I left Cincinnati Sunday evening and came to St. Louis about 11 o'clock Monday morning. The road is a very pleasant one, though rather slow. I sat and wrote rhymes in the same compartment with a pair of whiskey smugglers.
I reported to General Rosecrans immediately upon my arrival. After waiting some time in an anteroom full of officers, among them General Davidson, a young, nervous, active looking man; General Ewing, whom I had known before, a man of great coolness and steadiness of judgment: Rosecrans came out and took me to his room. I presented my letter; he read it, and nodded: — “All right — got something to show you — too important to talk about — busy just now — this orderly business — keep me till four o'clock — dine with us at the Lindell half-past five — then talk matter over at my room there. Hay, where were you born? How long have you been with the President?” etc. And I went away. He is a fine, hearty, abrupt sort of talker, heavy-whiskered, blond, keen eyes, with light brows and lashes, head shunted forward a little; legs a little unsteady in walk.
We dined at the Lindell quietly at six o'clock: Rosecrans, Major Bond and I. The General was chatty and sociable; told some old army stories; and drank very little wine. The dinner had nothing to tempt one out of frugality in diet, being up to the average badness of hotel dinners. From the dining room I went to his private room. He issued orders to his intelligent contraband to admit no one. He seated himself in a queer combination chair he had — which let you lounge or forced you to a rigid pose of business as you desired, — and offered me a cigar. “No? long-necked fellows like you don't need them. Men of my temperament derive advantage from them as a sedative, and as a preventer of corpulence.” He puffed away and began to talk, in a loud, easy tone at first, which he soon lowered, casting a glance over his shoulder and moving his chair nearer.
There is a secret conspiracy on foot against the Government, carried on by a society called the Order of the American Knights, or, to use their initials — O. A. K. The head of the Order, styled the high priest, is in the North, Vallandigham, and in the South, Sterling Price. Its objects are, in the North to exert an injurious effect upon public feeling, to resist the arrest of its members, to oppose the war in all possible ways; in the border States to join with returned rebels and guerilla parties to plunder, murder and persecute Union men and to give to rebel invasion all possible information and timely aid. He said that in Missouri they had carefully investigated the matter by means of secret service men who had taken the oaths, and they had found that many recent massacres were directly chargeable to them; that the whole Order was in a state of intense activity; that they numbered in Missouri 13,000 sworn members; in Illinois, 140,000; in Ohio and Indiana almost as large numbers, and in Kentucky a very large and formidable association.
That the present objective point was the return and the protection of Vallandigham. He intends, on dit, that the district convention in his district in Ohio shall elect him a delegate to the Chicago Convention. That he is to be elected and come over from Canada and take his seat, and if the Government should see fit to re-arrest him, then his followers are to unite to resist the officers and protect him at all hazards.
A convocation of the Order was held at Windsor, Canada, in the month of April under his personal supervision; to this came delegates from every part of the country. It is not definitely known what was done there. . . . .
I went over to Sanderson’ office, and he read to me his voluminous report to Rosecrans in regard to the workings of the Order, and showed me some few documents. . . . We went back and finished the evening at Roscrans rooms. I said I would go back to Washington and lay the matter before the President, as it had been presented to me, and I thought he would look upon it as I did, as a matter of importance. I did not make any suggestions; I did not even ask for a copy of Sanderson’s report, or any of the papers in the case: — 1st, because my instructions placed me in a purely receptive attitude; and, — 2d, because I saw in both R. & S. a disposition to insist on Sanderson’s coming to Washington in person to discuss the matter without the intervention of the Secretary of War. Two or three motives influenced this, no doubt. Rosecrans is bitterly hostile to Stanton; he is full of the idea that S. has wronged him, and is continually seeking opportunities to thwart and humiliate him. Then Sandn. himself is rather proud of his work in ferreting out this business, and is not unwilling to come to Washington to impress the President with the same sense; they wish a programme for future opportunities determined; and finally they want money for the secret service fund.
Gen. Rosecrans wrote a letter to the President Monday night, which I took on Tuesday morning, and started back to Washington.
. . . . I had bad luck coming back. I missed a day at Springfield, a connection at Harrisburgh, and one at Baltimore, leaving Philadelphia five minutes after the President, and arriving at Washington almost as many hours behind him. I saw him at once, and gave him the impressions I have recorded above. The situation of affairs had been a good deal changed in my transit by the Avatar of Vallandigham in Ohio. The President seemed not over-well pleased that Rosecrans had not sent all the necessary papers by me, reiterating his want of confidence in Sanderson, declining to be made a party to a quarrel between Stanton and Rosecrans, and stating in reply to Rosecrans’ suggestion of the importance of the greatest secrecy, that a secret which has already been confided to Yates, Morton, Brough, Bramlette and their respective circles of officers, could scarcely be worth the keeping now. He treats the northern section of the conspiracy as not especially worth regarding, holding it a mere political organization, with about as much of malice and as much of puerility as the Knights of the Golden Circle.
About Vallandigham himself he says that the question for the Government to decide is whether it can afford to disregard the contempt of authority and breach of discipline displayed in Vallandigham’s unauthorized return. For the rest it cannot result in benefit for the Union cause to have so violent and indiscreet a man go to Chicago as a firebrand to his own party. The President had some time ago seriously thought of annulling the sentence of exile, but had been too much occupied to do it. Fernando Wood said to him on one occasion that he could do nothing more politic than to bring Val. back; in that case he could promise him two Democratic candidates for President this year. “These War Democrats,” said F. W., “are scoundrelly hypocrites; they want to oppose you, and favor the war, at once, which is nonsense. There are but two sides in this fight, — yours and mine: War and Peace. You will succeed while the war lasts, I expect, but we shall succeed when the war is over. I intend to keep my record clear for the future.”
The President said one thing in which I differ from him. He says: — “The opposition politicians are so blinded with rage, seeing themselves unable to control the politics of the country, that they may be able to manage the Chicago Convention for some violent end, but they cannot transfer the people, the honest though misguided masses, to the same course.” I said:— “I thought the reverse to be true: that the sharp managers would go to Chicago to try to do some clever and prudent thing, such as nominate Grant without platform; but that the bare-footed democracy from the heads of the hollows, who are now clearly for peace would carry everything in the Convention before them. As it was at Cleveland: — the New York politicians who came out to intrigue for Grant could not get a hearing. They were as a feather in the wind in the midst of that blast of German fanaticism. I think my idea is sustained by the action of the Illinois Convention which endorses Val. on his return and pledges the party strength to protect him. In the stress of this war, politics have drifted out of the hands of politicians, and are now more than ever subject to genuine popular currents.”
The President said he would take the matter into consideration and would write to-morrow, the 18th, to Brough and Heintzelman about Val., and to Rosecrans at an early day.
SOURCES: Abstracted from Clara B. Hay, Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary, Volume 1, p. 201-8. See Michael Burlingame & John R. Turner Ettlinger, Editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete War Diary of John Hay, p. 204-8 for the full diary entry which they date June 17.