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.
Three days after his arrest, Wright arrived in New York City, accompanied by federal guards, and was deposited at Fort Hamilton, the Brooklyn shorefront army garrison. From there, that same day, April 30, 1864, Wright and his escorts were ferried across the Narrows to Fort Lafayette, an early nineteenth century structure built on an island to guard the entrance to New York Harbor, but now serving as a federal military prison. He remained there, never charged with a crime, until March 13, 1865, when he and seven other political prisoners were led out of Fort Lafayette, not to freedom but to another offshore military prison, Fort Warren, Massachusetts. On July 7, 1865, Wright signed an oath of allegiance to the United States and a few weeks later, he was released from Fort Warren, completing 15 months of imprisonment, having never been brought to court.
In October 1867, a sympathetic New York City newspaper, The World, published a notice about a forthcoming convention of “those illegally imprisoned during the Lincoln reign … for the purpose of concerting some measure of redress and drawing up a catalogue of ‘loyal’ outrages to be published in form of solemn manifesto to the world.” Wright, who likely provided The World with its news about the convention in the first place, quickly picked up his pen the next day, writing to the newspaper that “As a victim of the late despotism, and since the suggestion touching the convention originated with myself, I entreat a small space that I may intimate briefly what are some of the purposes which, in my judgment should engage the earnest attention of all those who have suffered outrage at the behest of arbitrary power.” Wright continued, in his typically baroque prose, “We have borne long enough the load of obloquy which the myrmidions of a most despotic power have heaped upon us…”
In November, Wright informed The World that the convention he was orchestrating would be held in February 1868, and that one of its chief aims was the publication in “book form” of what he called “the narrations of the victims of the Lincoln despotism…” The February “meeting of the victims of despotism” was held in New York City in Gibson’s Building, a new structure at Broadway and 13th Street that included Wallack’s Theatre, meeting rooms and the offices of William Gibson, the building’s owner and “Artist in Stained Glass and all kinds of fittings for Eclesiastical and Domestic purposes.” Rather than the advertised convention, the meeting devolved into a planning session for the actual convention, now set for July in a “suitable hall” in New York City, with Phineas C. Wright head of the Committee on Publications.
News of the planned meeting did not pass unnoticed among past supporters of the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party. The Daily Whig of Troy, New York, in an article captioned “The Blood of the Martyrs,” commented – with a huge dose of irony – “We hope the convention will be held. Nothing would help the cause of the Republicans more than an exhibition of the martyrs, with free latitude to talk and to talk so that their voice would be heard… And New York is the proper place for the convention. It was there that the largest tears were shed for the martyrs, and there that, following the advice of the martyrs to resist the draft, some distinguished rioters were thrust into prison and so obliged to suffer martyrdom themselves.” The Philadelphia Inquirer suggested “… these injured patriots would act more for their own interests by burying in silence the causes of their arrest. The imprisonment in Fort Lafayette was absolutely necessary to prevent them from carrying out their plots for the destruction of the government, and they ought to consider themselves very fortunate in escaping with this mild punishment for the aid and comfort extended to the Rebels.”
But even as preparations for the New York meeting continued, planning for the book was already underway as John A. Marshall, a Philadelphia attorney, had circulated an announcement the previous March that he intended to “publish a book containing the history of the incarceration of political or State prisoners during the late war.” Marshall, adding that he thought it “a most auspicious time for such a book to appear,” appealed to recipients of his announcement to send him statements detailing their arrest and imprisonment, “in a word,” he wrote, “a readable and truthful history of your case so as to appear in print.”
Marshall’s project was supported by several leading Pennsylvania Democrats, at least one of the endorsements dated in early December 1867, suggesting that the idea for Marshall’s planned book was launched at about the same time as the first news of Wright’s “Prisoners of State” meeting appeared in print.
In advance of the long-discussed meeting, Phineas C. Wright circulated a letter announcing “on the 3rd day of July 1868 at the City of New York at 12 o’clock … the ‘Prisoners of State’ under the despotism of the late Abraham Lincoln, will meet in Convention.”
