“Nothing on the Books”: Political Detentions in the Civil War Part Four

This is the final installment of a four-part series

As residents of Kentucky were arrested for disloyalty and detained, often for several months, without being charged or tried in criminal court, one of the most protracted cases was that of Covington attorney James J. O’Hara Jr. In its contours, the story of O’Hara’s initial detention resembles the accounts of other political prisoners whose stories are preserved in the papers of Kentucky’s Civil War governors. O’Hara was arrested at his home on July 22, 1862, by the Covington provost marshal and jailed at the Newport Barracks for more than a week. He was not immediately able to ascertain the reason for his arrest—a disturbingly common complaint among civilian prisoners. On July 30, he was sent to Camp Chase, where his story took a decidedly different turn and where he wrote letters to a person he addressed as “My Dear,” who was probably his wife, Oberia.[1]

In his personal correspondence, James O’Hara wrote of financial matters, requested provisions, and expressed affection for friends and family. He warned his recipient, “You must not come here to see me as the authorities will not allow visitors within the prison.”[2] He learned this when a friend had come to Camp Chase with the young son of Thomas L. Jones—who had been arrested for making fiery anti-government speeches—and the visitors were turned away. When several of O’Hara’s fellow prisoners petitioned Beriah Magoffin, they complained of this rule and of the hardship of being separated from their families.[3] Although O’Hara was acquainted with James Robinson and other state officers, he advised his correspondent against trying to involve them in his case, writing in one letter, “I do not think it worth while for you to apply to my friends Davis, Robinson and Harlan or any others at present, although I have no doubt those named would do all in their joint power to secure my release.” In another, he wrote, “I know of nothing that can be done at present by friends out side to deliver me.”[4] When newspapers reported a Confederate advance into Kentucky, O’Hara instructed his recipient to seek the advice of friends on the safest course of action, as he could not be sufficiently informed to offer useful counsel.[5]

Not surprisingly, the status of O’Hara’s case was a recurring topic, especially the difficulty of learning the charges against him. He tried to project a positive attitude while also preparing his spouse for an incarceration that he predicted could last several weeks or months. “I do not expect that the process [of discharge] will be instantaneous,” O’Hara cautioned, but he affirmed that his release was “certain in the end, as I know that I am guilty of no offense against the law.” Prescribing a course for both himself and his spouse, O’Hara resolved, “I shall exercise the utmost degree of patience, and trust that you will not allow our separation to weigh heavily with you.”[6] Two weeks after he applied to learn the charges on which he had been arrested, he still had received no answer. “I do not understand why I am not gratified in that particular as others have been,” O’Hara lamented, but he supposed it was “inadvertence and not design” that kept him uninformed.[7] O’Hara hoped his recipient would not allow her “buoyancy of spirit for a moment to flag” and reassured her that he would face his fate “undaunted.”[8]  On August 21, three weeks after his arrival at Camp Chase, O’Hara reported that he had finally learned the reason for his arrest: “James O’Hara is charged with ‘being a rabid and dangerous rebel sympathizer.’ Has done ‘a great deal to aid the rebellion.’” He dismissed the allegations as unfounded. “Of Course there is nothing in these charges,” he assured his wife, and “there can be no difficulty about my release when the authorities can find the time to attend to our cases.” But he still had no idea when that might be.[9]

O’Hara may have downplayed the adversities of prison life so as not to worry his spouse.  He offered a more candid account in 1863, when he provided testimony to a select committee on military arrests appointed by the Ohio House of Representatives. He specifically noted that both prisoners of war and citizen prisoners were “badly clad, not having changes of clothing.” He observed that the citizens “seemed to have been brought there without suitable preparation for a long continuance away from their homes.” He also told of two young boys, whose ages he estimated to be between eight and twelve, who had been imprisoned along with their father. According to O’Hara, when the father was arrested, the boys had no one else to take care of them on the outside and the father requested they be kept together.[10]

