization.”

Here is the whole theory of human bondage—the right of the strong, because they are strong, to despoil and enslave the weak, because they are weak !  The languages of earth can add nothing to the cowardly and loathsome baseness of the doctrine, as thus announced.  It is the robber’s creed, sought to be nationalized, and would push back the hand on the dial-plate of our civilization to the darkest periods of human history.  It must be admitted, however, that it furnishes the fitting “cornerstone” for the government of a rebellion, every fibre of whose body and every throb of whose soul is born of the traitorous ambition and slave-pen inspirations of the South.

To these detestable tenets is added that other pernicious political theory of state sovereignty, with its necessary fruit, the monstrous doctrine of secession—a doctrine which in asserting that in our federative system a part is greater than the whole, would compel the general government, like a Japanese slave, to commit hari-kari [sic]³ whenever a faithless or insolent state should command it to do so.

Thus, the ritual, after reciting that the states of the Union are “free, independent and sovereign,” proceeds as follows :

“The government designated ‘The United States of America’ has no sovereignty, because that is an attribute with which the people, in their several and distinct political organisations, are endowed, and is inalienable.  It was constituted by the terms of the compact, by all the states, through the express will of the people thereof, respectively—a common agent, to use and exercise certain named, specified, defined and limited powers which are inherent of the sovereignties within those states.  It is permitted, so far as regards its status and relations, as common agent in the exercise of the powers carefully and jealously delegated to it, to call itself ‘supreme,’ but not ‘sovereign.  In accordance with the principles upon which is founded the American theory, government can exercise on delegated power ;  hence, if those who shall have been chosen to administer the government shall assume to exercise powers not delegated, they should be regarded and treated as usurpers.  The reference to ‘inherent power,’ ‘war power,’ or ‘military necessity,’ on the part of the functionary for the sanction of an arbitrary exercise of power by him, we will not accept in palliation or excuse.”

To this is added, as a corrollary [sic] :

“It is incompatible with the history and nature of our system of government that Federal authority should coerce by arms a sovereign state.

The declaration of principles, however, does not stop here, but proceeds one step further, as follows:

“Whenever the chosen officers or delegates shall fail or refuse to administer the government in strict accordance with the letter of the accepted constitution, it is the inherent right and the solemn and imperative duty of the people to resist the functionaries, and, if need be, to expel them by force of arms !  Such resistance is not revolution, but is solely the assertion of right—the exercise of all the noble attributes which impart honor and dignity to manhood.”

To the same effect, though in a milder tone, is the platform of the Order in Indiana put forth by the Grand Council at their meeting in February last, which declares that,

“The right to alter or abolish their government, whenever it fails to secure the blessings of liberty, is one of the inalienable rights of the people that can never be surrendered.”

Such then are the principles which the new member swears to observe and abide by in his obligation, set forth in the ritual, where he says :

“I do solemnly promise that I will ever cherish in my heart of hearts the sublime creeds of the M. K. (Excellent Knights), and will, so far as in me lies, illustrate the same in my intercourse with men, and will defend the principles thereof, if need be with my life, whensoever assailed, in my own country first of all.  I do further solemnly declare that I will never take up arms in behalf of any government which does not acknowledge the sole authority of power to be the will of the governed.”

In the same connection may be quoted the following extracts from the ritual, as illustrating the principle of the right of revolution and resistance to constituted authority insisted upon by the Order :

“Our swords shall be unsheathed whenever the great principles which we aim to inculcate and have sworn to maintain and defend are assailed.”

Again :

“I do solemnly promise, that whensoever the principles which our Order inculcates shall be assailed in my own State or country, I will defend these principles with my sword and my life, in whatsoever capacity may be assigned me by the competent authority of our Order.”

And further :

“I do promise that I will, at all times, if needs be, take up arms in the cause of the oppressed—in my own country first of all—against any power or government usurped, which may be found in arms and waging war against a people or peoples who are endeavoring to establish, or have inaugurated, a government for themselves of their own free choice.”

Moreover, it is to be noted that all the addresses and speeches of its leaders breathe the same principle, of the right of forcible resistance to the government, as one of the tenets of the Order.