Finally, in July 1868, the long-awaited conference was held in New York City Chairing the meeting was Edson B. Olds, an Ohio Democrat, a former member of congress and the Ohio legislature who was imprisoned in 1862 at Fort Lafayette for four months, accused by federal officials of, among other things, discouraging troop enlistments but never formally charged. A committee, including Phineas C. Wright, was charged with collecting “narratives … touching the experiences of those who have suffered outrage to property or person at the command of arbitrary power during the administration of the late Abraham Lincoln …” The venue chosen for the meeting was the Metropolitan Democratic Club at 32 East 14th Street (its chairman was Phineas C. Wright).
Not likely by coincidence, the “Prisoners of State” meeting ran parallel with the Democratic National Convention held July 4-9, 1868, at the nearby and just-unveiled 14th Street Tammany Hall headquarters of New York’s Democratic Party machine (Edson B. Olds was a convention delegate from Ohio). That convention’s presidential nominee was former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, an opponent of the Lincoln administration and post-war Reconstruction, who lost the November election to Ulysses S. Grant.
The second day of the Prisoners meeting was largely devoted to an address by Henry Clay Dean, a Pennsylvania-born Methodist minister, lawyer and orator who, during the Civil War, was arrested in Iowa and held in government custody for two weeks after being denounced for his anti-war sentiments. In his remarks, published by the sympathetic World, Dean charged “…we have, without charges preferred, without indictment presented, trial had, or judgment rendered, or even the poor privilege of knowing our accusers, been subjected to all the indignities usually inflicted upon the victims of arbitrary power, despotically exercised.”
Before concluding their four-day meeting on July 10, 1868, the former “Prisoners of State” agreed to create an archive of their collected narratives with John A. Marshall of Philadelphia appointed “Keeper of the Archives and Historian of the Association.”
John Amos Marshall was born in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, in 1829, the son of an Adams County farmer, John Marshall, who later, in 1843, served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. By 1842, the son, John A. Marshall, was enrolled in the preparatory department of Pennsylvania College (later Gettysburg College). He went on from there to Marshall College in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania (named after U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, apparently not a relative), and after a year at Marshall College, he transferred to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), from which he graduated in 1850. After receiving his undergraduate degree, Marshall, now an aspiring attorney, moved to Ballston Spa, New York, near Saratoga, where he studied at the new New York State and National Law School, an innovative alternative to the traditional legal education obtained by apprenticing to established attorneys.
By 1854, Marshall had begun practicing law in Philadelphia and in February of that year he asked Daniel Smyser, an attorney then practicing in Norristown, Pennsylvania, for a boost to his nascent career. Smyser, attorney Thaddeus Stevens and John Marshall, the father of John A. Marshall, had been elected in successive years (1841, 1842 and 1843) to represent Adams County in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Smyser, in fact, had apprenticed in Stevens’ Gettysburg law office when he was fresh out of college and later became Stevens’ law partner for 10 years until Stevens moved to Lancaster in 1842. Stevens, running under the banner of the Whig Party, won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1848 and again in 1850. In the 1858 election, he was returned to congress, now as an abolitionist Republican. He would remain in the House until his death in 1868.
In February 1854, two pillars of the Lancaster legal community, Judge Daniel B. Vondersmith and attorney George Ford, were hauled into court by federal authorities and charged with defrauding the government, in Vondersmith’s case, by submitting tens of thousands of dollars in false claims for Revolutionary War pensions. The pair appointed Thaddeus Stevens to represent them in court. Marshall asked Smyser to contact Stevens on his behalf to see if he could join the legal fray. Smyser, on February 19, 1854, wrote to his former Gettysburg law partner:
“A son of our friend, John Marshall of Adams County, has been admitted to the Bar & has opened an office in Philadelphia. I think he is a young man of clever parts. He is desirous of making his debut by being associated in some cause which is of a character to fix the public eye from its interest and importance.” The “cause” Smyser and Marshall had in mind was the fraud charge against Vondersmith and Ford. “(Marshall) thinks,” Smyser added in his letter, “that his name being associated as one of the counsel & so appearing in the reports of the case in the papers & elsewhere, would bring him into notice.”
