Poisoning the Public Heart: the treason of the Confederacy and January 6

The Great Treason Plot in the North During the War
by Col. I. Winslow Ayer
(published 1895)
and January 6

There’s no time like our time for a visit to the post-Civil War accounting of and accountability for the actions of traitors and their movements. The Confederacy, the Klux, January 6 – we know the tree by the fruit that it bears, no matter the “veil of patriotism” they wrap themselves in, to use one of Col. Ayer’s phrases in describing the foiling (or failing) of plots to attack Northern cities like New York and Chicago, and smaller cities and towns throughout the North.

So we visit across the centuries The Great Treason Plot in the North During the War by Col. Ayer, who quite rightly does not scrimp on the exclamation points, starting with the subtitle: 

“Most Dangerous, Perfidious, Extensive and Startling Plot Ever Devised! 

Imminent Hidden Perils of the Republic.

Astounding Developments Never Before Published.”

Black and white illustration of the Military Commission: spectators in a circle. Inside the circle white men sit at a long table, others sit or stand nearby.
Grand Conspirators Before the Military Commission

Called in the preface “the preserver of the city of Chicago” and “the daring officer of Secret Service, U.S., by whom the formidable conspiracy was broken up,” Ayer was born in Kentucky, attended Harvard College, worked as a journalist in Boston and New York, and after “success in the recruiting service” was “called to Springfield, Illinois, by Governor Richard Yates, and assigned to special duty by Brig. Gen. H. E. Paine, then in command of the District of Illinois, and later served under orders of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, to the close of the war – his duty being to bring to light, and if possible to crush the most formidable and widespread Conspiracy against the Government…”

Col. Ayer’s book is shocking, although unsurprising when the last page is turned: why wouldn’t the South have set up a conspiracy to undermine Northern institutions, free Confederate prisoners-of-war, and saturate the society with propaganda articulating their point of view? It would be surprising if they didn’t do this – and yet, the betrayal of the Republic isn’t less shocking for all that.

Indeed, Ayer had trouble convincing his bosses that it was really going on, and, “It would have been deemed a delusion by the majority of the people, had not the developments before the military tribunals of the land established the facts beyond the shadow of a doubt. … The citizens could scarcely believe the truth of this great peril, till the trials of Conspirators by the Military Commissions were held, when the facts were fully proven by abundant corroborative evidence and several of the leaders were convicted and sentenced.”

About 150 years before our dark day of January 6, Ayer was already telling us why we could
“not let by-gones be forgotten”:

“The lapse of time does not change guilt to innocence; it does not change murder into innocent pastime, nor treason into patriotism! Civilization can find no apology for such guilt and depravity.”

This Civil War conspiracy against the Union was known as the Order, although names like “Knights of the Golden Circle” or “Sons of Liberty” were also used: “It will be seen that the treasonable order has as many aliases as a State’s prison convict, and for precisely the same reason.” The conspiracy had “signs, passwords, and grips” and a swearing-in ceremony, meant to keep actions secret and reveal themselves only to other conspirators, the Order being “composed of many classes of persons: Educated scoundrels, political gamesters, ambitious, unscrupulous adventurers utterly devoid of patriotism.” The Order even included “Dr. Gatling, inventor of the Gatling Gun,” and perhaps developed the stupid titles the Klux was about to adopt for themselves like Grand Seignior and Grand Commander.

And their secret emblem? None other than the very badge of coppers, used for years in the South to keep the enslaved population down: “The most recent of these signals represented to have been adopted is a five-pointed copper star, worn under the coat, which is to be disclosed upon meeting an enemy, who will thus recognize in the wearer a sympathizer and an ally.”

So what did these rapscallion “foreigners” make of their Order? “The treasonable Order comprised a very large army of well armed and thoroughly drilled men – in readiness at any and all times for forcible resistance to the Union arms – a most formidable force against the life of the Government. The Temples and Councils of the Order were numerously scattered throughout the States of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky and to a less extent in Michigan, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Tennessee. In Indiana, the Order was most strongly centered at Indianapolis and Vincennes; in Illinois, at Chicago, Springfield and Quincy, – the Temples in the latter place having been founded by the notorious guerilla chief, Jackman; in Ohio, at Cincinnati, Dayton and Hamilton – the ‘South Carolina’ of the North; in Missouri, at St. Louis; in Kentucky, Louisville; in Michigan, at Detroit…”

And of how many?
“At the annual meeting of the ‘Supreme Council’ in New York city, February 22, 1864, it was officially reported that the membership of the Order was between eight hundred thousand and a million, but [Ohio Congressperson Clement L.] Vallandigham, at his Dayton, Ohio, home, placed the armed and drilled membership at HALF A MILLION!”