If James O’Hara was as confident of his release as he claimed in his letters, it did not prevent him from pursuing a more clandestine path to secure his liberty. When he was presented an opportunity to escape the confines of Camp Chase, James O’Hara took his chance. He was informed of an arrangement in which one of the prison sentinels had agreed to allow the escape of eight to ten prisoners and was invited to join the group, which he later admitted, he was “entirely willing to do.”[11] By O’Hara’s account, the sentinel, who was bribed with a gold watch and about twenty dollars, removed a plank from the parapet, leaving an opening for the prisoners to escape. O’Hara filed out behind Hubbard D. Helm, the former sheriff of Newport, who had been arrested on July 18 and accused of “making the statement of being a secessionist.”[12] Helm and O’Hara ran about fifty yards before they were surrounded by forty to fifty soldiers and ordered back to the prison.[13] As punishment, O’Hara was locked in a structure known as “the dungeon,” probably so named for the light deprivation and physical discomfort it likely imposed on its occupants. By O’Hara’s account,

I was put into a dungeon constructed of boards, about four feet wide by eight feet long, with seven feet ceiling. The door closed tight, and was secured with a hasp and staple and ordinary padlock. For ventilation there were five inch and a quarter auger holes through the bottom, and a hole in the top five inches square. This was roofed over, and inclosed in a house or shed, one of a number of like description.[14]

He was kept in this cell from about 10 p.m. Saturday night to sometime Wednesday afternoon. The first night, he was not given any blankets and “suffered severely from cold.”[15] The other prisoners who followed Helm and O’Hara out of the camp had managed to return to their quarters when it was clear the escape had failed. Colonel C. W. B. Allison, the camp commander, tried to persuade O’Hara to identify the other escapees, but he refused. O’Hara later recounted, “He [Allison] said my conduct in the matter would be the means of prolonging my stay in the prison.”[16]

In fact, O’Hara would be allowed to leave the prison the following month, around the same time as many other Kentucky citizens who had been arrested over the summer, but unlike most of the citizen prisoners who would be released on the condition of taking a loyalty oath or with the additional provision of a bond, O’Hara would retain the status of political prisoner and remain under federal authority much longer. He was paroled on October 18, 1862, but was required to remain in Cincinnati. When O’Hara’s case and that of another prisoner, W. S. Pryor, came to the attention of Abraham Lincoln in January 1863, the president directed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to “Let their parole stand, but allow them to go at large generally.”[17] O’Hara’s parole was expanded to all states loyal to the Union, which allowed him to return to Kentucky. As a condition of his parole, he was required to report his current location by weekly letter to the military commandant of Cincinnati.[18]Dutifully, every week, O’Hara wrote a letter, the text of which rarely deviated unless a change in his residence was reported in the return address.Commanders came and went, departments reorganized and relocated, the country embarked on uneasy peace, and still James O’Hara sent his weekly parole letters.[19]

Finally, in early 1866, O’Hara’s case again drew the attention of military authorities. In March, E. O. C. Ord, commander of the Department of the Ohio, wrote Brigadier General H. L. Burnett asking for information on O’Hara. The tone of his letter suggested equal parts perplexity and frustration at the lack of records in O’Hara’s case. “I can find nothing on the books in the Asst. Judge Advocate General’s Office, relating to this man,” Ord wrote, “and am called upon for a report as to who and what he is, why under parole, since when, and by whose order, with such other information as may be had concerning him and his offence.”[20] Burnett sent back two of O’Hara’s parole letters and informed Ord that it was only by mistake that the Adjutant General’s Office had received and filed the documents. Burnett had “no other records or knowledge” of O’Hara’s case.[21] Ord then ordered a broader investigation to identify and examine any records pertaining to O’Hara, especially for information about the reason for his arrest and continued parole.[22]

Twice during the investigation, James O’Hara was asked to provide statements summarizing the facts of his case, which could not be located elsewhere. In a letter dated April 3, 1866, O’Hara recounted his arrest, his incarceration at the Newport Barracks, his transfer to Camp Chase, and the terms of his parole. He wisely omitted any reference to the failed prison break, which in 1862-63 may have been considered sufficient cause to continue the parole, rather than grant his release. But the reason for his arrest remained a mystery even to James O’Hara. As he explained, “I in vain endeavored to obtain a Specification of the ground upon which I was arrested during my stay at Camp Chase and would now be most happy if you could inform me.”[23] In his letter dated August 8, 1866, O’Hara provided substantially the same statement but added one additional detail: “There were affidavits of two witnesses taken after my arrest, while I was yet in New Port Barracks, but they contained no specification of any offence alleged to have been committed by me but general charges of Disloyalty.”[24] His release was approved by the Secretary of War on September 5, 1866, more than four years after his arrest.[25]