In court, with no sign of Marshall, Stevens asked for a writ of habeas corpus for his clients. The two prisoners were then brought before Judge Henry Long who, despite the protests of the federal marshal, released the men on $2,000 bail. Habeas corpus would loom as a significant issue for both the established attorney, Thaddeus Stevens, and the newcomer, Marshall. In 1862, Stevens, then a leading Radical Republican in Congress, introduced legislation to indemnify President Lincoln for his wartime suspension of habeas corpus. “If the President of the United States has the power (to suspend the writ of habeas corpus),” Stevens told the House of Representatives, “then this bill confers nothing additional, and can do no harm. If the President does not have the power, then it seems to me proper that he should receive it; and it seems to me proper that he should be indemnified for exercising it in a time of our extremest (sic) peril, when traitors were to be found in every household, North as well as South.” Stevens’ bill would lead the following year to a congressional act actually authorizing the suspension of the writ. In contrast, Marshall would proclaim in his book in 1869:
“The citizen was not only denied the great bulwark of personal liberty – the writ of Habeas Corpus – but even the guns upon the ramparts of strongly garrisoned fortresses, placed there to defend the Citadel of Liberty against a foreign enemy without, were used to prevent the execution of the writ to effect the release of the citizen incarcerated within, and derisively called the ‘Habeas Corpus.’ What solemn mockery!”
In the years immediately before the Civil War, John A. Marshall became increasingly involved in national and local politics. In early 1856, at the age of 27, he was chosen chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic Executive Committee, putting him in line for nomination for one of the city’s congressional seats. Accepting the congressional nomination in September, Marshall said he would, “if elected, advocate and support the Constitution and Union of our country,” a pledge in accordance with the conservative pronouncements of presidential candidate James Buchanan, a fellow Democrat and fellow Pennsylvanian. The following month, in a campaign address, Marshall warned against “alienating the sympathies, the affection, the wealth and the trade of fifteen powerful States which are now bound in union with us…” The Bedford Gazette, a voice for the Democratic Party midway between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, published its support for Marshall as the election approached, commenting that “For a young man he possesses an enviable reputation as a lawyer. We wish him success over his know-nothing abolition opponent, E. Joy Morris.” Morris, an anti-Catholic Philadelphia-born lawyer and Whig state legislator, was running against Marshall in Philadelphia’s Second District as a Union candidate, that is, under the umbrella of the Republican, American and Whig parties. In the election on October 14th, Marshall narrowly lost to Morris, receiving 6,018 votes to Morris’ 6,411.
The election lost, Marshall returned to his law practice while actively supporting the Democratic Party and President Buchanan, whose last day in office was March 4, 1861, replaced by President Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War erupted within weeks. With the war continuing, on September 24, 1862, President Lincoln issued a proclamation suspending the writ of habeas corpus throughout the United States, a measure aimed, according to the proclamation, at people “guilty of any disloyal practice offering aid and comfort to Rebels…”
John H. Cook, a Philadelphia bank teller, had been arrested just two days before Lincoln’s proclamation on orders of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The case was brought before Federal Judge John Cadwalader, a Democrat appointed by President Buchanan in 1858. Cook’s lawyers included Marshall as well as Charles Ingersoll, a Democrat who had been arrested just the previous month after speaking at a Democratic Party meeting at which, according to a newspaper report, he declared:
“And with what object has this war been prosecuted? I hear the government has lately taken it into consideration to adopt another course. We have no proof that the abolition scheme is dead. But what has been the whole object of the war previously? [A voice, ‘Free the nigger.’] Has there been any other object, and if they accomplish that object; if they turn loose upon us millions of negros (sic), are we to marry them? are we to work with them?” Ingersoll added: “… a government as corrupt as this was never imagined until Mr. Lincoln came to power.”
