The Lurking Spy

John Castleman in later life

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.”

Thomas Hines

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.

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