Hubbard Helm, the twice-arrested former sheriff of Campbell County, who participated in the failed prison escape with James O’Hara, was discharged from federal custody in April 1863, while he was already on parole. Despite his checkered history as a person of suspected disloyalty, Helm’s case fell under General Orders, No. 193, issued in November 1862, which called for the release of political prisoners still in custody.[26] Helm filed a lawsuit against Henry Gassaway in Campbell County that was considered part of a coordinated effort to undermine federal authority.[27] Helm was re-elected to the position of sheriff in 1866, 1868, and 1870.[28] In 1868, Helm and several other men, including James R. Hallam, received corporate recognition from the Kentucky legislature as “The Newport Newspaper Company” for the purpose of starting a newspaper and printing office in Campbell County.[29] A biographical reference of prominent Kentuckians published in the 1870s described Helm as “at times absolutely controlling the politics of his county.” The article went on to note that during the Civil War, Helm “stood on the side of the South in principle and sympathy.”[30]

Thomas L. Jones, who was arrested for making incendiary speeches about arming his children and fighting the government, was also one of the litigants who filed a lawsuit against Henry Gassaway.[31] In 1867, he became one of several congressmen-elect from Kentucky to have their elections challenged in the U.S. House of Representatives on grounds that they were ex-Confederates or Confederate sympathizers. Jones was eventually allowed to take his seat.[32]

From 1868 to 1874, James O’Hara Jr. was a judge in the 12th District Circuit Court. In 1874, he resigned his judgeship and formed a law partnership with John W. Stevenson.[33] As governor of Kentucky, Stevenson had strongly opposed federal Reconstruction policies and was uncritical of the Kentucky legislature when it rejected the 15th Amendment granting African Americans the right to vote.[34]

In the system of political detentions adopted during the Civil War, an accusation of disloyalty or a critical—albeit, reprehensible—utterance or a misplaced suspicion could land a citizen in prison. The mechanics of that system offends a commonly held sense of justice that includes the presumption of innocence, due process, and the right of free speech. And yet…amid the military crisis Henry Gassaway described, of enemy forces advancing from multiple directions, and recognizing an imperative not to reveal the vulnerabilities of the Union position, should Gassaway have waited to see if someone like Hubbard Helm or Thomas Jones would betray those weaknesses to the enemy? Should he have waited to see if the tough talk of a man who reportedly wished the death of Union troops and another who reportedly declared his willingness to fight the U.S. government would translate into acts of treason?  Or should Gassaway have taken those bellicose men at their word? After all, the opportunity to make war against the United States was on the march and about to breach the Union defenses at Newport. And yet… J. T. Boyle, William Sipes, and Horatio Wright all acknowledged that citizens innocent of wrongdoing, even as defined under the strict terms of Boyle’s original orders, could be and were mistakenly sent to prison.

The peculiar brand of loyalty that kept Kentucky in the Union had been conditioned, largely, on white Kentuckians’ mistaken belief that the federal government would preserve slavery and protect their property rights in human beings. Feeling betrayed by emancipation, they responded, after the Civil War, by electing ex-Confederates and Confederate sympathizers to office.[35] At least some of the former Camp Chase prisoners seem to have benefitted from this change in political currents. Also in the postwar era, white Kentuckians participated in campaigns of violence and intimidation against African Americans in what Anne Marshall describes as an attempt to “restore as much of the prewar social and racial order as possible.”[36] It is beyond the scope of this series and of the CWGK to determine whether the experience of the Camp Chase prisoners caused them to develop a more inclusive respect for individual rights or whether it amplified their grievances and made them more defiant of the policies of the federal government. But in light of developments in postwar Kentucky, it is necessary to ask of the citizens who complained in 1862 that their rights had been violated by incarceration: How many shared the postwar proclivities of the majority of white Kentuckians? And how many attempted to deny by legislative, judicial, or extralegal means, citizenship rights to the formerly enslaved?