Ingersoll was freed after a writ of habeas corpus was filed on his behalf before Judge Cadwalader and the War Department ordered Ingersoll’s release. Now, just days later, Ingersoll, joined by Marshall, used the same tactic on behalf of Cook before the same evidently sympathetic federal judge. After a habeas corpus hearing, Cook was released by the War Department, which said it was nevertheless not conceding “that a party under military arrest can be properly relieved from that arrest through the intervention of a writ of habeas corpus.” Cook was never advised of the reasons for his arrest, but the bank teller later claimed that it was “because he had the moral courage to openly proclaim himself a Democrat.”
With the end of the Civil War in 1865 and Andrew Johnson’s ascension to the presidency, Marshall now turned to bolstering the policies of Johnson, leading a delegation in late February 1866 to present the chief executive with a resolution endorsing his policies to restore the country, policies then under attack by Radical Republicans in Congress. “We will stand by you,” Marshall told Johnson, “rather as conservative citizens than as partisans.”
In July 1868, Marshall was formally selected by delegates to the “Prisoners of State” meeting in New York City to put their stories between covers. A year later, in 1869, the first edition of the book was published. Titled American Bastile – A History of the Illegal Arrests and Imprisonment of American Citizens During the Late Civil War (with no explanation for the incorrect spelling of the name of the notorious French prison), the book profiled the experiences of about 100 civilians (out of a total of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000) who were imprisoned without a timely trial under various circumstances in various locations for various reasons.
“The liberty of the citizen,” Marshall wrote in his foreword to the book, “is the great prop of Free Government. The reader will at once see the importance of putting on record the facts detailed in this volume, while they are fresh in the minds of the people. As a matter of history, how interesting, not only to the reader of to-day, but, also, to the youth of the country for generations to come!” The stories Marshall assembled for his more than 700-page book included those of John A. Cook (with a brief mention of the name of one of his attorneys, John A. Marshall), Charles Ingersoll, Edson B. Olds, Henry Clay Dean and, notably, Phineas C. Wright, the behind-the-scenes motivator of both the Prisoners of State meeting as well the book itself.
John A. Marshall, according to his nephew Charles M. McCurdy, had practiced law for about twenty years, but “his later years were devoted to the preparation of his book The American Bastile.” According to one newspaper report, “(Marshall’s) health failing, he made Gettysburg his home for several years.” John Amos Marshall died at the home of his brother-in-law, Robert McCurdy, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on October 19, 1883. The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a brief notice, commented that he “was outspoken for freedom ...”
The four-day Prisoners of State meeting in July 1868 concluded by scheduling a “mass convention of ‘Prisoners of State’” in New York the following October. There is no evidence that it ever occurred. Instead, the legacy of that meeting became the book.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Mark E. Neely, Jr., describes Marshall’s American Bastile as “one of the most widely circulated anti-Lincoln books of all time” and “a bitter history of arbitrary arrests published in 1869 as a sort of book of martyrs…” while historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel characterizes the book as “… a sobering reading because it concretizes the soulless statistics into real-world personal tragedies.” Nearly a century and a half after its first publication, American Bastile remains in print (as a reprint), is available on the internet and continues to be cited by scholars and polemicists as a source of information and inspiration. At the same time, the issues raised by the “Prisoners of State” meeting 150 years ago remain very much alive, whether reviewed by Supreme Court cases on the Guantanamo detainees or explained with scholarly care in Habeas for the Twenty-First Century by law professors Nancy J. King and Joseph L. Hoffman, who succinctly comment, “War is a particularly risky time for freedom…”
About the author: Lawrence S. Freund is a former news correspondent based in London,Belgrade and New York and a news editor in New York. A graduate of Queens College (City University of New York) and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International studies, he has published family
histories and has written on various aspects of the American Civil War.