On May 4, 1864 when he joined the secret services, Stidger had never even heard of the Sons of Liberty (or their predecessors, the Knights of the Golden Circle). By June, he was esablished a principal officer of their Indiana chapter, fully conversant with their aims, members, and network, reporting regularly to Carrington. In his 1903 memoirs, Treason History of the Order of Sons of Liberty (available on Google Books), Stidger says that prior to his rise within the order, Carrington had been having no luck: "no man in the employ of the Government had ever been able to get farther into the Orders than one or two of the lower degrees, the members of which never came in communication with the leaders ... [and] were never informed of any of the details..." (Emphasis in the original.)
Stidger gave the federal authorities a close view of the conspiracies hatched by the Sons; one book credits him for the advance warning Seward gave New York authorities of the 1864 plot to burn Manahattan. (Stidger had actually couriered the relevant information between Jacob Thompson, the CSA spymaster in Canada, and his controllers in Richmond.)
In his book, Stidger not only names names, he prints pictures of the conspirators, leading men in Indiana public life (his work was Indiana-focused). And although he places Clement Vallandigham at the head of the Sons nationwide, he painstakingly separates him from the violent plots, the planned burnings, the uprisings, the liberation of Rebel POWs, and so on. He pins these on a man named H.H. Dodd, the COO of the Sons.
McClellan makes but one appearance in Stidger's book. Recounting a meeting between Vallandigham and the Sons' leadership, in which they are drawing up planks for the platform of the Democratic convention, Stidger quotes Vallandigham as so pleased with the planks he says, he "would be willing to accept McClellan, or any other man as the Presidential Candidate on it [the platform]." This puts McClellan in the role of troublesome outsider neutralized by the platform ... but we have no sense of whether this was reported at the time or understood by the men who may have received such information.
Stanton's Judge Advocate General (Joseph Holt) was so pleased with Rosecrans/Hays and Carrington/Stidger, he named them in his official report, "On the 'Order of the American Knights,' alias, Order of the Sons of Liberty," issued on October 8. Blending the information he received and heralding the commission trial of Dodd, Holt stressed the military nature of the Sons and gave some figures:
The numbers of its members in the several States has been differently estimated in the reports and statements of its officers. Thus, the force of the order in Indiana is stated to be from 75,000 to 125,000; in Illinois from 100,000 to 140,000; in Ohio from 80,000 to 108,000; 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.Holt brings up McClellan's name, echoing an appelation found in Rosecrans's letter to Lincoln cited in the previous post:
The "McClellan Minute Guard," as appears from a circular issued by the Chief Secretary [of the Guard] in New York in March last, is organized upon a military basis similar to that of the order proper. It is composed of companies, one for each election district, ten of which constitute a "brigade," with a "Brigadier General" at its head. The whole is placed under the authority of a "Commander-in-Chief."Holt notes that this "Guard" "would seem to be a branch" of the Sons, adding
as the Chief Secretary of this association... stated in June last to a reliable witness ... "those who represent the McClellan interest are compelled to preach a vigorous prosecution of the war, in order to secure the popular sentiment and allure voters."And so Holt, in an official communication to Stanton, links "the McClellan interest" inferentially to a violent, revolutionary conspiracy while using the paraphrased words of an informer to characterize McClellan's own pro-war stance as a dissimulation "to allure voters." All this on the eve of an election.
Holt concludes ominously that
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 constant military surveillance.Remember this phrasing; we will see it again.
In his memoirs, Stidger makes note that the commissions needed witnesses and that he was the key to many of the cases brought against the Sons; where they lacked a Stidger, the prosecutors would not bring charges, he says. This suggests two sets of books - prosecutable conspirators and non-prosecutable associates: indictable and unindictable co-conspirators, as it were. This may be the meaning of Holt's words. Or, Holt may be taking an even broader view of "guilt by association."
Stidger's success, his meteoric career as an informant, culminated on October 21, 1864, with the start of serial trials by military commission of the many civilians he had been reporting on. He was the key witness against the defendants in case after case. This sensational political circus - foreshadowed by Holt's dark report - set the stage for the secret meeting between Allan Pinkerton and Col. Edward Wright six days later.
Conspiracy theory 2: Rosecrans discovers a plot
General Wool writes a letter
Images, top to bottom: Holt, Carrington, Stidger.