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Order of American Knights

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Prisoners of war have more time to dream than most—and more need to. Defeated fighting for a cause they believed in, surrounded by enemies, cold and hungry, dreams are what they have left.

It is not surprising, then, in the waning days of the Civil War, as the Southern cause seemed doomed, that Confederate prisoners at the Rock Island Barracks prison on Rock Island would dream a most fantastic dream.

Discouraged by the course of the war, and outraged by the hundreds of their fellow prisoners who had taken an oath to support the Union in return for better living conditions and eventual freedom, Southern loyalists organized a secret society, The Order of American Knights, with secret handshake, signs, a password, and a seven-pointed star badge made of clamshell.

The Order of American Knights reenlisted themselves in the Confederate Army, formed into companies complete with officers, all under the noses of prison officials. The Knights had great plans: they would release prisoners from the Rock Island Barracks and other western prisons, march on the federal and state arsenals at Indianapolis, Columbus and Springfield, Ohio, and then head into Kentucky and Missouri to rejoin the Confederates.

Before the Order of American Knights could act, they were discovered, and the guard was increased.

W. T. Norton, a guard at Rock Island, claimed to have uncovered the plot by detecting letters going in and out of the camp using an invisible ink made of onion skins and egg whites.

No small dreamer himself, Norton magnified both the plot and his role in it. Late in life he recounted how he foiled "this gigantic plot for an uprising," which, he claimed, involved "the burning of northern cities." Local citizens were involved, he wrote. "The copperheads of Rock Island and Davenport were in it up to their necks." It was clear that Norton's timely detection of the secret notes had saved the North.

Or perhaps not. Visions are one thing, pipe dreams another.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.