Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Lambdin P. Milligan

 (“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – November 2015, No. 130)

Lambdin P. Milligan

During the American Civil War, southern sympathizers known as Copperheads, (meaning snakes) living in Indiana had joined 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 six-feet four inches during which time he also developed a love for reading.  He became a lawyer and at the time of the Civil War believed it was a New England concern motivated by New England Yankees worried about making money.  He openly advocated for the doctrine of a states’ rights to separate from the Union.

Archivist Stephen E. Towne writing for Indiana Magazine of History stated that shortly after Milligan had been rejected for a gubernatorial nomination by Indiana’s Democrat Convention delegates, he was in Fort Wayne on August 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 who planned sabotage, releasing and arming Confederate prisoners in Indianapolis and overthrowing state governments. The group was uncovered, arrested and tried for treason.

About the time the South was ready to quit the Rebellion, it was reinvigorated when learning 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. With the releasing of prisoners and seizing the arsenals at Camp Douglas and Rock Island, they planned to march the prisoners south to join up with rebel armies. Historians mention that Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s daring raid into southern Indiana to pillage her counties was perhaps a part of the scheme intended to signal a start of the Sons of Liberty’s action.
If their plot had succeeded, the Sons of Liberty believed that they could control of the supply lines to the South thus weakening the Union's cause. Although the plan was set to take place, a spy had revealed their strategy to Indiana's Governor Oliver P. Morton.  Milligan, along with of other Sons of Liberty members were arrested and thousands of arms were seized.  Milligan, Dr. William A. Bowles of French Lick, Ind., and Stephen Horsey of Shoals, Ind., were tried by a military commission found guilty of all charges brought against them and sentenced to hang.  After Lincoln's assassination, Andrew Johnson ordered the executions to take place, but Indiana’s Governor 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 up to the Supreme Court.
In 1866, a verdict was rendered by the High Court, 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 is one which 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 stands on the west lawn of the courthouse in Huntington, Indiana, which honors the decision stating in part, “In a landmark decision on April 3, 1866, the United States Supreme Court overturned the conspiracy against the national government conviction of Huntington attorney Lambdin P. Milligan (1812-1899).”  This High Court decision guaranteed by right of the Constitution meant Milligan was able to return to continue practicing law. He died on December 21, 1899, at age eighty seven and is buried in Huntington, Indiana’s Mount Hope Cemetery.


Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio106.3 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.

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