Tom Kacich: Riot rocked region about 150 years ago

Tom Kacich: Riot rocked region about 150 years ago

Charleston to mark anniversary of Civil War-related event that killed 9, wounded 12

For the most part, Illinois was like the rest of the northern states and had its landscape relatively unscarred by Civil War battles.

There were occasional skirmishes in some northern states (Morgan's Raid in southern Indiana, not far from Louisville, Ky., in July 1863), and a couple more in Ohio and Minnesota. There were many battles in the border states of Missouri and Kentucky. And, of course, there was Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, major battles in what were considered northern states.

The southern states bore the brunt of the war, particularly Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi.

However, central Illinois did not go untouched in the war between the states.

Next week in Coles County, historians will mark the 150th anniversary of the Charleston Riot, a violent confrontation on the square around the Coles County Courthouse at which nine people were killed — including six Union soldiers — and 12 others were wounded.

Remembering the riot

The riot occurred on March 28, 1864, and on the sesquicentennial next Friday there will be a wreath-laying on the square at the time (3 p.m.) the riot is believed to have happened. There also will be an encampment of Union soldiers throughout the weekend at the nearby Coles County Fairgrounds.

Saturday's events include historical tours throughout the day, an 11 a.m. political rally at the fairgrounds, a series of speakers at the courthouse and a dinner with guest speaker Harold Holzer, a scholar on Abraham Lincoln.

Sunday's highlights will be a reenactment of the riot at 3 p.m., followed by the presentation of an original play about the riot.

Information about all the riot-related events is at http://www.charlestonillinoisriot.org/.

The back story of what led to the riot depends on your source. The Chicago Tribune, in a dispatch published two days after the event, referred to a "Murderous Outbreak by Illinois Copperheads," the group that included Confederate sympathizers in the north but mostly were Democrats who were opposed to Lincoln and the war. But the Democratic newspaper in Lincoln's hometown, the Illinois State Register, put the blame on Union troops, claiming that they had "beaten two unoffending citizens to death, whose only fault was their Democratic politics." The Mattoon Gazette issued a mild denial, saying that "soldiers have occasionally knocked down and dragged out a Copperhead, but none have ever been seriously injured with the exception of a common thief who was shot, sometime since, by a drunken soldier."

Drink also played a part in the riot.

Setting the scene

March 28, a Monday, was destined to be a big day in Charleston, authors Charles Coleman and Paul Spence wrote in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1940.

"Not only was court to be held, with Democratic Judge Constable on the bench, and Democratic Sheriff John O'Hair (of Edgar County) in attendance, but Democratic Congressman John Eden of that district was scheduled to speak at a Democratic rally," they wrote. "The day also had its advantages for those soldiers who wished to impress Democrats with the serious risk which accompanied opposition to the Republican administration. The town would be full of Democrats including many Copperhead extremists, and furthermore plenty of soldiers would be present, on their way to Mattoon to rejoin their regiment."

The scene was set "for a violent explosion," they wrote, including "whisky enough for all.

"It is no wonder that a riot broke out. It would have been a greater wonder if the day had passed peacefully."

Charleston, while just 40 miles south of Urbana, politically was a different world. While Lincoln had carried Champaign County with 58 percent of the vote in 1860, he won Coles County (where his parents had lived) by only 28 votes. While many Champaign County setters were from Ohio and points farther northeast, Coles County's settlers were chiefly from the south.

The "affray," as the Tribune often referred to it, apparently started when a Union soldier confronted the leading Copperhead in the area, Nelson Wells of Edgar County, and jokingly asked if there were any Copperheads in town.

Apparently ready for a fight, Wells responded, "Yes, God damn you, I am one!" He pulled out a gun, fired at the Union soldier and missed. But someone else shot the soldier, who responded by hitting Wells, killing him immediately.

An alternate story is that Wells told the soldier, "If you lay your hands on me, I will shoot you." The soldier promised to shoot back and within a minute Wells fired his weapon.

Soon the riot was underway, with one estimate that as many as 100 shots were fired off in a minute or so, nearly all of them by the Copperheads. According to one account, they had hidden guns under the straw in nearby wagons.

"The shooting was so intense for a short time," Coleman and Spence wrote, "that the bark was shot off a number of trees around the square."

By the time the shooting stopped, six Union soldiers had been killed, including a surgeon, plus two Copperheads and an innocent bystander. Twelve others were wounded, including four soldiers and five Copperheads.

In 2004, Peter J. Barry, a Coles County native, wrote in the Journal of Illinois History that except "for the New York City draft riot of 1863, the Charleston riot yielded the greatest number of casualties of any such event in the North during the Civil War."

The reputed leaders of the riot, he wrote, "escaped capture, left the area and remained undercover until the war's end."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sunday and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on March 23, 2014 at 8:03 pm

Those civilians who were deemed participants were not given the benefit of a civilian trial.  They were held as prisoners in federal posts until some had died, or pardoned by President Lincoln, or released due to the president's pardon of some.  The so called riot was a military crime which was covered up.  The revisionist history was written by the political northern press to whip up controversy, and sell newspapers.