Like many of our traitors today, they had the idea to “raise companies in the militia, to obtain as many Government arms and equipments as possible; it was proposed that all the members should enroll themselves in the militia, thus obtaining possession of United States arms, and having the advantage of drill and military instruction.”

“As a forcible illustration of the utter malignity and depravity which characterized the conspirators, may be recalled the wholesale assassination of Union soldiers by the Order, at Charleston, Illinois, in March, 1864. This concerted murderous assault upon a scattered body of men, mostly unarmed, was evidently designed for the purpose of destroying as many lives of Union soldiers as possible.”

The similarities between the Civil War’s losers, and today’s losers, boggle the mind – it could have been written today:
“These leaders were intelligent and influential, hence most dangerous.

They went bawling about the country with inflaming speech and mock patriotism, arraigning the authorities as usurpers, tyrants and despots, poisoning the public heart against those in authority, – clamoring for peace, in the face of embattled armies, – fanning the embers of discord and revolt, kindling by incendiary appeals the fires of insurrection and revolution, and finally identifying themselves with the cause of rebels and traitors, and lending themselves in thought and deed, by night and day, in secret and in public, giving aid and comfort to the public enemy against their own Government! This is conspiracy and treason; it has all the disloyal lineaments of treasonable deformity, and neither eloquence nor art, nor painting nor poetry can change it; its office is discord, war and misery.

Of such was the character of every prisoner tried and convicted by the Military Commission in Indianapolis.”

Like the January 6 traitors who prepared violence against their peaceful neighbors and the Republic in one of its darkest and most pandemic-rattled hours, the Confederates planned and waged violence against those loyal to the Republic they hated:

“It was indeed a sad, strange, soul-sickening spectacle to look upon – a group of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ in their secure retreats, in the quiet hours of night, inspecting their muskets and revolvers, moulding bullets and making cartridges, while their neighbors were quietly sleeping, or some with aching hearts were watching at the bedside of sick or wounded soldiers who had come home perhaps to die, while venerable mothers and aged fathers were praying for their brave boys at the front, who were battling for the preservation of national life – to witness these scenes and to know that the mission of the Conspirators was the murder of persons who dared avow and evince their devotion to their country!”

The delusions of TFG and his followers are not different from those of their Confederate ancestors: “The teachings of the Order led young men into the worst of all crimes – treason against their country. … Thousands of young men were, in like manner, led astray by this accursed fanaticism.” Or as Judge H. H. Leavitt writes it: “a class of mischievous politicians had succeeded in poisoning the minds of a portion of the community with the rankest feelings of disloyalty. Artful men, disguising their latent treason, under hollow pretensions of devotion to the Union, were striving to disseminate their pestilent heresies among the masses of the people.”

How much like our own time was theirs:
“A studious misrepresentation of the acts of the Government and its officers is a part of the prescribed duty of the members of the Order.”

Later, Ayer writes: “the Riot was incited, countenanced and led and urged onward by the secret treasonable Order, the ‘Knights of the Golden Circle’ and ‘American Knights.’ It was not the ‘working class’ who perpetrated the overt acts of treason, murder, incendiarism, and robbery, but the crimes which shock humanity and should forever cover with infamy the names and memory of the vile beings really guilty and responsible, were plotted and executed by scoundrels who never performed honest labor – revolutionists, adventurers, disappointed politicians, traitors of their country, thieves and assassins, high-toned villains as well as ‘the unwashed’ who hoped to profit by national disaster and ruin of the nation.”

Fearfully, in its ongoing assault on the Republic, the Confederacy of traitors was full of leaders calling for the assassination they eventually got from John Wilkes Booth. A sampling, as printed by the Abraham-Lincoln-era-Republican Congressional Committee in The Chicago Copperhead convention, quoting statements made during the Democratic party’s 1864 convention:

S. S. Cox, Congressperson from Ohio:
“For less offenses than Mr. Lincoln has been guilty of, the English people had chopped off the head of the first Charles.”

C. Chauncey Burr,
“a promiment New York Democrat, [and] editor of The Old Guard”:
“And it was a wonder that they had a Cabinet, and men who carried out the infamous orders of the gorilla tyrant that usurped the Presidential chair!”

Capt. Kuntz, of Pittsburgh:
“If Democrats catch Lincoln’s bloody spies among them, they must cut their damned throats, that’s all!”

Baker, of Michigan:
“Let us hurl that usurper from power!”

