Historical Marker #2577 in Taylorsville commemorates Felix Grundy Stidger, a U.S. Army spy who foiled a plot by the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) during the Civil War. The KGC was a secret society established in the 1850s which advocated for secession, expansion of slavery, and the power of Southern white enslavers.
Felix Grundy Stidger was born on August 5th, 1836 in Taylorsville, Kentucky. His father was a carpenter and his mother the daughter of a farmer In 1838, Stidger’s father died, leaving his mother to care for Felix and his two younger siblings, including a six-month old baby. Narcissa raised her children, teaching them in homeschool and working as a seamstress to make ends meet.
At age 15, Stidger joined the Taylor County’s Clerk office and did several duties for them, including work as a carpenter. He continued to work multiple jobs until August of 1860, when he left for Bloomfield, Kentucky, where he became a store clerk. Things began to change for Felix here, as there were 350 people living in Bloomfield, but only 4 were known to sympathized with the Union. When the Civil War began, the Confederate flag hung in the middle of the town and the cause was practically shoved down his throat. There were also Confederate sentiments in the area surrounding Felix, where the locals supported the guerrilla combatants that took food, horses, munitions, and more from passing Union troops.
Stidger enlisted in the United States Army in 1862. In September of that year, General Don Carlos Buell’s corps came into the area. Stidger mustered in as an infantryman and a clerk from his home in secret. He served in the Army, while fighting at the battles of Perryville and Chickamauga, until the winter of 1864 when he received news his mother was gravely ill. He applied for and received an honorable discharged for hardship on February 14, 1864. He returned home to care for his mother, but faced challenges, including on March 26, when Confederate sympathizers robbed him of $300 while he was getting his mother medicine. The next week, his mother died.
On April 14, 1864, Stidger decided to go to Louisville to find work. By early May, the help of a friend he introduced Stidger Captain Stephen E. Jones, in the office of the Provost Marshal General. There, Captain Jones read him a letter that indicated a doctor named William A. Bowles, owner of French Lick Springs in Indiana was a member of Knights of the Golden Circle. He learned that Bowles was coming to Kentucky in a few days to organize lodges and meetings with other members of the KGC. Captain Jones asked if Stidger would work as their spy to follow their tracks and find out any information he could. Stidger accepted, becoming a member of an organization that would eventually become the Secret Service.
He bought a suit, new clothing, and glasses for his new job as he was about to infiltrate the KGC. He caught the next morning’s train to Salem, Indiana, and began to make friends with Bowles. He posed as a Democrat and spoke very ill of President Abraham Lincoln at a bar one night. While there, he met an old friend, Henry Kalfus, who was an ex-Union Major, but was denied discharge three time. Once Kalfus got out, he was very angry with the Union and joined the KGC, or as it became known in the South, the Order of the Sons of Liberty. Kalfus took Felix to his house where he asked him to join the secret organization. Felix joined immediately and Kalfus took him to meet William Bowles.
Upon meeting Bowles, Felix impressed him so much with both knowledge and hatred toward the Union, that Bowles had him recite the “first-degree vestibule oath” for the KGC. With that, Stridger had infiltrated the group and was immediately to rely that a judge in Louisville by the name of Joshua Bullitt, a KGC member, needed more men for his section of the organization.
Stidger was so convincing that Bowles sent him to Louisville to get the KGC movement back on track. In the next few days, Felix met several members including Judge Bullitt. One Sunday, while undercover, they introduced him to a chemist that had been making a new Greek firebomb. They were part of a large attack against the Union. The firebombs were going to destroy transports, military bases and camps, and potentially be used on larger Northern cities. The men were also going to attack prison camps and free and arm thousands of Confederate soldiers.
Stidger became William Bowles right hand man. The uprising was set for July 4, 1864, but John Hunt Morgan’s defeat in Cynthiana delayed plans. Before the next attack was planned, when Louisville was to be attacked and captured, Judge Bullitt went to Canada and returned with a large amount of cash. While returning to Louisville he was met by Stidger and then intercepted by Col. Carrington and several agents. He was arrested, as was Stidger, and put in jail.
Stidger was kept in jail for several weeks so he could gather more information from the members. He did this by being moved to different jails where KGC members were being held. Nearly 100 men were captured.
Stidger stayed in character until the trials when he was called to the stand to testify against them. All of the defendants were in shock because he had been so convincing and became a hero to them. Most of them were sentenced to life in prison. William A. Bowles was sentenced to death, but his sentence was reduced to life in prison by President Andrew Johnson. Judge Joshua Bullitt was removed as Chief Justice in May of 1865 and sentenced to death, but his sentence was also reduced to life in prison.
After the war Felix Grundy Stidger lived in Louisville, but it came with a price. He had several assassination attempts on his life, one in the middle of the street. He had to go out with protection, in large crowds, and not go out after sunset. However, the attacks continued and in 1879 he moved to Chicago, where he met a man who told him he had followed him all over and was paid to kill him by Bullitt. They spoke and then became good friends. Felix then settled in Mattoon, Illinois where he lived until his death in 1908.
The marker reads:
The Spy Who Saved the Union
Home of Felix Grundy Stidger,
Union Spy, born Aug. 5, 1836.
Foiled plot by Knights of Golden
Circle to fire bomb northern
cities, free Confederate prisoners,
& turn the tide of the Civil War.
His testimony resulted in the
convictions of many “Copperheads.”
A hunted man, he left Louisville
for Chicago, where he is buried.
Sponsored by Felix Grundy Stidger Historic Preservation Fund
This marker was dedicated on June 12, 2019.