Thus P. C. Wright, Supreme Commander, in his general address of December, 1863, after urging that, “the sp[i]rit of the fathers may animate the free minds, the brave hearts, and still unshackled limbs of the true democracy” (meaning the members of the Order,) adds as follows :  “To be prepared for the crisis now approaching, we must catch from afar the earliest and faintest breathings of the storm ;  to be successful when the storm comes, we must be watchful, patient, brave, confident, organized, armed.”

Thus, too, Dodd, Grand Commander of the Order in Indiana, quoting, in his address of February last, the views of his chief, Vallandigham, and adopting them as his own, says :

“He (Vallandigham) judges that the Washington power will not yield up its power, until it is taken from them by an indignant people, by force of arms.”

Such, then, are the written principles of the Order in which the neophyte is instructed, and which he is sworn to cherish and observe as his rule of action, when, with the arms placed in his hands, he called upon to engage in the overthrow of his government.  This declaration—first, of the absolute right of slaver ;  second, of state sovereingty [sic] and the right of secession ;  third, of armed resistance to constituted authority on the part of the disaffected and the disloyal, whenever their ambition may prompt them to revolution—is but an assertion of that abominable theory which, from its first enunciation, served as a pretext for conspiracy after conspiracy against the government on the part of southern traitors, until their detestable plotting culminated in open rebellion and bloody civil war.  What more appropriate name, therefore, to be communicated as a password to the new member upon his first admission to the secrets of the Order could have been conceived than that which was actually adopted—that of “Calhoun !”—a man who, baffled in his lust for power, with gnashing teeth turned upon the government that had lifted him to its highest honors, and upon the country that had borne him, and down to the close of his fevered life labored incessantly to scatter far and wide the seeds of that poison of death now upon our lips. The thorns which now pierce and tear us are of the tree he planted.

Judge HOLT then sets forth the specific purposes and operations of the Order under the following heads, giving a summary of evidence under each :

  1. Encouraging and aiding soldiers to desert, and harboring and protecting deserters.
  2. Discouraging enlistments and resisting the draft.
  3. The circulation of disloyal and treasonable publications.
  4. Communicating with and giving intelligence to the enemy.
  5. Aiding the enemy by recruiting for them, or assisting them to recruit within our lines.
  6. Furnishing the rebels with arms, ammunition, &c.
  7. Co-operating with the enemy in raids and invasions.
  8. Destruction of government property.
  9. Destruction of private property and persecution of Union men.
  10. Assassination and murder.
  11. Establishment of a Northwestern Confederacy.


The facts detailed in the present report have been derived from a great variety of dissimilar sources, but all the witnesses, however different their situation, concur so pointedly in their testimony, that the evidence which has been furnished of the facts must be regarded as of the most reliable character. The principal witnesses may be classified as follows :

1.  Shrewd, intelligent men, employed as detectives, and with a peculiar talent for their calling, who have gained the confidence of loading members of the Order, and in some cases been admitted to its temples, and been initiated into one or more of the degrees.—The most remarkable of these is Stidger [Felix G. Stidger], formerly a private soldier in our army, who, by the use of uncommon address, though at great personal risk, succeeded in establishing such intimate relations with Bowles [William A. Bowles], Bullitt [Joshua F. Bullitt], Dodd, and other leaders of the Order in Indiana and Kentucky, as to be appointed grand secretary of the latter State, a position most favorable for obtaining information of the plans of these traitors and warning the government of their intentions. It is to the rare fidelity of this man, who has also been the principal witness upon the trial of Dodd, that the government has been chiefly indebted for the exposure of the designs of the conspirators in the tow states named.

2.  Rebel officers and soldiers voluntarily or involuntarily making disclosures to our military authorities. The most valuable witnesses of this class are prisoners of war, who, actuated by laudable motives, have their own accord furnished a large amount of information in regard to the Order, especially as it exists in the South, and of the relations of its members with those of the northern section. Among these, also, are soldiers at our prison camps, who, without designing it, have made known to our officials, by use of the signs, &c., of the Order, that they were members.

