Twelve miles separated the men gathered in a Manhattan meeting room 150 years ago from the fortress where some of them had been held prisoner during the Civil War. Their gathering, a bitter protest against their wartime incarceration, received scant attention at the time although it would create a legacy that continues to reflect the nation’s conflicted attitude toward the competing demands of liberty and security.
While war raged on the battlefields of the Civil War, the Lincoln Administration maintained a quieter yet persistent and muscular campaign against perceived subversives active on Northern territory. The process was exemplified on Wednesday, April 27, 1864, when a Union Army officer arrived at the Rathbun House, a four-story hotel on Monroe Avenue in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The captain bore a slip of paper ordering him to “arrest P.C. Wright, formerly a New Orleans lawyer, whose plantation and slaves now confiscated.” The officer knocked firmly on a hotel room door, demanding entry. It would be the end of freedom for Phineas C. Wright for the next 15 months.
Wright, born in Rome, New York, had moved south with his wife and stepson in the 1850s, establishing a somewhat successful legal and public service career in New Orleans before moving to St. Louis in the months immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War. Wright’s sentiments were clearly with the South as he roamed the Midwest to recruit civilians for an organization he founded and named the Order of American Knights. In 1863, he published a florid oration on behalf of his order, with the nom de plume of “P. Caius Urbanus.” “There exists to-day,” he proclaimed, “a power which calls itself, in the unparalleled arrogance which distinguishes it, ‘the Government,' which has invaded the sacred and hitherto respected sovereignty of your several States, has disregarded the constitutions, laws, and ordinances of those States, which the people thereof have ordained and accepted … has invaded the sacred precincts of your peaceful homes …” As “Supreme Commander” of the order, Wright declared to his “Brothers”: “We will with our swords, if need be, sweep away these clouds…” The Lincoln administration was aware of Wright’s plans and declarations. In March 1864, he arranged to meet his wife in Detroit, intending to travel with her to his new base New York City with stops along the way to deliver speeches. His arrest in Grand Rapids interrupted those plans.