The story of the attempted formation of a N. W. Confederacy.
Letter from General Early.[It is well to give place in our records to the following clear and conclusive refutation of a canard which has been recently taking the rounds of the newspapers. General Early's letter was originally addressed to the Lynchburg Virginian.]
To the Editor of the Virginian,--During my absence in the South, what purports to be “A story of the war,” was published in your paper of the 17th inst., and it met my eye for the first time on yesterday. I am informed that it was copied from the Philadelphia Press, and it begins as follows:
The history of a conspiracy that failed.“Colonel T. A. Burr, a well known Confederate officer, tells the story of an attempt to release 20,000 Confederate prisoners at Chicago, Columbus and Sandusky in 1864, and to form a northwestern confederacy. Major C. H. Cole, of the Fifth Tennessee regiment, was the leading spirit of the plot. He narrowly escaped hanging, and is now a prominent railroad man in Texas. He received his instructions from Jacob Thompson, who was then in Canada, and was put in command of the department of Ohio, with headquarters at Sandusky. With the force of the 20,000 Rebels whom the conspirators intended to release, and with the active aid of the Northern sympathizers, it was thought that a northwestern confederacy was not impossible; and the time fixed for the assault on the camps where the prisoners were confined was gauged by General Early's attack on Washington, which was to engage the great force of our army, and make it impossible to reinforce the small body of Union soldiers in the Northwest, where there was almost open rebellion against conscription, and people were weary of war. It was first intended to strike the blow while the National Democratic Convention was in session at Chicago, and more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers and sympathizers were there ready for action. But, Early's delay in striking Washington caused a postponement.” Then follow some very remarkable statements about the efforts of Major Cole to carry out the projected scheme. As this story is re-published in a paper printed at the place of my residence, and to which I am a regular subscriber, silence on my part  might be construed into an acknowledgment of its accuracy. I therefore deem it proper and necessary to notice it, and to disclaim all knowledge whatever of the alleged plot or conspiracy. My first knowledge of it, and, in fact, even of the names of Colonel T. A. Burr and Major C. H. Cole, is derived from the publication from which the above extract is taken. The project of sending my command to meet Hunter's force, then supposed to be in the Valley, and, after that was disposed of, to make the advance on Washington, was adopted at a conference between President Davis and General Lee, late in the afternoon of the 12th of June, 1864, and I began the movement early on the morning of the 13th. On arriving at Charlottesville, I found that Hunter was advancing on Lynchburg, and it became necessary for me to meet him at that place. After his retreat, and my pursuit of him beyond Salem, General Lee, in a telegram, submitted it to my discretion whether I should make the advance on Washington, and this was repeated in a telegram to me after I reached Staunton; and I assumed the responsibility of continuing the movement. This does not look as if my movement was a part of a scheme for releasing the Confederates in northern prisons, and establishing a northwestern confederacy. In order to reach the vicinity of Washington, north of the Potomac, it was necessary for me to get rid of the Federal forces in the lower Valley and at Harper's Ferry, and after this was done I had to fight another force at Monocacy Junction. Notwithstanding these obstacles in the way of my advance, I reached the front of the defenses of Washington, on the north, on the 11th of July, after a march which, for its rapidity, was unequalled by any march made by any force on either side during the war, or as I believe by any army in any modern war. I did not delay my attack on Washington, for I made none; but finding the defenses of that city occupied by a force much superior to my own, and that the greater part of two corps of Grant's army had arrived about or a little before the time of my own arrival, I retired across the Potomac, in order to save my command from destruction, as Hunter had arrived at Harper's Ferry, in my rear, with a force much larger than my own. I may say here, as I have stated on several occasions, that it was not a part of General Lee's plan that I should make an attack on Washington, but his instructions were that I should threaten that city in order to draw troops away from Grant's army. When I suggested to him the idea of capturing Washington, he said very emphatically that it would be impossible to do so. After I reached Sharpsburg, on my route to Washington, I received a dispatch by a messenger from General Lee, informing  me that there was a scheme for releasing the prisoners at Point Lookout, by a naval expedition up the Chesapeake, and I was directed to send a calvary force towards that point, in order to co-operate in the scheme, if I found it practicable to do so. I did order General Bradley T. Johnson to move in that direction with his brigade, after cutting the railroads between Baltimore and Philadelphia and Baltimore and Washington; and he had started and crossed the railroad between Washington and Baltimore, when, having learned that two corps had arrived at Washington from Grant's army, he informed me of the fact by a courier who reached me in front of Washington on the night of the 11th of