Benjamin Allen, of New York:
“The people will soon rise, and if they cannot put Lincoln out of power by the ballot, they WILL by the bullet!”

The ongoing mass-media indoctrination process so well represented by Fox News, is presciently described long before Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch sullied the airwaves, desecrating the vulnerable hearts and minds of so many Dads and Uncles and Grandparents:

“Gen. Burnett, Judge Advocate of the Military Commission who tried the assassins of the President and the conspirators in Indianapolis and Chicago, in his argument made use of the following language:

‘There seems to have been something, during these four years of the nation’s trial, that has appeared to paralyze the native instincts of the American heart. This phantom, this syren of secession with her enticing song, seems to have lulled to sleep the better part of human nature.

At the sound of her voice, and the flash of her eye, men have sprung to arms, to grapple with the life of the nation, because it was free! They have followed, at the beck of the syren, over desolated homes; they have trampled over the dead corpses of murdered brothers and innocent women and children. They have blackened the land with desolation, and made it an abode of moaning and woe. She has blinded, which has demoralized them. Old men, forgetting their white hairs, have joined in the conspiracy at the beck of this phantom, who has taken out of the human heart its heaven-born instincts, to plant there those of vengeance, and the thirst for blood. … Men who were kind fathers, kind husbands and noble patriots, have forgotten it all in a day, and have become traitors, and inculcated doctrines that have, by the hands of fiends, stricken down that patriotic noble leader of the human race. There is something in it which no man can comprehend. The doctrines which they inculcate harden the heart, and nerve the arm to crime, enabling them to commit robbery, arson and murder, for all is in her category;

and as they commit those crimes, they appeal to God for the justness of their cause.

That is what has deceived these men; it is the accursed phantom of secession that has blinded their eyes; that has cooled their hearts and filled them with vengeance. It is this that has changed and perverted the human instincts, that should have ruled in their breasts.'”

Gen. Burnett, when describing traitor Col. G. St. Leger Grenfell, described the Confederates and TFG and a democracy-loving citizen’s revulsion of them:
“There is no throb of my heart that beats in unison with such conduct as this. He was a fit instrument to be used in this enterprise.
What to him would be the wail of women and little ones?
What to him would be the pleadings of old men and unarmed citizens!”

(Grenfell went on to export his violence: “At the close of the war he entered the British service in Egypt, to follow his trade of blood.”)

And like today’s apologists, who want us to believe that TFG’s only defenders are rural redneck militia-men, apologists for the Order sought to trivialize and downplay the seriousness of the crimes and absolve some of its biggest supporters:

“When the verdict of the Military Commission established the fact that there had been a conspiracy against the country, which many had till then doubted, and the guilty had denied, certain influential men – members of the treasonable Order – sought to impress the public mind with the idea that the Conspiracy was confined to a few villains from the slums of Chicago, whose sole aim was plunder. I know that the Chicago Councils so far from being composed only of low ruffians, vagabonds and criminals, included many high-toned scoundrels – an Ex-Judge of the Circuit Court, who had been a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the State, one or more Justices of the Peace; several city officials; the leading officers of ‘Invincible Club’ – the largest club in the city; several members of the bar, etc. Give the devil his due! Since that period

some of the leading conspirators have sought and received governmental favors, and others have had the audacity to solicit the suffrages of the people for office, unmindful of a truth that should be impressed upon the heart of every citizen, – that the primary qualification for public official trust is unwavering loyalty to the Republic; no man is deserving the confidence of his fellow citizens who has ever proved false to his country!”

Ayer describes our moment in describing his own:
“Partizanship and patriotism have little affiliation; a strict partizan is seldom a patriot. … A strict adherence to party tenets, tends to illiberality and bigotry, for ‘party,’ as applied to politics at least, is by no means a synonym for ‘principle.'”

Is there a better description of appeasing bullies than Ayer’s?
“Hearts inflamed with hate, and hands imbued with the life-blood of scores of human victims, are not satiated, but are infuriated by the first flush of success.”

He continues, 
“It was impossible … to believe such terrible allegations, till the evidence before the Military Commission of the land established the facts.

I shall never forget how I was startled – how my blood was chilled with horror and amazement, when for the first time, I saw in the Council of conspirators, a man whom I had esteemed the personification of honor and noble manhood, – so esteemed by many of the best citizens of Chicago, – that man holding the office of Grand Seignior – the chief officer of the treasonable body, presiding over men who were armed with weapons to kill my comrades at the Camp [Douglas], – to kill my fellow citizens in Chicago, and worse than all, to destroy our country!”

