Unknown to all but a few, Sugar Creek was only fifteen miles from the center of a Confederate spy ring that was operating in Marshall, Illinois in 1864. It was a part of what is now known as the Northwest Conspiracy
The Conspiracy was a series of efforts in 1864 and 1865 to destabilize the North by committing acts of sabotage, fomenting insurrection by copperheads and butternuts and, ultimately, free Confederate prisoners in the North, particularly those in Camp Douglas in Chicago and Camp Morton in Indianapolis. The idea was the brainchild of Thomas Hines, a dashing Confederate cavalryman complete with flowing mustache. Hines had made an earlier raid into Indiana in 1863 to gauge support for what later became Morgan’s Raid. Captured along with Morgan and his remaining forces, he had helped engineer their escape from an Ohio Prison.
After pitching his conspiracy plan to Confederate leaders, Hines travelled to Canada, a refuge for Southern sympathizers and spies. Posing as a civilian, he crossed the border back into the United States to carry out his plan in 1864. One of his operatives was another soldier named John B. Castleman. Things did not go well in Chicago and his scheme failed for several reasons. Perhaps chief among them was that hoped for support from the Butternut crowd did not materialize. This should not have surprised Hines or Castleman. Though southern sympathizers in Indiana were quite vocal in their support for the Confederacy, they tended to go silent and fade away whenever they were actually called upon to put their beliefs, and bodies, into action.
Undeterred, Hines and Castleman moved on to further plots in Illinois and Indiana. Calling himself Clay Wilson, Castleman set up headquarters in Marshall, Illinois. He may have lodged at the Archer House Hotel in Marshall, where earlier a circuit riding lawyer named Lincoln stayed, but most likely he was housed by sympathizers. The stretch between Sugar Creek and Marshall was considered one of the most hardcore Butternut areas in the region. It was an enclave that gleefully hid deserters and those fleeing the draft. The “headquarters” was a stone house along Big Creek known locally as Castle Fin. It may have been there that plots were plotted. He began making connections with Butternuts in the area, quite possibly with some in Sugar Creek. In a report to the Confederate government he said that Hines was operating out of Mattoon, Illinois
Hines and Castleman’s little “guerrilla network” did actually pull off some acts of sabotage, including blowing up some Union storehouses. But they wanted to do more. They still wanted to lead a band of Illinois and Indiana sympathizers to attack Camp Morton and enlist the prisoners in their little army. Travelling undercover once again, he rode to Sullivan to arrange for some dynamiting to take place there and then returned to Marshall. On September 29th Castleman left Marshall and rode across Sugar Creek to Terre Haute. Those along the National Road or in Macksville would have taken little note of handsome man riding by them At the Terre Haute depot he boarded a train to Sullivan, presumably to initiate the planned sabotage spree.
Quite unknown to him the braggadocio of some of Hines’ men in Mattoon about the plans was overheard and reported to authorities. Castleman and two co-conspirators were captured soon after stepping down from the train. It all seemed over for the man calling himself Clay Wilson.
But Thomas Hines, who was known for daredevil escapes from danger, had other ideas. He rushed to Terre Haute with some of his men with the idea of freeing Castleman when the train taking him to prison in Indianapolis stopped at Terre Haute. Hines and his men were ready as the train chugged in from the south. As later recounted by Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick in an excellent article about the event: “Strategically placed around the Terre Haute Depot, Hines’ spies awaited a cue to gun down the guards. Moments before the signal, a train loaded with Union soldiers chugged into the station. Castleman, flanked by sentinels, saw the infantrymen arrive. Hines did not. Attentive to the insurgents designs, Castleman hastily requested ca well-dressed man standing nearby to warn Hines to ‘back off.’ The man obliged; the warning averted a major incident in Terre haute on September 30, 1864.”
The train carrying Castleman and his men steamed east to Indianapolis. No one on it but Castleman was aware how close they came to bloodshed. Castleman was charged. The complaint read that he “did secretly and covertly lurk and travel about as a spy in the dress of a civilian.” He was convicted and sent to prison. After the war he was exiled to Europe until President Andrew Johnson pardoned him in 1866.
It was going to be a long, long war.
But men from Sugar Creek continued to don the blue uniform. Many of them were naïve young farm hands eager for adventure, only vaguely aware of the swirling currents that swept them into the coming whirlwind. They traded chores for the heady perfume of glory. Their enlistment papers were tickets to a different world beyond Sugar Creek and the Wabash. A nice uniform, a gun, money in their pockets, a little taste of glory, and then back home by Christmas as laureled heroes. It would be a grand reunion with loved ones, the hero striding back into a swell of admiration.
They would learn, though, and all too quickly. And they would mourn, and suffer, and watch as life ebbed out of friends on some hazed battleground. The whirlwind they marched into would define them, taunt them, haunt them for the rest of their lives. They would learn what millenia of soldiers before them realized all too late, that the declarers of wars, old and far from a battlefield, depend on the gullibility of young men.
But those were lessons still to be learned. Nearly a thousand Vigo County men enlisted in the two weeks after Fort Sumpter. That number grew ever larger over the summer. One of them was William Ray. He was 16. William and his older brother worked their widowed mother’s farm southwest of Macksville. You can also hear his pleas echo still, just like those of other boys over the centuries. “It will be okay, Ma. Nothing will happen to me. Lee can still run the farm, and little George is old enough now to help out more on the farm. You and the girls will be fine. Besides I’ll be home before you even miss me.” He enlisted May, 1861 as a Hundred Day Man in the 11th Indiana Infantry. After he was mustered out he returned alive and well as he had promised his mother. But he would go off to war again very soon. His next return home would be very different.
William joined the reorganized 11th Indiana Infantry. The 11th had originally been a regiment of 100 day men like William. When their enlistment was up and the men mustered out the unit was organized anew as a three year enlistment regiment. The 11th was led by Lew Wallace of Crawfordsville. Long before he wrote Ben Hur Wallace was a military man. He fought in the Mexican-American War as a teenager. He styled the regiment after the Zouaves, French infantry units known for their colorful uniforms.
Wallace chose their uniform which consisted of “a grey jacket with red trimming, a grey kepi with red braiding, a dark blue zouave vest, and grey pantaloons.” William must have looked grand in the uniform as the regiment was feted in Terre Haute and en route to Indianapolis. He was in Company “D” which was primarily made up of men and boys from Vigo County. Ray and the others were soon sent to the Paducah, Kentucky area to guard against Confederate troops heading north.
But young William was not to find the glory of war that may have inspired him. On November 11, 1861 he died, not by shell or bullet, but by disease. That day William and two other men in Company D perished. The cause was typhus, which took so many during the war. William died as the majority of those killed in the Civil War. 240,000 men died of diseases, more than double the number o those killed in action.
William Ray was brought back to Sugar Creek on November 22, 1861. Several of his buddies from the 11th were there to honor him. Along with his family they silently watched as his body lowered him into his grave at New Hope Cemetery.
There are some promises to their mothers young men are not allowed to keep.
Recently I was sent a citation about Taylorville. Since that little village has stirred so much interest, I wanted to post the links to the story. It appeared in The Normal Advance in 1909. The Advance was the yearbook of Indiana State Normal (now ISU) and featured essays, poetry and article by ISN students. It is quite well done and important because the students went to Taylorville and talked with some of the people. Thus it is an excellent primary source regarding Taylorville.
Below are photos of the story. If your browser does not open photos correctly let me know.