July. Realizing the fact then that there was no possible hope of capturing Washington, I determined to retire, and sent an order to General Johnson to rejoin me. The attempt to release the prisoners at Point Lookout was not made for reasons not at all connected with my operations. If there was this scheme for releasing the prisoners in the North and Northwest, which was to be carried out in connection with my advance on Washington, it is a little singular that General Lee gave me no information of it when he informed me of the proposed attempt at Point Lookout? I may further remark that, as the project of sending me to threaten Washington was first conceived on the 12th of June and I arrived in front of Washington on the 11th July, it was simply impossible that information of the fact could have reached the Confederate commissioners in Canada, and been sent by them to Sandusky, in Ohio, before I retired from the front of Washington. It is said: “It was first intended to strike the blow while the national Democratic convention was in session at Chicago, and more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers and sympathizers were there ready for action. But Early's delay in striking Washington caused a postponement.” The Democratic convention for 1864, which nominated McClellan for President, assembled at Chicago on the 31st of August--a little more than seven weeks after I had retired from Washington. When that convention was held I was confronted by Sheridan in the Valley with very nearly 55,000 troops, according to the returns on file in the Adjutant-General's office in Washington, while my whole force did not reach the fourth of that number. Was it expected that I should destroy Sheridan, then capture Washington, hold in check the entire force of the United States army, including all the troops in Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, while the 20,000 released prisoners should arm  themselves, overrun all the Northwestern States and establish a Northwestern Confederacy? Really, this “Story of the war” requires a vast deal of credulity and entire ignorance of the events of the war on the part of any one who accepts it as the truth. The idea of introducing Mr. Jacob Thompson on board of a United States man-of-war as a “country aunt” is funny, to say the least of it. And the statement that “the Confederacy (in 1864) had plenty of money in its secret service fund,” and that “there was something like $86,000,000 to the credit of the Confederate Commissioner and his colleague, Jacob Thompson, most of which was deposited at a bank in Toronto,” is not excelled in its romanticism by that other story of Mr. Davis's carrying off over $2,000,000 in specie about his person when he was made a prisoner at the close of the war. If there was any such secret fund, that is, a fund that would have been available in Canada, it must have been a very profound secret indeed, and such it will ever remain until that final day when all secrets shall be given up. In regard to the mission of Mr. Jacob Thompson and his colleagues in Canada, the following statement is to be found in “The rise and fall of the Confederate Government,” by President Davis, vol. 2, pp. 611-12:
The opening of the spring campaign of 1864 was a favorable conjuncture for the employment of the resources of diplomacy. To approach the Government of the United States directly would have been in vain. Repeated efforts had already demonstrated its inflexible purpose — not to negotiate with the Confederate authorities. Political developments at the North, however, favored the adoption of some action that might influence popular sentiment in the hostile section. The aspect of the peace party was quite encouraging, and it seemed that the real issue to be decided in the Presidential election of that year was the continuance or cessation of the war. A commission of three persons, eminent in position and intelligence, was accordingly appointed to visit Canada, with a view to negotiation with such persons in the North as might be relied upon to aid the attainment of peace. The commission was designed to facilitate such preliminary conditions as might lead to formal negotiations between the two governments, and they were expected to make judicious use of any political opportunity that might be presented. The commissioners--Messrs. Clay, of Alabama. Holcombe, of Virginia, and Thompson, of Mississippi--established themselves at Niagara Falls in July, and on the 12th commenced a correspondence with Horace  Greeley, of New York. Through him they sought a safe conduct to Washington. Mr. Lincoln at first appeared to favor an interview, but finally refused, on the ground that the Commissioners were not authorized to treat for peace.Mr. Davis makes no further mention of this mission in his book, and he says not one word, anywhere, of the alleged scheme for releasing the prisoners and establishing a Northwestern Confederacy. It is true that there was a scheme gotten up, perhaps in the Fall of 1864, by some escaped Confederate prisoners, who had made their way into Canada, for the release of the Confederate prisoners at Johnson's Island; but that scheme proved an abortion, as the means for carrying it out were wholly inadequate. There was, also, a raid into Vermont, for the purpose of plundering some bank or banks; but none of these schemes had any connection whatever with my movement on Washington. Permit me, in conclusion, Mr. Editor, to express my surprise that any respectable Northern journal should publish so absurd a story as the one I have thus noticed, and my still greater surprise that it should be copied into a respectable Southern journal.
J. A. Early. February 23, 1882.