And Ayer feels the same indignation that all democracy-loving citizens feel about January 6:

“Had these men any grievance from which they had vainly sought redress? Had any right of theirs been invaded? Had they any provocation for the perpetration of the monstrous crimes against humanity and the law? None, and none were liable to ensue! When was assassination, arson, piracy or pillage regarded by civilization as justifiable! The flag of the free waved over them and their homes, a symbol and pledge of protection and justice, even while they were conspiring to draggle it in the dust!”

Denigrating democracy, and the rights of people, was always the goal of the Confederacy, and their descendants of January 6. Writes Judge J. Holy, of the War Department:

“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 [N]egro 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. … The leaders of the traitors in the loyal States, who so completely fraternize with these conspirators, and whose machinations are now unmasked, it is as clearly the duty of the Administration to prosecute and punish, as it is the duty to subjugate the rebels who are openly in arms against the Government.”

And like the Confederates, TFG and J6ers thought it was their moment, and their only moment, as described in the Atlantic Monthly in 1865, by C. C. Hazewell: “They rebelled because circumstances enabled them to attempt the realization of their long-cherished dream of a slave-holding Confederacy, and because they saw that never again, in their time, would another such opportunity be offered to effect a traitorous purpose.”

In places where the Order momentarily succeeded, terror reigned – as it would if TFG were to overthrow the Republic by holding elected office again. Writes Judge J. Holy: “It is reported by General Carrington that the full development of the Order in Indiana was followed by a ‘state of terrorism among the Union residents’ of portions of Brown, Morgan, Johnson, Rush, Clay, Sullivan, Bartholomew, Hendricks and other Counties in the State; and that from some localities individuals were driven away altogether…”

For us in 2024,
the year republicans (small r)
can save the Republic, Ayer insists it’s up to us:
“The elective franchise of which we boast, which should be so dear to all Americans, is too cheaply held. The machinery of the government has for so long a time moved so smoothly on, that we are apt to believe it will so continue to move for all time, regardless of vigilance and effort, and there is evidently a growing indifference to this greatest of privileges. Did any exigency arise imperiling or impeding our rights of election, were the ballot box in danger, were our privileges as voters infringed upon, the alarm would be sounded in a moment, the streets would resound to the tread of citizen soldiery, and a second Washington would lead a nation of freemen to battle against the usurper’s power… … If citizens neglect to exercise their right at the polls, and if in consequence, evil and incompetent men are elected to positions of honor and trust, and the public interest suffers thereby, the culpability of the negligent is quite as great as that of those who abuse the people’s confidence – both have been recreant to duty. Such neglect offers the most favourable opportunity to that numerous class of unprincipled men, who – in party parlance – are ‘ring politicians,’ whose prime motive is self-aggrandizement, and whose sordid souls are utterly incapable of ‘love of country.’ Their only ambition is the promotion of self-interest, and their highest aspirations are for attaining positions, or foisting their equally corrupt friends to places that will afford the best opportunity for plundering the public treasury.”

For all the shocking barbarities the Order wanted to commit, Ayer is beyond fair – he wants only justice, not vengeance – even summoning the mindblowing compliment:

“Aside from his treason, Judge Morris was generally regarded as possessing noble qualities at heart.”

The Treasonous Traitors of Treasondom

Unfortunately for us, the optimism of having an uncorrupted Court was more plentiful for them in the 19th Century, Justice Brown writing,
“So long as we can preserve the purity of our courts, we need never despair of the Republic.”


“No man is free from guilt who has apologies for treason,” writes Ayer. “The time has arrived, my countrymen, when the American people should be taught what crime is, and that treason is crime, – the highest crime known to the law and the Constitution. Yes, treason against a State, treason against all the States, treason against the Government of the United States, is the highest crime that can be committed. Treason must be made odious. In the words of a former Senator of the United States, ‘when traitors become numerous enough, treason becomes respectable.'”

“A fool,” as Sherlock Holmes said, “always finds a bigger fool to admire him.”

But we will turn to Les Mis for the last word:

“At the moment, it is true, the past is very strong. It is reviving. This rejuvenation of a corpse is astouding. Back on its feet again, here it comes. It looks victorious. This defunct in a conqueror, it arrives with its legion – superstitions – with its sword – despotism – with its banner – ignorance. Recently, it has won a dozen battles. It is advancing, threatening, laughing, it is at our gates. For our part, let us not despair. Let us sell the field on which Hannibal is encamped.

What have we, who believe, to fear?

Ideas are no more able to retreat than rivers to reverse their flow.”