Lambdin P. Milligan and Dissent in the Civil War
Stephen E. Towne
Lambdin P. Milligan was born March 24, 1812 near St. Clairsville, Belmont County, in southeast Ohio near the Ohio River, the eighth of nine siblings. His parents farmed land west of that county town, and Milligan’s youth was spent in farm labor. In his late youth and early maturity, he taught in local schools. He began law studies in a St. Clairsville firm and joined the local bar in October 27, 1835. On the same day he married Sarah L. Ridgeway, with whom he had three children. Sarah died in 1870, and Milligan later remarried. He removed to Cadiz, Harrison County, Ohio to continue his law practice, but in 1845 he relocated his family to a farm in Huntington County, Indiana. Evidence suggests that he suffered a serious health problem in the following years. He edited a newspaper in Huntington called The Democratic Age in 1849-1850, but the publication lasted less than one year before folding.
Milligan resumed his law practice in Huntington and surrounding counties in northeastern Indiana in 1853, developing a good reputation and wide practice. Consistently identified with the Democratic Party, he won election as county prosecuting attorney but failed in other election bids. During the 1860 presidential contest, he campaigned widely for John C. Breckinridge and spoke throughout the region. Energized by the ensuing secession crisis and the beginning of the war, Milligan asserted his long-held state-sovereignty views regarding the relationship between the national government and the states and spoke widely against the federal government’s effort to quell the Southern rebellion. He argued that the United States Constitution permitted states to secede from the Union and that the federal government did not have the authority to coerce states to remain in the federal compact. In the summer of 1862, he ran for the Democratic nomination for Congress in his district, but lost in the district convention. He continued to speak boldly against the administration of President Abraham Lincoln during that year’s elections and voiced his opposition to the federal war effort. His efforts attracted the attention of the private secretary of Indiana’s Republican Governor Oliver P. Morton, who encouraged federal authorities to arrest Milligan and charge him with obstructing volunteer enlistments. However, he was not arrested.
Milligan’s political fortunes in the region rose considerably in the spring of 1863 after his successful defense of an Indiana state senator arrested by military authority and tried by military commission. Military commanders in Ohio arrested Alexander J. Douglas for violating a military order banning speech critical of the Lincoln administration’s war effort. Though found guilty by the military commission, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside released Douglas when the general learned that the president and his cabinet, responding to intense lobbying by Governor Morton, thought that the army’s heavy-handed tactics were making the political situation in the Old Northwest worse, not better. Milligan’s final defense speech to the commission, filled with stirring language, circulated in Democratic newspapers, and the lawyer became a hero to Democrats who opposed the war. In following weeks and months he spoke at Democratic rallies throughout northern Indiana, including to a group of mounted and armed men in Huntington who paraded through the town bidding defiance to Republicans, the Lincoln administration, and local state militia units. At this time Milligan joined a secret organization that aimed to oppose the war effort by various means, including resistance to the draft, hiding deserters and draft dodgers, release of Confederate prisoners, and armed uprising.
By early 1864, military authorities in Indianapolis identified Milligan as a northern Indiana leader of the conspiratorial movement and detailed persons to spy on him and other conspirators in Huntington and neighboring counties. An army spy who managed to obtain a leadership position in the secret group reported to authorities that Milligan was a “major general” in the armed organization and commanded northeastern Indiana. In the spring and summer of 1864, Milligan worked to build support among the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party to run for governor of Indiana. In the run-up to the party’s state convention Milligan spoke and enunciated his state sovereignty views that Lincoln’s efforts to suppress the rebellion were unconstitutional. His views found support among a portion of the Democratic Party’s adherents. But at the state convention in Indianapolis in July, 1864, Milligan and his more radical anti-war faction of the party lost the nomination to the more moderate “establishment” candidate, Joseph E. McDonald.
In late August, 1864, army commanders in Indianapolis detected a large quantity of revolvers and ammunition hidden in the city warehouse of Harrison H. Dodd, the state leader of the secret organization. Fearful of an uprising, in September military authorities arrested Dodd and instituted a military commission to try him for treason and conspiracy. In early October, commanders ordered the arrest of other Indiana leaders of the secret order, then known as the Sons of Liberty. Among them was Milligan, whom troops arrested at his Huntington home and carried by train to Indianapolis to a military prison to face a military commission trial for treason and conspiracy. Key witnesses against Milligan were the spies who had infiltrated the organization. Milligan admitted joining the secret order but claimed he aimed to curb its bad intentions. The commission found Milligan and the others guilty of treason and conspiracy and sentenced him to death. State and federal elections occurred during the course of the trials. Governor Morton, President Lincoln and other Republican candidates returned to office with large majorities.
As the rebellion gradually collapsed and Confederate forces surrendered in 1865, triumphant Indiana Republicans petitioned Washington, D.C. authorities to commute the death sentences of Milligan and the others. After the assassination of Lincoln and shortly before the scheduled execution, President Andrew Johnson yielded to their requests and commuted Milligan’s death sentence to life in prison at the Ohio State Penitentiary. Meanwhile, Milligan’s friends filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States circuit court in Indianapolis. The two judges on the bench split their ruling, sending the decision to the United States Supreme Court. There, after war’s end, the justices decided in favor of Milligan. Justice Davis wrote the majority opinion in the case, Ex parte Milligan, deciding that civilians shall not be tried by military tribunals where the civil courts are open. Milligan went free in April, 1866, and returned home to speak about his imprisonment. Before his release a federal grand jury in Indianapolis indicted him for conspiracy to overthrow the government, but the U.S. attorney did not pursue the case. In 1868, Milligan filed suit in a Huntington County civil court against the army officers and others who had arrested and tried him, charging illegal arrest and asking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. After the venue of the case changed to the United States district court in Indianapolis, the case came to trial in May, 1871. The jury found for Milligan but awarded him only five dollars damages. Later, Milligan resurrected his suit in state courts, but the Indiana Supreme Court dismissed it.
Milligan resumed his law practice and, apart from a run for state senate as an independent candidate in 1882, did not again try to win elective office. He died in the Huntington home of his son on December 21, 1899.
Stampp, Kenneth M. “The Milligan Case and the Election of 1864 in Indiana,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 31 (June, 1944) 41-58.
Grayston, Florence L. “Lambdin P. Milligan—A Knight of the Golden Circle,” Indiana Magazine of History 43 (December, 1947) 379-391.
Klement, Frank L. “The Indianapolis Treason Trials and Ex Parte Milligan,” in Michael R. Belknap, ed., American Political Trials (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981) 101-127.
Towne, Stephen E. “Worse than Vallandigham: Governor Oliver P. Morton, Lambdin P. Milligan, and the Military Arrest and Trial of Indiana State Senator Alexander J. Douglas during the Civil War,” Indiana Magazine of History 106 (March, 2010) 1-39.