Saving a Son of Liberty

Landmark decision spared Milligan

During the American Civil War, Southern sympathizers known as Copperheads (meaning snakes) living in Indiana had joined others in states including Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky in what became known as the Northwest Conspiracy. The most serious of their followers formed the Knights of the Golden Circle in 1854, which was the catalyst for the Sons of Liberty. Among this group’s leaders was Lambdin P. Milligan of Huntington County. Born in 1812, he had grown to a commanding height of 6 feet 4 inches, and as he grew up he also developed a love for reading. He became a lawyer and believed the Civil War was motivated by New England Yankees’ worries about making money. He openly advocated for states’ rights to separate from the Union.

Archivist Stephen E. Towne, writing for the Indiana Magazine of History, said that shortly after Indiana’s Democrat Convention delegates had rejected Milligan for a gubernatorial nomination, he was in Fort Wayne on Aug. 13, 1864, speaking to “a sizable minority of the party who clamored for an immediate end to the war against the Confederate states.” That fall Milligan was part of a group that planned sabotage, releasing and arming Confederate prisoners in Indianapolis and overthrowing state governments. The group’s members were uncovered, arrested and tried for treason.

About that time the South was ready to quit the rebellion, but it was reinvigorated when it learned the Sons of Liberty were planning to liberate some 40,000 Confederate prisoners of war held at Camp Douglas at Chicago and other northern locations, including Camp Morton at Indianapolis. After releasing the prisoners and seizing the arsenals at Camp Douglas and Rock Island, the Sons planned to march the prisoners south to join up with rebel armies. Historians mention that Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s daring raid into southern Indiana was perhaps intended to signal a start of the Sons of Liberty’s action.

If their plot had succeeded, the Sons of Liberty believed they could control the supply lines to the South, thus weakening the Union’s cause. However, a spy revealed their strategy to Indiana Gov. Oliver P. Morton. Milligan and other Sons of Liberty members were arrested, and thousands of arms were seized. Milligan, Dr. William A. Bowles of French Lick and Stephen Horsey of Shoals were tried by a military commission, found guilty of all charges and sentenced to hang. After President Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson ordered the executions to take place, but Morton stepped in to plead for the lives of the condemned prisoners. When the request was turned down by President Johnson, Morton appealed to the federal district court in Indianapolis, and the case was sent to the Supreme Court.

In 1866, the high court rendered a verdict, known as ex parte Milligan, that the military trial of a civilian in a place where the civil courts remained open was unconstitutional. The court’s decision protects civilians from being tried in military courts, even in time of war, if the civil courts are open and functioning. In a separate Indiana Magazine of History analysis by Peter J. Barry, Justice David Davis is quoted as saying: “When peace prevails, and the authority of the government is undisputed, there is no difficulty of preserving the safeguards of liberty … but if society is disturbed by civil commotion – if the passions of men are aroused and the restraints of law weakened, if not disregarded – these safeguards need, and should receive, the watchful care of those entrusted with the guardianship of the Constitution and laws.”

An Indiana Historical Bureau marker on the west lawn of the Huntington courthouse honors the landmark decision. Milligan returned to practicing law, died Dec. 21, 1899, at 87 and is buried in Huntington’s Mount Hope Cemetery.

First appeared in the November 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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