[1] James O’Hara Jr. to S. M. Barber, April 3, 1866, Letters Received by the Office of the Adjutant General, Main Series, 1861-1870, NARA Microfilm Series M619, Roll 500, File 0146, p. 13-14 accessed via Fold3.com, https://www.fold3.com/image/301098886 (hereafter Letters Received);  Eighth Manuscript Census of the United States (1860), Population Schedules, Kentucky, Kenton County, Covington Ward 4, p. 697.[2] KYR-0002-011-0004.[3] Robert Maddox et al., “Letter from Prisoners at Camp Chase to Governor Magoffin,” Journal of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Begun and Held in the Town of Frankfort, on Monday, the Second Day of September, In The Year Of Our Lord 1861, And of the Commonwealth the Seventieth (Frankfort, KY: Yeoman Office, 1861), 617. [4] KYR-0002-011-0001; KYR-0002-011-0004.[5] KYR-0002-011-0005.  [6] KYR-0002-011-0004. [7] KYR-0002-011-0002.[8] Ibid. [9] KYR-0002-011-0005.[10] Testimony of James O’Hara Jr., “Report of Select Committee on Military Arrests,” appendix to House Journal, Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Ohio, vol. 59 (Columbus: Richard Nevins State Printer, 1863), 162.[11] Ibid., 162.[12] Eighth Manuscript Census of the United States (1860), Population Schedules, Kentucky, Campbell County, Newport, p. 551; The Biographical Encyclopædia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth Century, vol. 1 (Cincinnati: J. M. Armstrong & Company, 1878), 362; “Roll of Prisoners of War at Camp Chase Ohio,” Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, NARA Microfilm Series M598, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, RG 109, Roll 24, p. 190, accessed via Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/interactive/1124/M598_24-0241Case Files of Investigations by Levi C. Turner and Lafayette. C Baker, 1861-1865, NARA RG 94, Microfilm Series M797, Roll 0010, Case File 272, p. 12, accessed via fold3.com, https://www.fold3.com/image/257090175. [13] “Report of Select Committee on Military Arrests,” 162. [14] Ibid., 163. [15] Ibid. [16] Ibid. [17] Abraham Lincoln to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, January 9, 1863, Kentucky Historical Society, SC103, http://kyhistory.com/cdm/ref/collection/MS/id/10068. [18] Letters Received, Roll 500, File 0146, p. 13-14, https://www.fold3.com/image/301098886. [19] For collection of letters see Papers Relating to Citizens, Compiled 1861 – 1867, NARA RG 109, Microfilm Series M345, Roll 0207.  [20] E. O. C. Ord to H. L. Burnett, March 19, 1866, Letters Received, Roll 500, File 0146, p. 27, https://www.fold3.com/image/301098959. [21] Letters Received, Roll 500, File 0146, p.25. [22] Ibid. [23] James O’Hara to S. M. Barber, Letters Received, Roll 500, File 0146, p.14, https://www.fold3.com/image/301098890[24] James O’Hara to Hugh G. Brown, Letters Received, Roll, 500, File 0146, p. 4, https://www.fold3.com/image/301098812[25] Letters Received, Roll 500, File 0146, p.29, https://www.fold3.com/image/301098966. [26] Papers of and Relating to Military and Civilian Personnel, compiled 1874-1899, documenting the period 1861-1865, NARA RG 109, Microfilm Series, M347, Roll 0180, accessed via Fold3.com, https://www.fold3.com/image/251924427.   [27] Letters Received Roll 0370, File K250, p. 2, accessed via fold3.com, https://www.fold3.com/image/301027826. [28] The Biographical Encyclopædia of Kentucky, 362.[29] “An Act to Incorporate the Newport Newspaper Company,” Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Passed at the Regular Session of the General Assembly, Begun and Held at the City of Frankfort on Monday, the Second Day of December, 1867, vol. 2 (Frankfort: Kentucky Yeoman Office, 1868), 188. [30] The Biographical Encyclopædia of Kentucky, 362.[31] Letters Received, Roll 0370, File K250, p. 2. [32] Ross A. Webb, Kentucky in the Reconstruction Era (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015) 27-28. [33] H. Levin, The Lawyers and Lawmakers of Kentucky (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1897), 758. [34] Lowell Harrison, ed., Kentucky’s Governors (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 99.[35] Anne Marshall, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 2, 10, 24, 33-34.[36] Ibid., 56.

Christina K. Adkins has a PhD in American Studies and works as a volunteer on the CWGK Team. Her work focuses on slavery and cultural memory.