The OAK Call to Arms
There has been a goodly amount of dispute about the aims, capabilities, and size of the copperhead society OAK–the Order of American Knights. For many years after the war, it was an article of faith that the copperheads —northern sympathizers with the south—had engaged in treason against the Union, and planned armed uprisings aimed at forcing an end to the war. This plan has generally come down to us under the rubric “The Northwest Conspiracy“. The general idea was based on the fact that the Northeast was the hotbed of abolitionism and the driving engine politically behind the Northern war effort, but the Northwest (today’s Midwest) was much more politically ambivalent. Since the Northwest provided much of the armed strength of the Union armies, if it could be forced out of the war, recalling its regiments, then the Northeast would have no choice but to accept Southern independence.
The works of Frank L. Klement (“The Limits of Dissent”, “Lincoln’s Critics”, “Dark Lanterns”, etc) seriously undermined the earlier understanding. In a series of books (1960-1999) on the copperheads, Klement argued that they were really a misunderstood “loyal opposition” to the Lincoln administration, and that whatever sins they had committed were of the venial or “indiscreet” variety. According to Klement, most of the hullabaloo over the copperheads and OAK (which used various names in different locales) was caused by ambitious Union officers and politicians who really knew better, but were intent on making political hay at the expense of the Democrats.
While Klement did some outstanding basic research in the area, his overriding desire to whitewash the copperheads’ connections to the Confederate secret service can only be described as blatant. In addition, not content with saying they were just wrong, Klement besmirches the memory and contributions of some fine Union officers and public servants in his rush to acquit the copperheads of the charges.
In Missouri, Klement’s ire is pointedly unleashed against Union department commander General William Rosecrans and his Provost Marshal, J. P. Sanderson. Released in the summer of 1864, “The Sanderson Report” alleged that OAK was planning insurrection across the Northwest, that the Order was deeply involved with the Confederate secret service, and that indeed the military commander of OAK was none other than Missouri’s own General Sterling Price. According to the report, a new invasion of the state by Price was brewing, and OAK was planning to rise in support of it.
This is all moonshine and myth according to Klement, born of Rosecrans and Sanderson being more interested in furthering their careers and reputations than the well-being of the Union. Unfortunately for Klement, Price’s invasion of the state occurred just as Sanderson predicted, and the leadership of OAK did indeed attempt to rally their membership to rise in support of it. The call to arms below is taken from the Confederate Correspondence section of the Official Records. Unfortunately for the Missouri Confederates, it was too little too late. The fall of Atlanta in early September had sucked the life out of the copperheads, and made it all too clear that the Confederacy was on its last legs. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that many of the rank & file copperheads of OAK (those who were needed to do the actual fighting and dying) declined to participate in Price’s invasion. That things did not turn out the way OAK planned does not change the fact that Rosecrans and Sanderson had accurately uncovered and reported OAK’s plans and future activities.
O.R.—SERIES I—VOLUME 41/3 pp. 975-976
O. A. K.
Saint Louis, Mo., October 1, 1864.
To THE MEMBERS OF THE ORDER OF
AMERICAN KNIGHTS OF THE STATE OF MISSOURI:
SIR KNIGHTS: Morning dawneth. General Price with at least 20,000 veteran soldiers is now within your State. Through your supreme commander (and with the approbation of the supreme council) you invited him to come to your aid. He was assured that if he came at this time with the requisite force you would co operate and add at least 20,000 true men to his army. He has hearkend to your prayer and is now battling for your deliverance. Sons of Liberty, will you falsify your plighted word? I know you will not. You are strong in numbers—full 30,000 strong—and your influence is potent. It requires but prompt action on the part of the members to insure the ultimate triumph of our cause. As you value your property, your liberties, your lives, and your sacred honor, fail not to give a helping hand in this crisis. Under and by virtue of the authority vested in me by section — of the code of the O. A. K.s, authorizing the appointment of a major-general to command the members called into the military service, I shall appoint that brave and true soldier, Missouri’s favorite son, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, military commander of the O. A. K.s of the State of Missouri.
All able-bodied men of the O. A. K.s are hereby called upon and required to render military service in behalf of our cause. All true knights will yield prompt obedience to the orders and commands of General Price. Meantime do all possible damage to the enemy. Seize all arms and munitions of war within your power. Take possession of and hold all important places you can, and recruit as rapidly as possible. If you cannot sustain yourselves fall back upon the army of occupation. In townships and counties where you cannot concentrate on account of the presence of the enemy repair singly or in squads without delay to the army, or to points where your brethren may be marshaling their forces, and in all cases be ready to obey the commands of your chieftain and unite with the forces when an opportune moment others. Ye knights, who belong to the militia, a change of government is now impending and you possess peculiar advantages for doing good service, and it is believed you will not fail to act efficiently. You joined the militia that you might the better protect yourselves under Radical rule. Now prepare to strike with the victorious hosts <ar85_976> under General Price and aid in the redemption of the State. Already hundreds of militiamen, arms in hands, have taken position beside the brave and gallant soldiers under General Price. In no event permit yourselves to be arrayed against your brethren. I enjoin it upon the district and county commanders and the grand seniors to be vigilant and active in the discharge of their respective duties. Let each one feel that upon him depends the successful issue of this contest, and that it is paramount duty to immediately enter the service. I address you perhaps for the last time. You have honored me and given me your confidence. I have endeavored to merit as I appreciate that consideration. Danger has not deterred me from the discharge of duty, and the period of my intercourse and collaboration with you and brethren of other States I shall ever revert to with feelings of pleasurable emotion. I have rejoiced to note the unanimity of sentiment and earnestness of purpose evinced to put forth every effort, with force of arms if need be, to establish the great principles of liberty and free government and States rights, so soon as the event which is upon us transpired. Brethren, the time for action has come. We must now meet the hosts of the tyrant in the field and sustain our friends and our cause. Be assured I shall buckle on my armor, and I trust I shall greet many thousands of you in the camp of our friends. If we do not sustain General Price, and our cause in consequence fails, all will be lost. We must fight. Honor and patriotism demand it. Then remember your solemn oaths. Remember the sacred obligations resting upon you and resolve, individually and collectively, to do your duty knowing it full well.
Until otherwise ordered headquarters of the O. A. K.s will be hereafter in the army of General Price.
All officers of the O. A. K.s are charged to use the utmost dispatch in communicating this letter to the members. Absence from the city prevented an earlier issue of this communication. Remember our motto: “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Given under my hand and seal of the O. A. K.s of the State of Missouri, this 1st day of October, A. D. 1864.
JOHN H. TAYLOR,
Supreme Commander of the State of Missouri.