3.  Scouts employed to travel through the interior of the border states, and also within or in the neighborhood of the enemy’s lines. The fact that some of these were left entirely ignorant of the existence of the Order, upon being so employed, attaches an increased value to their discoveries in regard to its operations.

4.  Citizen prisoners, to whom, while in confinement, disclosures were made relative to the existence, extent and character of the Order by fellow-prisoners who were leading members, and who, in some instances, upon becoming intimate with the witness, initiated him into one of the degrees.

5.  Members of the Order, who, upon a full acquaintance with its principles, have been appalled by its infamous designs, and have voluntarily abandoned it, freely making known their experience to our military authorities. In this class may be placed the female witness, Mary Ann Pitman,4 who, though in arrest at the period of her disclosures, was yet induced to make them for the reason that, as she says, “at the last meeting which I attended they passed an order which I considered as utterly atrocious and barbarous ; so I told them I would have nothing more to do with them.”  This woman was attached to the command of the rebel Forest [sic: Nathan B. Forrest], as an officer, under the name of “Lieutenant Rawley” ;  but, because her sex afforded her unusual facilities for crossing our lines, she was often employed in the execution of important commissions within our territory, and, as a member of the Order, was made extensively acquainted with other members both of the northern and southern sections.  Her testimony is thus peculiarly valuable, and being a person of unusual intelligence and force of character, her statements are succinct, pointed and emphatic.  They are also especially useful as fully corroborating those of other witnesses regarded as most trustworthy.

6.  Officers of the Order of high rank, who have been prompted to present confessions, more or less detailed, in regard to the Order and their connection with it.  The principles of these are Hunt, Dunn and Smith, grand commander, deputy grand commander, and grand secretary of the Order in Missouri, to whose statements frequent reference has been made.  These confessions, though in some degree guarded and disingenuous, have furnished to the government much valuable information in regard to the secret operations of the Order, especially in Missouri, the affiliation of its leaders with Price, &c.  It is to be noted that Dunn makes the statement, in common with other witnesses that, in entering the Order, he was quite ignorant of its true purposes.  He says :  “I did not become a member understandingly ;  the initiatory step was taken in the dark, without reflection and without knowledge.”

7.  Deserters from our army, who, upon being apprehended, confessed that they had been induce and assisted to desert by members of the Order.  It was, indeed, principally from these confessions that the existence of the secret treasonable of the K. G. C. was first discovered in Indiana, in the year 1862.

8.  Writers of anonymous communications, addressed to heads of departments or provost marshals, disclosing facts corroborative of other more important statements.

9.  The witnesses before the grand jury at Indianapolis, in 1863, when the Order was formally presented as a treasonable organization, and those whose testimony has been introduced upon the recent trial of Dodd.  It need only be added that a most satisfactory test of the credibility and weight of much of the evidence which has been furnished is afforded by the printed testimony in regard to the character and intention of the Order, which is found in its national and state constitutions and its ritual.  Indeed, the statements of the various witnesses are but presentations of the logical and inevitable consequences and results of the principles therein set forth.

In concluding this review, it remains only to state that a constant reference has been made to the elaborate official reports, in regard to the Order, of Brigadier General Carrington [Henry B. Carrington], commanding District of Indiana, and of Colonel Sanderson, Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Missouri.  The great mass of the testimony upon the subject of the secret conspiracy has been furnished by these officers ;  the latter acting under the orders of Major-General Rosecrans [William S. Rosecrans], and the former co-operating, under the instructions of the Secretary of War, with Major-General Burbridge [Stephen G. Burbridge], commanding District of Kentucky, as well as with Governor Morton [Oliver P. Morton], of Indiana, who, though at one time greatly embarrassed by a legislature strongly tainted with disloyalty, has at last seen his state relieved for the danger of civil war.

But, although the treason of the Order has been thoroughly exposed, and although its capacity for fatal mischief has, by means of the arrest of its leaders, the seizure of its arms, and the other vigorous means which have been pursued, been seriously impaired, it is still busied with its secret plottings against the government, and with its perfidious designs in aid of the southern rebellion. It is reported to have recently issued new signs and passwords, and its members assert that foul means will be used to prevent the success of the administration at the coming election, and threaten an extended revolt in the event of the re-election of President Lincoln.

