The Vault

An 1863 Recruitment Letter Urging the Formation of Anti-Lincoln Sleeper Cells

This 1863 letter, printed in Philadelphia, is addressed to Northerners who had come to oppose the President, especially after the passage of the conscription act in March of that year. As Northern political opposition to Lincoln and the war grew, the anonymous author of the letter proposed that groups of 10 men—“Decemvirates”—come together to prepare for armed resistance against the “enslavement” of the draft.

Opposition to the war crystallized in late 1862 and early 1863, as Union Army losses made Northerners reconsider their level of commitment. Northerners who turned against Lincoln, historian Jennifer L. Weber writes, combined racist resistance to fighting for the benefit of enslaved black people with critiques of the constitutionality of the President’s actions. (“Some of the more extreme peace men thought the war itself was illegal, since the constitution was silent about secession,” writes Weber.) 

The anonymous rallier of the “Decemvirates” advised against public display, advocating instead the maintenance of utter secrecy. “Avoid only, too frequent consultations either in public or private,” the author wrote. “Keep no record whatever of names or proceedings except engraven on the memory.” Not all resisters were so private, Weber writes: “In neighborhoods around the country, skittish Republicans reported that their dissident neighbors were calling Lincoln names, drilling in the woods and in some cases huzzahing for Jefferson Davis.” 

What was the fate of this particular scheme? Swann Auction Galleries’ specialist Rick Stattler writes: “This plan sounds effective on paper, but apparently never met with any success. No other copies of this letter have been traced, nor do we find any mention of Decemvirates in the Civil War context.” 

Recruitment letter for underground sleeper cells to oppose Lincoln and the draft, printed circular letter, Philadelphia, 1863. 

Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.