Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Copperhead Threat in Illinois: Peace Democrats, Loyalty Leagues, and the Charleston Riot of 1864

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Copperhead Threat in Illinois: Peace Democrats, Loyalty Leagues, and the Charleston Riot of 1864

Article excerpt

In February 1864 the raging gunfire of the American Civil War echoed far away from Edgar County, Illinois, yet in the public mind, the conflict seemed fearfully close to home. In the small town of Paris, elements of the 12th and 66th Illinois volunteer regiments were on leave, visiting friends and relatives. "In a social way everything had been done to make their visit a pleasant one," wrote the local Daily Beacon News, but not everyone welcomed the presence of the soldiers.1 Democrats opposed to the war and to the policies of the Lincoln administration, known as copperheads by their critics, were afraid that the furloughed volunteers would force them to take loyalty oaths or would attempt to shut down the newspaper office of the Paris Times, a periodical with Democratic leanings. Earlier that month, Union soldiers had paid a visit to Amos Green, the editor of the Times (and a "Jeff. Davis patriot" according to some), after locals in the nearby town of Kansas had reported that between one hundred and one hundred and fifty armed "butternuts" were converging on Paris on his orders.1 Under the watchful eyes of the soldiers, Green swore an oath and pledged a sum of money to prove his loyalty.

In the middle of February a soldier named Milton York, scion of a local family known for its abolitionism and its support for the Republican Party, shot and seriously wounded an outspoken copperhead named Cooper.

According to one account, the sheriff of Edgar County, William S. O'Hair, attempted to arrest the soldier, but one of York's compatriots prevented him - at the barrel of a rifle - from doing so. According to the Mattoon Independent Gazette, York was eventually arrested, but the court released him on a technicality and he rejoined his regiment.3

Local copperheads decided to gather weapons with the aim of protecting the Times and its editor from any further provocations. Upon hearing rumors that the soldiers planned to burn the newspaper office before they returned to the front, Sheriff William S. O'Hair, accompanied by over a dozen men, rode into town on the day the furloughed soldiers were to leave. A young boy noticed their activities, as well as the guns they had placed in a wagon, and informed the soldiers. The soldiers immediately went to investigate.

As they approached an alley behind Central Avenue, a group of men fired on them before fleeing toward a horse stable on the edge of town, where, presumably, Sheriff O'Hair and his posse, along with their wagon, were waiting. According to the Daily Beacon-News, these men promptly escaped to the west in the direction of neighboring Coles County. Three soldiers, Lemuel Trowbridge, Mark Boatman, and a man named Slemmons, were the first to reach the stable. As they approached, Alfred Kennedy, a young man from Clark County who had been hiding inside, shot Trowbridge in the wrist.4 Mark Boatman peered into the building as he heard Kennedy call out that he surrendered. As Boatman lowered his weapon, Kennedy shot him in the shoulder.

More Union soldiers arrived and poured a volley into the stable, which riddled the planks with bullets and killed a nearby calf. When they looked inside, they found Alfred Kennedy badly wounded. Kennedy told the soldiers that his fellow copperheads had planned to ambush them at the train station.5

Early the next month in the town of Charleston, soldiers on leave from the 54th Illinois Volunteer Regiment assaulted two Democrats who were known to be opposed to the war effort and confiscated one of the men's revolvers. Late in March, soldiers confiscated weapons from two more copperheads, James S. O'Hair, Sr. and Frank Toland.

Days later, an unknown number of copperheads attacked men from the 54th Illinois around the Coles County courthouse in what became known as the Charleston Riot. Major ShubalYork, the father of the Union soldier who had wounded a copperhead in Paris early the previous month, was shot and killed along with five other soldiers and two copperheads. …

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