In the presence of the rebellion and this secret Order—which is but its echo and faithful ally—we cannot but be amazed at the utter and wide-spread profligacy, personal and political, which these movements against the government disclose. The guilty men engaged in them, after casting aside their allegiance, seem to have trodden under foot every sentiment of honor and every restraint of law, human and divine. Judea produced but one Judas Iscariot,5 and Rome, from the sinks of her demoralization, produced bu[t] one Catiline,6 and yet, as events prove, there has arisen together in our land an entire brood of such traitors, all animated by the same parricidal spirit, and all struggling with the same relentless malignity for the dismemberment of our Union.  Of this extraordinary phenomenon—not paralleled, it is believed, in the world’s history—there can be but one explanation, and all these blackened and fetid streams of crime may well be traced to the same common fountain.  So fiercely intolerant and imperious was the temper engendered by slavery, that when the southern people, after having controlled the national councils for half a century, were beaten at an election, their leaders turned upon the government with the insolent fury with which they would have drawn their revolvers on a rebellious slave in one of their negro quarters ;  and they have continued since to prosecute their warfare, amid all the barbarisms and atrocities naturally and necessarily inspired by the infernal institution in whose interests they are sacrificing alike themselves and their country.  Many of these conspirators as is well known, were fed, clothed and educated at the expense of the nation, and were loaded with its honors at the very moment they struck at its life with the horrible criminality of a son stabbing the bosom of his own mother, while impressing kisses on his cheeks.  The leaders of the traitors in the loyal states, who so completely fraternize with these conspirators, and whose machinations are now unmasked, it is clearly the duty of the administration to prosecute and punish, as it is its duty to subjugate the rebels who are openly in arms against the government.  In the performance of this duty, it is entitled to expect, and will doubtless receive, the zealous co-operation of true men everywhere, who, in crushing the truculent foe ambushed in the haunts of this secret Order, should rival in courage and faithfulness the armies which are so nobly sustaining our flag on the battlefield of the South.

1.  Phineas C. Wright was originally from New York, and in 1850 moved to New Orleans where he worked as a lawyer. In 1857 he moved to St. Louis and in 1864 moved to New York City where he worked for the New York Daily News.
2.  John Phillip Sanderson (1818-1864) was a lawyer, newspaperman, politician, and soldier. He was elected to the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives in 1845 and to the Pennsylvania State Senate in 1847. He was the state chairman of the Know-Nothing Party when it renamed itself the American Party in 1855. He became lieutenant colonel of the 15th U.S. Infantry–his son George K. Sanderson’s regiment–in May 1861. In July 1863 he was appointed colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry and soon after accepted a position as an aide to General William Rosecrans on the staff of the Army of the Cumberland, where he served during the Battle of Chickamauga. After Rosecrans was relieved of his command Sanderson went with him as Provost Marshal General of the Department of the Missouri. Sanderson died October 14, 1864, in St. Louis, Missouri.
2.  A common misspelling of the Japanese method of ritual suicide (seppuku) known as Hara-Kiri.
3.  Mary Ann Pitman or Pittman, was also known as Lieutenant Rawley, Charles Thompson, Mary Hayes, and Mollie Hayes or Hays. Dressed as a man, she served as a lieutenant in Freeman’s Infantry and Nathan B. Forrest’s cavalry. She was also a Confederate spy and arms smuggler, and as “Mollie Hayes” gained information on Union troops and fortifications in St. Louis. Pittman eventually concluded that the Confederacy would loose the war and allowed herself to be captured by Union troops and became a spy for the Union. In April 1865, she reported information on Sterling Price and bushwhackers Samuel Hildebrand and Alfred Bolin. (From “Union Records of Scouts and Spies” article on the Community & Conflict: The Impact of the Civil War in the Ozarks website.)
4.  Judas Iscariot was one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, and is known for his betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver coin. His name is often invoked to accuse someone of betrayal.
5.  Lucius Sergius Catilina, known in English as Catiline (108–62 BC), was a Roman Senator of the 1st century B.C. He is best known for the second Catilinarian conspiracy, which was an attempt to overthrow the Roman Republic, particularly the power of the aristocratic Senate.

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